Time for Graduate School? Choose Wisely

You’ve been working for a few years, and you decide to get an advanced degree—for new knowledge or for a needed credential. How do you choose?

In the past few years, universities have started lots of new master’s degrees—from “human-computer interaction” to “public history” to “law enforcement management”—many with direct connections to employers, such as the Master of Science in Analytics program at NC State University where most of the graduates are hired by SAS. Some programs are full time, like the Master of Public Policy program at Duke, and others are part time or even online. Here are some tips to help you think about your graduate school decision.

What are all the options? Research all the types of master’s degrees in your area of interest. Use LinkedIn to identify people in organizations where you want to work or who have jobs you want to have. What graduate degrees do they have? Which schools did they attend? In my field, for example, there are master’s degrees in Public Policy, Environmental Policy, Public Administration, Public Health, Global Health, International Relations, International Development—you get the point. Start your search by taking a broad view of all the possibilities for your interests and goals. Once you have a list, rate each one using these criteria (and add your own personal criteria, too).

Academics: Find a program that gives you good general skills but also allows you to concentrate in a specific focus area. MPP, MPA and MBA programs offer lots of good skills in quantitative analysis, financial management and writing, but demonstrating a depth of knowledge in a specific area is important in today’s job market. Make sure the programs you consider offer specializations along with the general skills you need. Like you did for college, choose a stretch school, but don’t choose a safety school—graduate school has to challenge you and help you reach your professional goals.

Geography: If you want to live in California, think long and hard about attending graduate school in North Carolina. A school like Duke, with a national reputation, can be useful in other geographic areas, but making connections where you want to live is crucial to getting the job you want there. Or you can rack up a lot of frequent flier miles.

Career Options: Ask for a list of internships and first positions for recent graduates of the programs of interest to you. Are your target employers on those lists? Graduate programs in the same fields have different employer connections, and employers don’t recruit from every program. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can make those connections yourself—graduate school is hard enough! Also, find out if the program has career development resources to help you with your resume, cover letters and interview skills. Even if you think you know how to apply for jobs, you probably don’t know.

Format: Programs can be full time, weekend, and online—all of these options are great, and online programs have really improved. Before you apply, think about how you learn the best—do you need to be present in a classroom or can you learn online? Can you work full time and study? Be realistic.

Affordability: Most important consideration. Once you’re admitted and have your financial aid offers, choose the program that gives you the best financial options. That determination requires a cost-benefit analysis, which you might need a master’s degree to perform! If you are taking on debt, make sure you know the salary ranges for first positions (NOT average salaries that include outliers who get jobs with Goldman Sachs or Google). Can you work while you’re in school? Is the cost of living reasonable? Do you need a car? If all the programs you choose are good ones, just pick the best financial option.

Ph.D Note: Doctorate degrees are important for certain positions—school superintendents, World Bank economists, think tank research directors, and primarily, college professors. Consider carefully whether you want to spend five years of your life on one topic (your dissertation), and read all you can about your field of interest and whether a Ph.D is needed. Just as you should only go to law school if you want to be a practicing attorney, you should only get a PhD if you want to be a tenure-track professor or other position that requires the degree.

Good luck with your search and your decision!

Donna Dyer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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