When is the best time to get that advanced degree? That depends. One answer does not fit all. A lot depends on what degree you are seeking, as well as personal and financial considerations.
One thing is for sure: Do your homework before you start grad school.
"Graduate school is a serious commitment, but it can also be an extremely fulfilling personal and professional experience," says Ann Bezbatchenko, director, Graduate & Professional Enrollment Management at Loyola University Chicago. "For it to be fulfilling, you really must spend the time doing the right research and considering what you want and need."
Unfortunately, says Bezbatchenko, she has seen too many students who did not spend enough time in the self-reflection phase who ended up in the wrong program. "An advanced degree is too big of a time and financial commitment not to do your homework before you apply," she adds.
List the reasons that you are considering an advanced degree and the potential results after earning that degree, suggests Joanne Canyon-Heller, assistant vice president for Graduate and Global Recruitment at Roosevelt University and president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP).
"Consider the changes you need to make in the short and long term to support that objective, including resources to pay for your education," she says. "If the potential benefits outweigh the temporary adjustments and changes, you should be taking the first steps toward application and enrollment."
However, if there are still major obstacles, Canyon-Heller says to prioritize and work on solutions to the most difficult one first.
"It should be a matter of 'when' not 'if' you should pursue the degree if you have clearly outlined the benefits," she says. "Remember that graduate degrees are skill based and that you are going to be learning aspects of your profession every step of the way."
Now or later?
What degree and why you are pursuing it are key considerations when deciding the best timing for grad school.
"Many advanced degrees can be deferred until later — after gaining work experience or confirming this is the area in which one wants to make a career," says Canyon-Heller. "However, it may be convenient in terms of one's personal plans to continue on with the advanced degree right after the bachelor's degree is earned. Sometimes this option conveniently precedes marriage and children, or future plans to relocate or to accept positions that involve much travel. Most often it is a personal choice."
If the degree you seek requires extensive schooling, such as a medical degree or doctorate in education, you may want to consider going to grad school directly after completing your undergraduate degree, " says Bezbatchenko.
In other fields like business or nursing, programs may require or prefer candidates to have several years of work experience prior to starting the program.
"In these programs, the real-world experiences that you can apply to the theory you learn in school will enhance the classroom experience and allow you to gain more from your studies," adds Bezbatchenko.
When considering when is the best time, take into account just how much time you will need to invest to get that degree in hand.
"If you pursue a master's degree on a full-time basis, you will typically complete your degree in two years," says Bezbatchenko. "If you decide to go part time, it may take three to four years. It can take anywhere between four to eight years to complete a Ph.D. (depending on your area of study)."
Canyon-Heller says part-time programs are popular because an employee can keep working and may take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement.
"Full-time programs, which rule out full-time employment, may be costly in terms of tuition and lost income," she says, "but the higher salary they will command over a career would offset the debt incurred."
There are also caveats to consider that might make the grad degree road a bit bumpy.
"One of the most common reasons a part time student does not complete the graduate degree is due to job transfers," says Canyon-Heller. "If one can stay focused and enroll each semester in as many courses as feasible, and complete the degree ASAP, there is less risk that relocation would interfere with the plan."
Bezbatchenko stresses that graduate school is not just an extension of your undergraduate college experience.
"You will gain a depth of knowledge that is not available in undergraduate majors," she says. "While the culture of the university is important, the culture, faculty, and emphasis of the program to which you are applying will be more important as a graduate student. Most programs do not accept an extensive amount of transfer credits, so you should be certain of the program and its demands because if you do decide to transfer, your new program may not accept the work you've already completed."
Looking for perfection
Waiting for the "perfect" time to continue your education is one of the biggest mistakes people make, says Canyon-Heller.
"Few have the luxury of a timeframe that has no challenges, " she says. "Each one has to consider the objective for returning to school: Is an advanced degree needed for job security or promotion? Or to facilitate a career change? Or increase earning power? Or for self-satisfaction and gain in self-esteem, etc.?"
It's important to answer these questions for yourself, acknowledging that to reach your goal compromises and adjustments will have to be made relative to juggling work, home and school, as well as finances.
"While the actual schedule for a graduate student may seem flexible, you will spend much more time reading, researching, and writing than you did as an undergraduate student," says Bezbatchenko. "You must consider how your personal and social life can be juggled while in school and how your new schedule will require you to re-prioritize."
Finances are a big part of the timing conundrum and something that must be factored in to any decision. Bezbatchenko says you must ponder a series of questions: Will you have to take loans? Do you qualify for merit scholarships? If you go full-time and have no income, do you have money saved for living expenses?
Canyon-Heller points out that opportunity and timing sometimes go hand in hand.
"If an employer is currently offering tuition remission (reimbursement), take advantage while it is still an option," she says. "Corporate cutbacks often strike such benefits. Trade-offs such as changes in other personal plans may be well worth the inconvenience in order to reap the benefit of the employer funding."
Canyon-Heller also makes the point that graduate students should not get sidelined by "alphabet soup."
"There are a large number of advanced degrees, designated by a wide variety of letters to describe the credential — a virtual "alphabet soup," she says. "Although the letters signify specialized education or skills, there could be several degree choices that would provide the same or similar critical elements. Be less concerned about the letter combinations than the content, structure, quality, flexibility and location of the program, and the likelihood that you could meet the demands of the program."