Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Woman-to-woman advice on graduate school

There are many factors to weigh before attending graduate school. "Should I enroll in a campus-based program or an online program?" "What are the admission requirements for the programs I'm considering?" "How much will graduate study cost?" "What are the jobs for which my graduate studies will prepare me?" "How long will my program be?" "Is the program research- and theory-based, or professional-practice-based?" The answers to each of these questions provide a baseline for comparison.

If graduate school is on your radar, there are probably a million other things running through your head about where to go, what field of study is best for you, and how on earth you'll find time to spend with friends and family. As a woman who's been there -- and who's spent her career in education -- I wanted to give some words of advice to help settle the nerves and point you in the right direction.

Here are a few of the most common questions that I find women ask when choosing a graduate program. I hope the factors below will help you in your search and ensure you're making the best decision in the end.

What components make up the best graduate programs?

There are three big factors to look for in a solid graduate program.

1. The college or university has regional accreditation. Accreditation is the "stamp of approval" of a high-quality education. Many employers look for candidates with degrees from institutions only accredited by the top accrediting agencies. There are six regional accrediting bodies that are widely accepted and recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education:
Each body accredits colleges and universities within its region, so look for one of these names when you're evaluating schools. There are also some important accreditations to look for when evaluating particular degree programs. If you're interested in pursuing your MBA, for instance, make sure the business school is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) or AACSB International-The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Different disciplines have their own specific accreditation agencies.

2. The college or university offers high-quality, market-driven academic programs taught by well-qualified faculty members. You're most likely earning your graduate degree to achieve a career goal. With that in mind, your assignments and projects should be similar to the type of work you'd actually do in your industry. You should be able to apply what you are learning today immediately to your career. Faculty should have extensive field experience that they bring into the classroom every day to further ensure the relevancy of the subject matter and teachings. Explore the university's website and look for listings of program faculty and their backgrounds.

3. The college or university provides the academic and student support services women need to balance their education with life's other responsibilities. You probably have a lot on your plate between work, family, and other personal duties. Many women in this case are choosing to pursue their graduate degrees online because it offers them the convenience and flexibility they need. But all online programs are not created equal. If you want to earn your graduate degree online, make sure the program offers strong academic support services (academic advising, library services, tutoring, financial aid, and career services) designed specifically for online students. Also look for programs that are highly interactive, and offer plenty of opportunities to work closely with professors and fellow students. For example, some institutions have taken great strides in using online discussion boards to provide students with a valuable learning experience and let them gain new perspectives from classmates who bring different backgrounds and experiences to the table.

How do these factors differ for a woman in her 20s going to graduate school versus a woman in her 30s, 40s, or 50s going to graduate school?

Typically women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have many more priorities competing for their time. They often work full- or part-time, have children still living at home, are active in their communities, and might be caring for aging parents. Fitting higher education into their schedules can be considerably more complicated than it might be for a woman in her 20s. That's why it's essential that they choose a graduate program that's been designed with them in mind.

Some online degree programs, for instance, are what's called "asynchronous," meaning they don't require students to log in to their courses at a particular time. They can complete their assignments at a time and place that works for them, and still have access to the full array of academic and technical support services they need.

Women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s also bring a tremendous amount of professional and/or life experience to their courses, and really benefit from a chance to learn with and from others with a broad range of experiences. Many of our adult students at Post have told us they learn just as much from their fellow students as they do from their professors.

Women in their 20s might be going on to graduate school directly after graduating from college. While that is certainly an option -- and a very good one -- for moving into a new career, you will also want to consider the benefit of working for a few years to get some experience under your belt and direction for what field you really want to study further.

Graduate school is expensive, so take the time to consider your goals and the actual reason why you want to attend grad school. Professionally based programs often require a few years of work experience as part of the admission requirements.

Many programs advertise qualities such as flexibility and being interactive. How can women be sure that a program is going to meet her needs before enrolling?

There's a tremendous difference between an online program that offers students access to taped lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and a list of readings, and one that includes multimedia content and daily opportunities to exchange ideas and information with professors and fellow students.

There's also a big difference between programs that offer courses largely taught by teaching assistants or professors with excellent academic credentials, but little or no practical experience, and those taught by scholar-practitioners who have advanced degrees and years of relevant professional experience in their fields.

Look for an institution that requires its professors to be scholar-practitioners, who can create the right balance between academic theory and real-world practice. This balance is especially valuable to adult learners who often want to be able to apply what they're learning in class to their careers in real time.

Do your homework by carefully reviewing the college or university's website, taking a close look at the curriculum and faculty qualifications, and speaking to an admissions counselor who can answer your questions.

How will I balance work, family and school?

Women, especially mothers, often feel the tug of work and family responsibilities as they make their decision to go back to school. My advice is to lay out all the factors of your work and home life on paper and analyze the challenges those factors present in terms of time and logistics to see if returning to school is really feasible at this point in your life. Some questions to ask include:
  • Who will be my support system?
  • How much time can I devote to classes and homework? You should plan three hours of classwork per week for a 3-credit course plus six additional hours of homework per week for that same course. That's nine hours per week per course.
  • How long is the program I wish to study?
  • What child care arrangements will I need to make?
  • Do I need to rearrange my current community or social obligations?
Going back to school can be challenging, but it's not impossible. No one can "have it all." Going to graduate school is a big investment and huge commitment. There will be sacrifices, and fortunately, many rewards. Many adult learners are doing it every day to reach their educational, career, and life goals -- and you can be one of them. I hope I helped answer some of your questions and this advice is useful in your graduate school search. I'm happy to answer more questions in the comments!