Thinking of Going Back to School? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions First
In a few days, I will be heading back to school to pursue a graduate degree. As I make this known, it is easy to default in seeing this as one moment in time, as if I made the decision yesterday. But that is not the case; it took me two years of internal debates, research, and contemplation to come to this conclusion, but the mere fact of starting tends to get all the credit.
Many people may be questioning if they should go back to school; we are told it is a great place to learn new ideas, gain new skills, and make new connections. And while all of this may be true, I believe there are more variables to weigh. If I had made my decision based solely on those ideas, I might have never taken a gap period after undergrad; but instead, I took my time to make my decision, because I wanted to get to the bottom of why I should continue my education.
Here I will share the questions and processes I went through that led me to this moment. They helped me understand what I truly desired, needed, and most importantly, why.
For me, the result was returning to the university, but I am not advocating everyone take this route. Rather, the mental framework below should act as a guide as you navigate what is the right choice for you, in a way that is logical and introspective. While my experience relates to my process of attending graduate school, I feel these questions can aid in any educational pursuit, be it an undergraduate degree, a trade school, or some other change in your life.
Question 1: Do I want to go to school for the right reasons?
Like many individuals, I went straight to university after high school, but I had no deep reasoning of why I made this decision. It was a choice made by my family and society, and me not knowing any better, I went along with their reasoning.
During one of my courses in undergrad, I had a graduate teaching assistant who, when introducing herself, said something to the effect of,
“I am here to pursue a master’s degree, a goal I set long ago, but now that I am here, I don’t really know why.”
I remember sitting there, almost 5 years ago, trying to find the rationality in her words, words that scarred me in ways I am sure she did not intend. From that moment on, I vowed that if I were to ever return to school, my decision was going to need to be more intentional than that.
Towards the end of my undergraduate education, I decided to take a minimum of two years away from school. After I graduated, my life felt empty. It was the first time that classes were not littering my calendar and assignments were not calling to me in my sleep. My identity had been defined by school, and now I had to reconfigure who I was. I had no idea which way to turn or what choices to make; it was a terrifying, but necessary experience.
During the initial stages of this growth period, I remember longing to return to school. I missed the structure, and even though assignments could be stressful, I missed writing papers and being challenged. But I only felt this way because school was comfortable; it was all I had known for 22 years, and this new world I lived in was brutal and unforgiving.
Thankfully I had set that two-year limit, time that was dedicated to constant questioning to find the reasons I needed to go back to school. The words of that graduate TA stuck with me; I wanted to know why I was there. I needed to be able to provide a clear and compelling answer.
During this time, I researched programs; I assessed class outlines; I weighed options. Through all of this, combined with navigating life outside of school, I finally found acceptable reasons for why I should return.
If you are contemplating going back to school, or maybe attending for the first time, make sure you have an honest and clear answer to this question. If it is not strong or purposeful, take more time to contemplate. Do your research, and not just about programs, but yourself as well.
Question 2: Is the financial investment worth it?
I do not agree with those who say a university education is invaluable. I agree that the principles and perspectives you can learn are priceless, but with the plethora of information you can find through books and the internet for a fraction of the cost, university is not the only option anymore.
Finances are not a glorious topic; or rather, finances can be, but accruing debt is probably the least favorable sub-topic. However, if you are considering some type of education, understand it will most likely not be free.
What is worth the money will vary from person to person. $60K for one individual may feel like spending some spare change; for another, it may be more than they are worth accumulating as debt. It is not right how expensive education has become, but it is the way the world is right now, so the best use of our energy is to focus on what makes financial sense for ourselves.
In my journey of researching schools and programs, I created a spreadsheet to keep track of key points: entry requirements, length of time I’d be investing, expected tuition cost, among other details. I included tuition costs because I had decided that to a point, a certain degree was just not worth it.
I wanted to learn without debt looming over my shoulders.
One of my coworkers, who had already received her master’s degree, advised choosing the school that is willing to give you the most money in grants and scholarships. She argued that if a school is willing to invest in you, you have a higher chance of getting the most bang for your buck. However, recognize that this may not be your first, second, or even third choice school, which then begs the question of what you desire out of this education.
There are a myriad of programs offered at universities, trade schools, and even online. The value of any program will vary from person to person, and finances should be part of your decision process. Define your limits; this part may not be thrilling, but it is necessary.
Question 3: What do I expect out of this education?
As I browsed through a multitude of program outlines and course descriptions, I continually came across “learning outcomes.” We often pay no mind to these outlines. They’re written in a formal language, which is not inviting or enticing. But as I paid more attention to them, I realized their premise was a necessary guide I needed to narrow down my program options; this decision going to be a huge time and financial investment, and it deserved to be treated seriously.
The best way to apply this to your decision-making process is knowing your priorities.
What would the perfect program look like to you?
For me, this program needed to have an internship requirement; courses needed to be project-based, where I could learn practical skills; and I needed to be in a metropolitan area. You might not come across your perfect program, but if you know what key criteria are non-negotiable, it will help you narrow down your search.
However, do not forget that taking advantage of what any program or school has to offer will be completely up to you.
My biggest regret of undergrad was my mindset: I did the bare minimum, which was going to class and getting my degree, and expected that everything would be handed to me thereafter. That is not how the world works, an unfortunate fact I had to live with as I entered the real world. No one cared who I was or what school I went to; what mattered, and what still matters going forward, is what I have to offer.
What you get out of your education will be a reflection of the effort you put into it. So even though you have criteria and learning outcomes for a program, it is up to you to make the most of them.
Using these three main questions as guiding points, remember that there is no need to rush your decision. Everyone has different timelines — learn to embrace your own.
It took me almost two years to feel confident in my choice, which may seem like a long time for some people. But what was most important to me was that I chose a program that fit my needs. Making this type of decision is not expected to come easily or quickly. Embrace slowing down, explore who you are and what you want out of any educational pursuit.
And if you find that the traditional school setting does not suit you, for whatever reason, remember that your choice is valid. Our current society has so many resources for us to teach ourselves new skills, either through books or online courses, all of which can be a fraction of the time and money invested from a typical university setting. Just make sure to keep learning.
I am ecstatic to start graduate school, but the time invested to understand myself is what gives me jubilation. While starting is more tangible, it is the internal growth and understanding that will have the most lasting effects.