I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to school ever since I graduated four-and-a-half years ago. When I graduated from college, I wanted to give myself time to work in journalism, build a nice little life, and give myself a break from school. But quite honestly, I can’t wait to go back.
Choosing the right graduate program can be a really hard decision. In some ways, it’s easier not to take a break after an undergraduate program; you’re already in that school mindset, and there’s less of a life to potentially uproot.
But as a young professional, my concerns and priorities are different now than they were five years ago. I have a fantastic job (that I’d like to keep through school, by the way) and great friends and family and a life here that will be much harder to leave, if I choose to, than it is to say goodbye when all your friends are leaving college together.
The idea of going back to school is terrifying. Change usually is. But the idea that in just a few short years (I know I’m really an adult when I think years go by quickly) I could be in my dream job is far more exciting than terrifying, and the dreams of my future life intrigue me and keep me up at night.
I had pretty much made my mind up on the program at my local university, but when I went to a graduate school fair Oct. 29, I started to consider other options. All the information really threw a wrench in the plans I’d unofficially made. Now is definitely the right time to go back to school, but now what? Where do I begin? How do I choose the program that’s best for me?
Margaret Oakar, assistant director for admissions services for Penn State World Campus and Continuing Education, answers similar questions from adult learners hoping to go back to school all the time. And as a doctoral student, she had to answer a lot of the same questions before deciding to go back to school after years of thinking about it.
”A lot of adults, especially those raising families, feel there is never going to be a right time to go back to school,” she said. “I couldn’t not do it. I was so excited; I had read so much about it. I just didn’t want to put it off any longer.”
But even for someone working in adult education, taking the plunge can be hard.
”I had to tell myself, ‘Ok, just fill out the application. Just take this one step. Just get started,’” she said. “Doing one step at a time made it so much less scary.”
Oakar has several tips for adults who, like me, have made the decision to go back to school, but now are struggling to choose between several programs, online and in-person, full-time and part-time, and while working or not working.
- Sell your experience. “A lot of adults, especially if they are considering a career change, don’t know where to start. They don’t know what to do with their experience. I tell them, a lot of programs see a benefit to diversity in student backgrounds. They bring a perspective others don’t have. You don’t have to get a master’s in what your bachelor’s degree is in. I tell students to explain why their experience is a positive. Sell yourself.”
- Go back to undergrad. “Call the career services and alumni association of your undergraduate school. That’s what they’re there for. It’s not just for networking, it’s for reaching out to alumni in your new field for information gathering. And if they can’t help you, they can point you in the right direction. And, it’s usually free and from someone you automatically have a trusting relationship with.”
- Be ok not having your whole life planned out. Having a lot of program options and multiple potential desirable career paths can be terrifying and confusing. If you don’t know exactly what you want to do, that’s ok, as long as you can study something that will get you further in the direction that you want to go. “Be open to the idea that graduate school may change your ideals and your goals in ways you haven’t even thought of,” she said. For me, that means choosing a degree that allows me a specialization or concentration in what I think I would like to do, but a degree that is general enough that it will allow me flexibility.
- Talk to yourself. When it comes down to choosing the particular program or school that works for you, have a few conversations with yourself. “Ask yourself what your two or three absolute top priorities are for this program or for yourself in the next five years,” Oakar said. “Is it career advancement? Flexibility? Prestige? Completion? Have a soul-searching conversation with yourself—if you don’t know your priorities, you can talk yourself into anything. If quality is key, if flexibility is key, there have never been more options to earn your degree online.”
- Read a lot. Know what you’re getting into. “Make sure you really look at the curriculum of the program you’re interested in,” she said. “Look at the course descriptions. Compare them to the programs at other schools, like ours. This can be a good gut check. If you’re going, ‘Oh my goodness, these classes sound so exciting,’ – maybe not about every class, but most of them – that’s a good indication you’re making a good decision. If you don’t like the courses even before you start the program, it’s probably not a good idea. If this is time spent away from your family and friends, you should be excited about it. You’ll have to sacrifice time and money, you’ll have to self-motivate, and you’ll have trouble sticking with it if you’re not excited about it.”
- Use your resources and ask for help. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to a school’s admissions staff or faculty,” she said. “Our favorite part of the job is talking to students and helping them work through this…Talk to a program’s alumni—at Penn State World Campus, we have an alumnus from every program who serves as an ambassador to prospects. They can help and they are great networking—they could have the job now that you want in two years. Ask schools, ‘Do you have any contacts in my department I can talk to?’ It’s completely up to you what you get out of it. So many resources are available to you, whether you’re a graduate or undergraduate. Start taking advantage of them, early. If there are people you can reach out to, to help you, why not do that?”