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How to Choose a Masters?

How to Choose a Master's Program

Many people are going back to school today for a graduate degree and a shot at a new career. If you are one of those, than this first step isn't for you. But if you are considering going into a master's program directly after completing your undergraduate studies, there are several things to take into account.

Stay in School or Take a Break?

There can be some value to working a few years after completing a baccalaureate. You'll have a chance to puts some money in a savings account and not be borrowing 100% of your graduate education costs. Working may well change your career interests as well; there is no substitute for experience when it comes to finding something that sustains your professional as well as academic interests. If you're thinking about a MBA, most schools insist on some work experience from their applicants.

On the other hand, responsibilities have a way of accumulating once we've transitioned into the real world. Many people decide to work for a few years before graduate school and never make it back to the campus. If you think that school may lose its appeal once you're off campus it may be best to get all of the academic work behind you before joining the career corps.

Select a Degree and a Career

After four years of college you're not exactly working in a vacuum when it comes to selecting a master's program. You have some idea of what you want to do, or at least what sort of work you enjoy doing. Perhaps you don't see a career path with your undergraduate major. If math or engineering or one of the biological sciences was your major and you don't see a direct career path, look at a field like forensics where you can apply those skills. A liberal arts degree in English or psychology or one of the social sciences will fit into the advertising world, into human resources, or into counseling. Decide what you enjoy doing and then talk to a career counselor at your college about where those skills might be applied. See accredited online masters programs.

Find a School that Works for You

A master's program is very different than undergraduate work. Your studies are compressed into two years or at most three; the academic pace is more intense and there is usually a major thesis or capstone project that completes the entire process. You'll be doing some concentrated studying and likely be engaged in challenging research.

A large school will generally not allow for as much faculty contact as a small one. You're studying for a profession at the master's level, so that mentoring may be more important than at the undergraduate level. Private schools usually have smaller classes, but public universities cost a lot less and depending on your focus, may have a sterling faculty in your field even if they're not as accessible. Try distance learning.

Visit the Campus

Campus visits for a master's program should have specific goals and some arranged meetings. While you're there:

  • Visit the finance office to see what financial aid is available and specifically, what scholarships are available for graduate work in your field. These types of awards are not as easily found as undergraduate grants; many are sponsored by professional societies but they are out there and university finance departments are generally happy to help interested applicants.
  • Talk with a professor in your field about class size, seminars, teaching assistants, and general support from the department for graduate students. Many departments see a master's program as a stepping stone to the PhD option and for every academic department the doctoral program is what sustains its reputation. You want to know if students in a master's program can get the support for research guidance and opportunities to intern or work as a research assistant.
  • Visit the career placement office and learn about recruiting on campus for the profession you're contemplating. Find out how active the school is in placing master's program graduates and if they have any formal partnerships with corporations or institutions in your chosen field.
Do the Math

Many students entering a master's program aren't just taking out a student loan; they're taking out another student loan. There are several factors to consider on this issue as well. It's not just a financial decision:

  • There is a ceiling on the amount of federal student loans you can take out. Augmenting your education with a private loan is a much more expensive proposition. Figure out what amount of borrowing is left to you below the federal ceiling; that may play a role in your school selection.
  • It may also play a role in your psyche. There are a lot of doctors, chemists, physicists and MBA graduates who complete their graduate studies with the first and foremost goal being debt reduction. It's not the ideal mind set for beginning a career or selecting a job.
  • Nevertheless, don't waste your time trying to calculate the value of an investment in a master's program based on projected additional wages or on wages lost to the additional school years or the cost of the degree. That's a game of averages based on numbers that are contrived by statisticians you'll never meet. Instead, evaluate your master's program based on how you'd feel if you didn't do it. Your career is about professional satisfaction, which is something you can't evaluate on a spread sheet.
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