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Should You Get a Master’s Degree?

masters degreeThis question is a familiar one in online learning circles and recently caught my attention in a post by Marie-Pierre Renaud, (aka The Geek Anthropologist) in which she provides advice from a current student’s point of view. How do you decide if a graduate degree is right for you? How can you prepare yourself for the experience?

Deciding whether or not to pursue a master’s degree, and then which programs to apply to, is very much a matter of individual context and resources. Higher education is expensive both in terms of financial costs and the time it takes to complete the courses and other requirements. Renaud speaks to the academic aspects of these decisions, including great tips for clarifying ideas about your area of study and research topics. Whatever your goals may be (more about that below), you’ll be required to complete the academic work.

Going to graduate school – part-time or full-time, online or on-campus – is an investment, but the return, as based on your goals, may be worth it. What’s motivating you?

  • Career advancement: You may want to move up in your current company or expand employment options in your current career field. Is your employer on board with graduate school as a form of professional development? Ask about existing partnerships with specific universities and programs that may even include tuition discounts or reimbursement.
  • Career preparation: For those trying to enter a specific industry or planning a career transition, graduate school may help you build on previous relevant experience. What is the hiring climate like in the new field? What are employers looking for in prospective candidates? Search job postings for information about preferred qualifications including education, training, and experience. Do your research and compare multiple programs to explore the courses involved, as well as internships and other practical learning opportunities.
  • Continuing education: A master’s degree program may be a stepping stone to a professional or terminal degree (e.g., Ph.D., Ed.D, D.B.A.). If you are thinking of academic options with a long-term view, start looking at those programs, too. What do they expect of their applicants in terms of prior education and experience? You’ll also find some master’s programs that lead to doctoral studies within the same department, and others that are combined programs (e.g., M.A./Ph.D.).
  • Personal goal fulfillment: Having the time and money to pursue a formal degree for personal reasons may seem like a luxury, but it can lead to growth in unexpected ways. You can broaden your skills and knowledge, extend your network, and open up professional options you may not have been aware of otherwise. Is there a particular topic you want to study? Or maybe you are interested in participating in the research aspect of graduate programs. Your personal goals may also include becoming a role model for lifelong learning to friends and family members.
  • Financial feasibility: The reality is that formal education programs can be costly. Tuition, books, and fees quickly add up and should be considered in your budget along with your existing living expenses. Online programs may also mean unexpected costs in terms of Internet services, hardware, software, and possibly travel if the program has residency requirements. Your goals should include affordability and a close look at funding options including scholarships, grants, and loans. Students embarking on graduate education should carefully consider the impact of any related debt before enrolling.

In a brief Twitter conversation, Renaud asked what professors and instructors might have to say on the subject of pursuing a master’s degree. And I think we could provide helpful feedback, since as college-level teachers we’ve gone through the decision process and completed the requirements. My master’s level experiences were in “distance” programs that might be described today as a hybrid format – both online and face-to-face components. Looking back on it all, my goals were a combination of those I presented above – an interest in professional development and career advancement, and a quest for personal fulfillment in achieving the academic credentials.

Like many education and career decisions, your research will likely be full of contradictions and variables that result in a maze of options with no clear answers. And everyone you know will have an opinion. In this post I may have provided more issues for research than answers to the title question, but asking and answering questions that lead to additional questions is at the heart of graduate-level learning, regardless of your motivation for continuing your education.

Share your advice for prospective online graduate students – what should they consider when making decisions about higher education?

Image credit: Jack Amick, Flickr, CC:BY-NC