You're Thinking about a Graduate Degree: Six Steps to Consider

You’ve decided to invest in your career and pursue a graduate degree. Congratulations on this decision to gain more knowledge, learn new skills, and grow your professional network! Here are six steps to consider as you begin the process.

1. Define jobs that are currently out of reach

Start by identifying three jobs that are not within reach with your current education and skillset but will be accessible once you earn that new degree, says Jean-Amiel Jourdan, director, global careers, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

“That doesn’t mean you will pursue those jobs later on, but it does mean you have identified a sample of jobs that you need to justify committing so much time, so many resources, and money,” Jourdan says. “If you cannot come up with those three jobs, then maybe an additional degree is not for you. A graduate degree is not a goal per se. It is a stepping stone, a tool.”

2. Decide what kind of master’s degree you need

All master’s degrees are not created equal. Some master’s degrees are 9- or 12-month programs aimed at students who have just finished their bachelors’ degrees. Other master’s degrees, such as executive MBAs, are aimed at mid-career professionals.

Another factor is the degree of difference between your current job and your ideal job. If you’re completely reinventing your career, you may need a more extensive program compared to someone who is taking a small—or lateral—step.

For example, consider two teachers in their early 30s. One wants to work as an international energy consultant while the other wants to work in education in international development.

The teacher with a goal of energy consulting will need a two-year degree, full-time, with the associated practicums and internships, Jourdan says. “That’s a radical change to go from a teacher to an energy consultant,” Jourdan says. The best degree for this teacher is the two-year, full-time JHU SAIS flagship Master of Arts degree, he says.

Meantime, the teacher who wants to move into education in international development would be well-suited for the SAIS one-year Master of International Public Policy. “She is already a teacher,” Jourdan says. “She won’t need the same amount of experiential learning.”

3. Will you attend full-time or part-time?

Some students attend school full-time while others attend classes part-time—at night and/or on weekends. One advantage of a full-time schedule is completing your degree faster. This option can be appealing to students who have just finished their undergraduate degree and have not yet entered the workforce.

Attending school part-time, however, allows you to keep your current job while you work toward your dream. Most midcareer professionals opt for part-time or at least flexible scheduling that allows them to remain in their current job. 

4. Online or in person?

An increasing number of degrees are offered all online or with an online component. Some programs offer virtual classes where you do need to be logged in or zoomed in at a specific time, but you don’t have to be in the same location as your classmates. Other programs offer lectures you can listen to when it suits your schedule and then a required number of online discussions to participate in when the timing works for you.

Some programs that are nearly all online still offer some in-person component such as a weeklong practicums, projects, or intensive in-person classes.

5. Tell your boss

Let your boss know early in the process. While it might be fun to imagine surprising your supervisor with your new diploma down the road, tell her right away. When you discuss your plans, make sure you’ve mapped out how you’ll continue to get your job done as you earn your degree.

“Make sure you’ve solved your boss’s problems first,” Jourdan says.

On the practical side, you may occasionally need some flexibility if you are attending classes at nights or on weekends.

“Tell your boss, ‘I’m interested in doing X, Y, and Z within this organization—tell me what steps I should take,’” Jourdan says. “Your boss may say, ‘You should develop yourself around these skills, and get additional training. Have you considered an additional degree?’” That’s your cue to bring up your studies.

6. Reap the benefits

The fact that you’re earning a degree—even before you have that degree in hand— is likely to make a good impression. For example, one DMV-area boss says he’s impressed that an employee is working to better himself.

“Make sure your boss knows you’re going to school,” he says. “That’s a sign of ambition and willingness to learn. That gives me a positive indication of the person as much as actually getting the degree. I’m usually impressed.”

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