Unsolicited Advice on Graduate School

Image Source: Rob Hurson

In today’s nonprofit workforce, it sometimes seems like a master’s degree is the only way to get an edge and to snag your dream job. Perhaps you’ve heard that “the master’s is the new bachelor’s.” Of course, we all know the statistics – a graduate degree is correlated with increased opportunities for growth, higher pay and professional recognition. We also know that grad school is a stressful, expensive way to spend 2-7 years and often requires a sacrifice of current employment, personal relationships and free time.

The decision process can be excruciating. It seems to demand an answer to our most pressing and difficult question: What should I do with my life? There are many blogs available to aid in the decision, and to identify red flags that may signal that you’re entering a degree program for the wrong reasons. Below are a few more tidbits to consider as you make your decision:

Find your strengths, and figure out how to build upon them, instead of filling in your professional skills gaps. Too often, we try to be the perfect professional – we identify the gaps in our experience and seek opportunities to fill those gaps. It allows us to keep our options open for any position that may arise, and feeds into an unrealistic and unhealthy professional culture that emphasizes perfection. Don’t confuse a graduate degree with professional development – you can, and should, develop your skillset through continuing education throughout your entire career. A graduate degree is an opportunity to focus on what you love most and do best. Allow yourself to become an expert in something, instead of rounding out your resume. Take your time to discover your strengths, and recognize that this may mean waiting a while to decide if grad school is for you. Check out Strengthsfinder, it’s an excellent resource for this process.

The “Career Ladder” is so baby boomer. Millennials have long since rejected the concept of the career ladder in exchange for something more versatile. We want to climb in our careers, but we recognize that there are many appealing routes, and we just might try out several of them. When deciding which degree to pursue, many young people feel that this single decision is the defining moment in their lifelong career. Such a monumental decision can be immobilizing. Decide what is attractive to you now – in terms of profession and lifestyle – and apply to a program that appeals to those passions. Sure, you may desire a different position 10 years from now, but trust that your professional experience and your graduate degree will carry you there just the same.

Student loans need not control you. As the cost of higher education continues to climb, it can seem unwise to take on significant debt without the promise of a salary increase to match. If you do decide to pursue a graduate degree and anticipate a career in public service, you’ll want to be aware of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Put simply, the program offers complete loan forgiveness for individuals working in the public service sector (nonprofit, government, education, etc) for 10 years. If you’re confident that you’ll remain in nonprofit for 10 years, you can even sign up for Income-Based Repayment, meaning you’ll pay the lowest amount possible until they are forgiven. There are many graduate programs that appeal to the young nonprofiteer, and it can certainly seem overwhelming to decide if, when and how to pursue a degree. Remember that the majority of your career is ahead of you, leaving plenty of time to learn about yourself, your passions and the best next step.

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