Unless you are incredibly wealthy, or simply could not care less about wasting 12 to 24 months of your life, finding the right graduate program for you should be of utmost importance; and the very fact that you are taking the time to read this post today, is a fair indication that you are leaning strongly towards the prospect of pursuing a Masters degree or PhD.
Graduate study is a wonderful opportunity to sharpen your perspective on a particular subject matter, thus making you a more valuable contributor within your industry. This however does not negate the need for carefully calculated decisions on the timing, financial investment, and risks associated with graduate studies within your respective field(s) of interest.
I have personally witnessed numerous instances where persons who initially perceived their graduate studies as a pathway to their future career goals – which typically involve new jobs, promotions, and higher salaries – find themselves stuck in the same job, with the same salary, or even unemployed for months or years thereafter.
While I do acknowledge that it may take some time for recent graduates to secure new professional opportunities, we must also be cognizant of the fact that within the last decade alone, 60% to 70% of university graduates in the United States of America, have pursued their studies on student loans. The figures are equally high in other parts of the world.
The challenge here, is that far too many graduates are failing to achieve the level of job satisfaction that they may have initially envisioned, and find themselves under-employed, struggling under the weight of their student loans and other financial obligations, and have delayed major life decisions and personal goals due to their indebtedness.
Imagine this for a moment:
You have been working diligently in a certain junior position for the last five years, and your performance has been commended on numerous occasions. These commendations have inspired you to apply for several promotions within your organization; but due to your lack of training at the graduate level – at least according to the hiring managers – your applications have been turned down.
After five years of constant disappointment, you are now eligible for study leave, and you decide that the time is right to pursue a graduate program within your field of interest. In an effort to make yourself even more marketable, you decide to enroll at one of the country’s leading grad schools.
Upon completion of your studies, you return to your organization with the hope of gaining a promotion or salary update commensurate with your new qualification and prior industry experience, as you look forward to comfortably repaying your outstanding student loan debt.
You apply for new positions, and you are told that your specific area of focus at grad school does not match as well as that of external candidates.
Statistics show that the average American graduate, is required to repay between US$40,000 and US$160,000, depending on their field of study and choice of graduate school, with a default rate on loan repayments of approximately 12%. One can therefore imagine the dilemma of an individual who returns to their former job, without a clear path to promotion, finds themselves stuck on the salary scale, with an additional financial burden.
What if I were to tell you that this dilemma can be avoided with carefully calculated decisions on the timing, financial investment, and risks associated with graduate studies? It is guaranteed that with meticulous fore-thought, you can save yourself a world of problems, and be better positioned for major success in your life, and career upon graduation.
Here are 5 major considerations when determining your preferred area of graduate study. As you work your way through these points, you should find yourself becoming a lot clearer on which graduate program is best suited for you. I will also advise that you repeat this exercise, until you are perfectly clear on your way forward.
Know your specific area(s) of professional interest
The first question you should be asking yourself is: Am I truly passionate about this work? Or, can I see myself working in this industry for a very long time?
At the heart of these questions is the idea of having such a profound interest and commitment to a particular field, that you are naturally compelled to go above and beyond – without reservation – to optimize your performance.
In the instance that you are torn between multiple fields of interest, it is always best to seek a second or third opinion – whether from a former high school teacher, college/ university lecturer, mentor or your current supervisor. These persons are often well-placed to make fairly accurate and unbiased pronouncements on your specific forte(s).
I can vividly recall the career advice given by one of my high school teachers over a decade ago. It remains one of the most profound and accurate pieces of career guidance that I have ever received. I therefore advise that you do not underestimate the importance of a second or third opinion on this matter.
Your future prospects for employment in the industry
Having settled on a particular area of professional interest, you will now need to test it against the prospects for employment in related local industries, or further afield as necessary.
Here are a few useful questions to get you started:
- How vibrant is the industry at this point in time? Are new opportunities emerging? Has the industry been attracting new investments? Are graduates quickly finding opportunities in the industry?
- Are there secure and existing professional opportunities for me in this industry?
- Do I have the commitment of trusted and influential industry leaders and gate-keepers?
- What are my prospects and options for successfully networking in this industry?
It is quite normal for some persons to be passionate about particular subject matters that very few persons truly care about, and that typically offer very limited and exclusive professional opportunities. The same can be said for persons drawn to trendy professions that are over-subscribed, and are therefore incredibly competitive.
The fact remains, that unless you are willing to make extraordinary efforts to standout from the competition, you stand a better chance of exploring your options in a less-competitive environment – one better suited to your personality, yet still aligned with your professional interests. However, if you are truly passionate about a particular field, you will naturally do everything within your power to position yourself as an authority within your industry.
In which direction is the industry going within the next 5 to 10 years?
Show me an industry that has not evolved within the last decade, and I will show you an industry that is dead or dying. That’s right – we are currently living in an age of constant change, and industries are required to be responsive to these changes, or risk becoming obsolete.
As a future job seeker, it is important that you start asking yourself, In which direction is this industry heading over the next 5 to 10 years? And am I comfortable with those anticipated changes?
Answering these questions will require some research, and ground work; and it is ill-advised that you try creating shortcuts around this step.
The internet is full of information on current industry trends and future projections for most industries. It is worthwhile gaining a fair understanding of these perspectives before doing your ground work – which typically involves interviews with industry leaders, persons with 5 or more years of experience within your specific area of interest, and recent industry recruits currently working at the level at which you are hoping to enter the industry upon completion of your studies.
Having completed your groundwork and research, you are now required to assimilate all that information, and determine whether or not this industry is a good fit for you.
Which school is best for you, and why?
Having identified an industry that meets the above criteria, your next major decision will be to identify a recognized institution of higher learning that offers your desired program at a manageable cost.
Your criteria for selecting a graduate school should be largely based on the findings of step 3. If your area of professional interest – and by extension your industry – requires that you demonstrate certain practical skills, the natural option should be to pursue a graduate degree with a strong focus on practical, hands-on work. Does your preferred school offer this?
Another important consideration, is that some industries and organizations are drawn to graduates of specific institutions. This does not apply in every instance, and is becoming more uncommon, as incredible talent can be found in every institution of higher learning. It is however worthwhile to know the schools from which your industry is recruiting.
The cost of graduate studies has increased dramatically over the last decade, with tuition fees at some schools now way beyond the reach of the average graduate student. In the instance that you are not awarded a scholarship, or do not qualify for a student loan of the amount required for the high-end tuition fees of the leading schools, you are now required to ask yourself, which schools – recognized within my industry – offer similar programs at lower tuition rates? This may require some additional research and groundwork, as outlined in step 3.
What are your funding options?
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of pursuing graduate studies, as the demand for scholarships and bursaries has long outstripped the availability of funds, and many persons are becoming uneasy about the prospect of accessing loans to pursue graduate studies – particularly where they are currently repaying the debt owed on their first degree.
Finding a scholarship, fellowship, studentship, or bursary, though daunting, is not impossible. In fact, the odds will always be in your favor if you graduated with a strong first degree, possess some industry experience, and can build a strong case for yourself via the application essays and interviews.
The trick here, is in starting your research and applications very early, and maintaining communication with the schools’ financial aid focal points and faculty members within your desired program or department. These are the individuals who are most likely to keep you updated on new opportunities, or who may be able to refer you to key decision-makers.
Part-time graduate programs are also becoming more prevalent, as many workers see this as an opportunity to maintain their current job and full salary, while the tuition fees are typically lower. The drawback of course, is that these programs are normally spread over 3 or 4 years, and can be fairly demanding for professionals seeking to balance a hectic corporate workload with their studies and family life. It is however a growing trend, and comes with less financial risk than full-time programs that may require you leaving your job.
In the unfortunate event that you are unsuccessful in securing a scholarship, at this stage – having completed the previous steps (1 – 4) – your contingencies must already be in place to facilitate your seamless transition into graduate school. It is important to note that different financial institutions offer different interest rates and repayment terms. Your goal in this regard, should be to identify which institution offers the best interest rates and most flexible repayment terms.
It is hard to imagine that anyone would spend tens of thousands of dollars, and commit a year or two of their lives to pursuing a graduate degree, without the slightest desire of attaining certain material or personal returns on their investment. The reality however, is that failure to exercise due diligence in determining which graduate program will offer you the best future prospects, with the lowest risk, can leave you far short of your post-graduation expectations.
These figures provided by lendEDU, reveal the societal impact of indebtedness and low returns on investments into college and graduate studies.
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The very thought of these figures should make us very uneasy. This is however the reality for millions of graduates, young and old, the vast majority of whom share very similar ambitions as ourselves – to purchase their own homes and vehicles; get married and start a family; to take annual vacations overseas with their spouses and kids; and to be able to comfortably meet their monthly financial obligations.
The difference however, is that you now have the opportunity to avoid this dilemma, by making wiser decisions regarding your options for graduate studies, and giving yourself the best chances of achieving your deepest and most personal ambitions in life. But above all the advice offered in this blog, your greatest assurance of finding the ideal graduate program for you, comes through prayer.
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