I was a grad school dropout. After getting a bachelor's in English, I went straight into graduate school for journalism, but only made it halfway through. The work was hard, and I was the proverbial starving student and felt isolated in the Midwest, thousands of miles away from family and friends. When a summer internship back on the West Coast turned into a full-time job offer, I jumped at the chance to get my career started.
As the years went by, I regretted not finishing. But at the time, my post-graduate degree options seemed limited. I was either in or out.
Not today. People pursuing a master's degree -- including students in their 40s and 50s going back to school to change careers -- have unprecedented options. Among them: part-time hybrid programs where students spend minimal time on campus, and degree programs where 100 percent of the work is done online.
If you're job hunting or planning a career change at 40 or older, it often pays to have post-graduate training. Jobs that require some type of master's degree are expected to grow by 22 percent between now and the end of the decade, according to the 2012-13 Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics this spring. That's faster than growth in any other job category, according to the report.
In recent years, working learners -- people who attend school while working, raising a family or preparing for a second career -- have become more common than traditional college students, says Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, managing director at Apollo Research Institute, a University of Phoenix affiliate that studies the impact of technology on society, work and higher education.
The trend is only going to intensify as more people live longer. "That degree you got in 1972 isn't going to get you to 80, especially at the accelerating rate of technology." That's pushing more people to take courses as part of an encore career, says Wilen-Daugenti, who also is a visiting professor at Stanford University.
If you're considering taking a nontraditional route to a master's degree, here's what Wilen-Daugenti and other experts suggest:
1. Pick a program that suits your schedule. Besides full-time residential or part-time master's degree programs that meet nights or weekends, more schools are offering hybrid programs where students assemble a few times per semester and collaborate the rest of the time online. Some programs are traditionally structured so students move through the required course work together and graduate as a class, which is a good option if you like bonding with fellow learners or are taking courses with co-workers, Wilen-Daugenti says.
Novelist Aimee Liu, who enrolled in graduate school at 50, notes that more than 35 universities now offer "low residency" format graduate degree programs that combine distance education with intensive on-campus sessions, or residencies. Many are master's programs in creative writing, but other disciplines -- from business to studio arts -- are increasingly adopting this hybrid model. The format, Liu says, is particularly suited to older adults who cannot afford to relocate or take time away from family and work to attend a full-time program.
2. Pick a program that suits your learning style. If you're someone who needs the discipline of going to a classroom to get work done, you might not be a good candidate for an online-only master's program, Wilen-Daugenti says. "Some people do better when they're talking to other people, and other people say that's a waste of time. I like chatting in my online environment on Facebook and learn better downloading from YouTube. If you know that, it helps you make the choice. That's why I like hybrids. It gives you a chance to go back and forth," she says.
3. Research the differences in online-only programs. Internet-based classes are popular for time-crunched career changers pursuing a degree while still working full time. But investigate before signing up. The bare-bones variety have students log on to the school's website to read course materials and interact only via email or during "class" time on an online chat board. However, "Schools are trying to invest in more innovative ways to use technology, using video [and other] technologies to connect with people, and social network like Facebook to have students join groups and get tutorials," Wilen-Daugenti says.
[Related: Why I Chose Online Education]
4. Be prepared to pick up more of the tab. The number of companies subsidizing tuition and related costs for employees returning to the classroom for training dropped when the economy tanked and hasn't risen to pre-recession levels. Twenty-six percent of chief financial officers in a just-released survey from staffing firm Robert Half Finance & Accounting said their companies offered partial or full reimbursement toward professional certifications, a substantial decrease from 46 percent in 2006. Many companies that reimburse school-related expenses will only pay if employees enroll in programs at affiliated schools, Wilen-Daugenti says.
5. Check for workplace-based classes. Some major corporations send enough employees through MBA or other advanced-degree programs that they can strike deals for schools to send professors to their offices rather than having students go to classes on campus. Before she became an academic, Wilen-Daugenti worked at Apple when the tech giant brought San Jose State University faculty to its headquarters for an internal MBA program. "We only used materials from Apple," she says, "and we had a lot of interaction with the executives. We got to know other people in the company that we would never have worked with before."
6. Make sure the school you're attending is accredited. Colleges and universities that meet standards for course objectives and other criteria receive an official stamp of approval from one of several national or regional accreditation bodies. Some companies won't reimburse tuition for classes at schools that aren't accredited, according to Wilen-Daugenti. It's also difficult, if not impossible, to transfer credits from courses you take at an unaccredited institution if you switch to a different school, she says.
I'd still like to go back to finish my master's degree. With two kids in college and another headed there, it may be a while until I enroll. When the time comes, though, a nontraditional program sounds like the right route for me.
SecondAct asks: Have you gone back to school for an advanced degree? Please share your experiences.
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