How I Did It: Going Back to School for a Graduate Degree
Four years ago, Gerda Gallop-Goodman decided her skills were no longer competitive in the job market. After years of hunting for better opportunities, she decided going back to graduate school was the way to land her dream job.
A friend offered great advice: "Go for the actual degree that you want or you'll regret it."
A writer and editor for nearly 20 years, Gallop-Goodman had covered health as part of her journalism background, and she developed an interest in public health. "For years, I contemplated going back to school for a graduate degree, but I couldn't settle on what to study. I thought about pursuing an MBA or an MFA (master of fine arts) in writing, but these didn't quite fit."
At 38, she enrolled in the Master's in Public Health program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which is 2 1/2 hours away from her home in Philadelphia. Her decision was a practical one: Gallop-Goodman wanted to study a subject she enjoyed and also knew that health-care jobs remain among the fastest-growing occupations, even in a sluggish economy.
One of the biggest challenges she faced was a monster commute two to three times a week. "My job was flexible with my work schedule on the days I had class," she says. "I would take the bus down and back in the same day. I also would take the train, and there were times when I would crash with my sister who lived in the D.C. area, if I just felt too tired to make it home."
Gallop-Goodman, who received her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1990, took two graduate level classes each semester for eight semesters, including two summer sessions, and earned her master's degree in August 2010.
Her hard work paid off: She has landed a dream job with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. She now works as a writer and editor in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison in the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Gallop-Goodman and Laura Gilbert, author of Back to School for Grownups, offer this advice for other midlife career changers who are considering graduate school as an option.
1. Determine why you are going back to school. "Do you want to rise up the corporate ladder to VP, switch careers entirely, or earn that Ph.D. you always wanted?" Gilbert asks. "Then figure out who you want to sell your new degree to once you are finished. If you just dive in and go to grad school without thinking about what you want the degree to do for you," she says, "you could spend a lot of money and time and be very disappointed."
2.Pursue graduate education in a field that is growing. In Gallop-Goodman's case, the health-care industry has consistently added jobs during the recession.
3. Preparing for the GRE exam is good practice for returning to school. Gallop-Goodman took a prep course and then continued to study on her own. "Taking the GRE was extremely intimidating," she says. "But I prepared and studied the best I could, and took it twice to see if I could raise my scores the second time (they were about the same as the scores on the first test)." She went to the GRE website to pull practice questions and used the workbook from her GRE prep course to review.
4. Seek out every available resource at the college you plan to attend. Gallop-Goodman credits the university's admissions department for guiding her through the entry process. "GW's application process was uncomplicated and straightforward -- a lot of it was completed online," she says.
5. Recognize your own skills. In her book, Gilbert says adult learners often succeed in college because they already have developed time management skills, perseverance, family support and a willingness to ask for help.
6. Develop new study habits. "I was a strong student because I had a lot of real-world experience and was determined to do well," Gallop-Goodman says. "It took considerable discipline, focus and energy." As a "nontraditional" or older student, she says, she had to change her study habits from her undergraduate years. "As a grad student, I could not wait until the night before something was due to study or write a paper, so I was more organized and managed my time effectively."
7. Most of all: Do your homework to find the right program and college for your situation. "The jobs that had the duties and salary I was looking for required an MPH or a master's degree, which I didn't have," Gallop-Goodman says." I wanted to earn a higher salary and to do communications work that was more public-health-oriented, so I geared myself up to go back to school to earn a master's degree in public health (MPH). I was specifically looking for a program that offered an MPH with a concentration in health communications."
Gallop-Goodman also had to find a program that would allow her to balance a full-time job with part-time studies. "I could not afford to stop working to go to school full time," she says. "GW's program was ideal for someone like me who also works, as most of the courses were conveniently scheduled in the late afternoon and early evening." She paid for her education with student loans.
She attributes her success to her support system. "My work supervisors, classmates, my spouse, my dad, my siblings and friends were all understanding, encouraging and supportive." Her husband had dinner ready when she came home from school and understood when she needed homework time, she says.
"It was grueling," Gallop-Goodman says of commuting to school and working full time. "I didn't think I would have the discipline to do an online program, and I wanted to have the in-person, live classroom experience because I thought I would be more successful. All of my classes were on GW's main campus. I loved meeting and collaborating with other students. I couldn't have survived or completed my program without the support and camaraderie of my classmates."
During the week, she works at the National Institutes of Health offices in Bethesda and still returns home to Philadelphia on weekends. Now 42, Gallop-Goodman says the journey has been worth it.
In her new job, she's helping to improve people's lives by disseminating information about healthy lifestyles and disease prevention. "I am passionate about eliminating or reducing health disparities in communities of color," she says.
Read more: Back to School at 50.