Deciding to get an advanced degree is a huge commitment, but with the help of a few key tips for getting a master’s degree, you can at least have a better idea about what to expect and how to get the most out of your experience. When I went back to school to get my master’s several years ago, I was definitely excited, but also a bit nervous about what was in store. Whether you’re planning to get your degree right after completing a bachelor’s or are returning to school later on the way I did, here are seven useful tips for getting a master’s degree that will help you stay on track from start to finish.
1. Thoroughly Research Programs
With so many course listings, online and otherwise, being described as advanced degree programs these days, one of my most important tips for getting a master’s degree is to thoroughly research options before choosing the ones that are most in line with your personal and professional goals. Before applying, take the time to connect with alumni and professors via LinkedIn or by attending the university’s alumni events. Ask detailed questions about not only the program itself, but also the resources available to students after they graduate. Does the college provide helpful services like job-search assistance? What type of balance does the program have between teaching theory and providing practical, real-world advice? Make sure that each program you apply to meets your expectations so that after you graduate, you’ll have more than just a piece of paper and a major dent in your wallet to show for all of the hard work you've put in.
2. Estimate Your Time Commitment
Depending how many classes you’ll be able to take at a time and whether you’ll be simultaneously balancing a job and other obligations, getting a master’s degree can take anywhere from one year to several. Will your program allow you to take a leave of absence if need be, or are there a certain number of courses you’ll be required to take each semester? Some master’s programs are specifically designed to accommodate working professionals, while others are less flexible, so be realistic about your schedule when considering which ones might be a good fit.
3. Consider Cost
Along with each program’s merits and the required time commitment, cost is another major factor to consider. Some companies will reimburse employees for graduate school expenses, and there are also often tax write-offs available to students, so be sure to research all of your options, including student loans, before determining whether a program’s total cost is within your means.
4. Have a Backup Plan
With the economy’s downturn in recent years and the difficulty college grads now face when it comes to finding jobs, many master’s programs are getting more applications than ever before, making it all the more likely that even especially well-qualified applicants will have to be turned away. Have just a single program you’ve got your heart set on? Just as you did when applying to undergraduate schools, it’s still always a good idea to apply to more than one master’s program just to give yourself at least a couple different options. Plus, even if you do ultimately decide that a certain program you didn’t get accepted to is worth the wait, you can always hold off for another year and reapply.
5. Make Connections
It’s easy to make friends when you’re living in a dorm and going to parties every weekend, but when you’re in a master’s program, it can be harder to connect with your classmates, who may also be juggling jobs and family commitments. Even so, networking with classmates will not only make your experience a lot more enjoyable, but you’ll also start building long-lasting relationships you can rely upon whether you need career advice or just want to commiserate about an especially difficult project. To make socializing outside of class easier, consider arranging a monthly happy hour or coffee run, along with creating a Facebook or LinkedIn group.
6. Adjust to Higher Standards
It’s no secret that assignments and exams at the graduate level can be a lot tougher than they were during undergrad. Many graduate programs also won’t allow you to pass a class with a grade lower than a B, so be prepared to put in the extra time and effort required to successfully complete each course. While you may need to adjust your study habits and spend more time working on projects, the good grades you earn will be well worth the extra time commitment.
7. Celebrate Your Success
While there’s typically a lot of hoopla associated with earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s graduations can sometimes feel a bit anticlimactic, in part because the students who attend these programs are also busy dealing with work and numerous family-related obligations. Still, no matter how busy you might be, I believe it’s well worth taking the time to participate in your college’s graduation ceremony and celebrate your success, both with your fellow graduates and your own loved ones. After all, you worked hard for this moment and deserve to feel incredibly proud!
Are you currently enrolled in an advanced degree program, or are you thinking about applying to graduate school? What other tips for getting a master’s degree do you think might be helpful to others?