The Real Truth About Graduate School [Interview]
An honest answer to the most common question about starting graduate school.
Dana Gressick had four rock-solid reasons why the time was not right to start graduate school.
She was adjusting to married life. She was settling into a new house. She had just been promoted at work and had more responsibility. Plus, she and her husband, Pete, were expecting their first child.
At the same time, she saw opportunities emerging for advancement with her employer, a national property preservation and inspection company in Tampa.
"I'm very goal oriented," she says. "I wanted to go through those doors that were opening up, and I needed the advanced degree," she says. "I figured that if I didn't start my MBA degree now, I might never do it."
So Dana plunged in.
Little did she know that life would become even more hectic as she worked her way through the program.
She and Pete welcomed their first daughter, Braelyn, into their family followed by a second daughter, Kendall 21 months later.
"There were times when I would have a conference call with Braelyn screaming in the background or climbing onto my lap to appear in a video chat with fellow students," she says with a laugh.
Yet, with strong family support, Dana persevered.
Taking a combination of on-ground and online classes, she completed the MBA program in three years and will walk across the commencement stage this spring.
Jennifer Sessa has been working in university admissions for more than 10 years. Currently, she is senior associate director of graduate admissions at Saint Leo where she advises prospective students investigating the university's on-ground and online graduate degree programs.
According to Sessa, the most frequently asked question she hears is, "When is the right time to go back to school?"
And while some prospective students may not be thrilled with her answer, she says it's an honest reply.
She candidly tells students that there is no right or ideal time to start a graduate program.
"For busy working adults with families, there will always be a great excuse not to do it," says Sessa. "There's a newborn in the house. There are young children who need attention. Finances are tight. You just started a new job. An elderly parent needs care."
Life will always be able to get in the way, she says.
Sessa speaks from both professional and personal experience. When she started an online MBA program with Saint Leo, she was working long hours and traveling extensively. The only time she had to herself was on Saturdays, so that became the day she devoted to homework.
"If you keep waiting for the perfect time, you'll never start," she says. "You just have to accept the fact that life will interfere, make the commitment and adapt as you move forward."
Here are Sessa's answers to a few other common questions about starting graduate school.
Sessa: If you're looking to advance in your current career, move up to the next level or earn more money, a graduate degree may help. Also, if you'd like to change career fields and you already have a bachelor's degree, a graduate degree is a great option.
To decide if a graduate program is for you, you need to know your professional goal and if earning a graduate degree will help you reach it. Graduate enrollment counselors here at Saint Leo spend a lot of time helping prospective students through this process.
Of course, some people pursue a graduate degree for personal reasons. It's something they've always wanted to do, or they simply want to broaden their knowledge. Those are also great reasons to earn a graduate degree.
Sessa: Finding the right program is not always black and white, but again, a knowledgeable enrollment counselor can help.
Normally, students have an idea if they want to earn an MBA or if they want to pursue a master's in criminal justice, for instance. But if those degree programs offer specializations, as they do here at Saint Leo, you need to look at the curriculum and decide if those courses will help you reach your professional goals.
Sessa: It's very important to ask about accreditation. Many graduate schools that are regionally accredited will not accept an undergraduate degree from a nationally accredited school.
Ask about admissions requirements and deadlines, cost per credit hour, time to complete a program and the number of courses that are needed. Is an internship required? Is it possible to work full-time and complete the degree as a part-time student? Also ask about faculty credentials and what makes the program different.
Sessa: Be prepared to spend 10-14 hours per course each week.
Sessa: It varies by degree program.
A typical online MBA degree program at Saint Leo takes two years if you do one course each term.
For our master of social work program, we offer three tracks – one-year, two-year and three-year options.
So it depends on what program you are interested in, your educational background and your goals.
Sessa: Online degree programs certainly have benefits because they provide the flexibility to study on your own schedule, and you don't have to travel to campus. At the same time, you need to be disciplined and self-motivated to meet deadlines.
Many working adults with families may already be saving for their children's college educations. So the question of whether or not a graduate degree is worth the investment of time and effort is a valid one.
Statistics indicate, yes. Master's degree holders on average enjoy higher incomes and lower unemployment.
For Dana Gressick, being in the process of earning an MBA enabled her to move up to director. And now that she has completed the degree, she says she is positioned to move up to associate vice president.
"I'm so glad that I did it when I did," says Dana. "It was the prime time for me."
With her MBA complete, she's ready for life to intervene in a big way once again.
Just three weeks after commencement, she and Pete will welcome the birth of their first son.
What's holding you back from starting your graduate degree? Share in the comments below.
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Image Credit: Kenny Louie on Flickr/Creative Commons