Everything You Wanted To Know About Being In Graduate School But Were Afraid To Ask

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Today’s installment of our Afraid To Ask: TFD’s new expert interview series, is all about going back to graduate school for higher education — specifically for a Master Of Social Work. The Afraid To Ask series is meant to provide a deeper insight into a variety of subjects, and shed light on topics people are sometimes ignorant about (myself included in every topic I cover!).

This week I sat down (via the internet of course) with a friend Rachael who is a second year graduate school student. She has picked up invaluable knowledge about what it means to go back to graduate school in your mid-twenties, the sacrifices you make for your future, and how to finance it in a smart way.

Rachael was kind enough to answer the questions that follow. While this interview is not exhaustive, it’s a fantastic way to learn more about what being a graduate school student looks like. Check it out!

What made you want to go back to school for a higher degree?

Once I finished my undergrad and secured a psychology degree, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had always wanted to work in the counseling field and human services. However, I didn’t want to rush right into graduate school. I took about three years after college to explore the working world, get my feet wet in counseling (I worked in a counseling center for about a year), and really think about what I wanted to do before I jumped into any program.

I knew that counseling and therapy was something I always wanted to do and it fit my skill set. However, I knew that my undergrad degree wasn’t enough to really move forward in the career path I desired, and I knew I needed additional schooling to build the kind of career I desired for myseld. It’s necessary to have a higher education degree to work in this field in the way I wanted to — I have to acquire certain certifications which are required by the state. In counseling, you’ll come to a point in your career where getting a higher degree is extremely beneficial to grow professionally. Going back to school allows me to serve my clients better by using the evidenced-based practices I learn in my graduate school classes.

I narrowed down the field in which I wanted to work and decided that a Masters Of Social Work (MSW) and an Addiction Counselor Training Program was the right course for me. I currently work in an addiction clinic as a counselor which allows to me to get experience and hours working a job relevant to my education, under my belt. I work an internship in hopes of getting my Licensed Clinical Alcohol & Drug Counselor (LCADC) certification.

How did you plan financially for taking on more debt?

In order to go about paying for graduate school in a smart way, I approached it in steps. I worked full time for a few years before I entered the master’s program officially, which allowed me to save up a good deal of money. With this money I took five non-matriculating classes (which I paid for in full with the money I saved up) to start, which I knew would count toward my program once I officially joined. It cost me about $10,000. It was slightly cheaper because I didn’t yet have to pay program and application fees and this flexible schedule allowed me to work at my own pace while working full time. Note: In my case, I didn’t qualify for financial aid at this point because I wasn’t enrolled in a matriculating program. You can learn more about your student loan options here. I was able to stave off those typical piles of graduate school debt by using the money I saved up (which was interest-free money) by not having to take out a loan. Once I enrolled full-time in the graduate program I began taking out loans.

For those loans I make sure that I focus on paying off all the interest first, so once I’m out of school I can focus on paying the principle. I know some people who spend their first few months/years just paying down the interest on their loans without ever touching the principle.

How does the payback plan work when you already have leftover debt from your undergrad degree? Does it all get rolled into one lump sum?

Yes, it all gets rolled together with the help of a loan management company. The loan management company (mine is Nelnet) tracks the interest rate, timeline, etc., and tells you the dispersement dates, due dates. etc. Your undergrad loans get put on hold if you’re in school full time, so your loans get temporarily deferred while you’re working toward your higher education degree.

What life events have you put on hold to accommodate a busier school schedule?

The main thing I’ve sacrificed is not being able to move out. I can’t look for a high paying job that would allow me the monetary flexibility to move out because i’m in school full time. I’m simply too busy with coursework and classes to take on a job that requires too many hours (or is too ambitious and hence, a distraction from studies). While I have to stay focused on school and being a full-time graduate student I also have to pay my bills, so I work part time as a counselor in a methadone clinic. This provides me some monetary flexibility so I don’t go into credit card debt paying for the things I need.

I know that being unable to move out is a short-term sacrifice for a long term goal. It’s painful at times to see people younger than I move out and get these great high paying jobs, but I knew what going back to school at 25 would entail, and it’s 100% worth it to me.

Do you have a significant other? How do they feel about you incurring more debt?

I do have a significant other, yes. I’m actually getting married next August! My partner is fully supportive about my decision to go back to school even though he knows it will affect my financial standing (and by extension, our household’s financial standing). But he knows i’m pursuing a career that requires certifications and licensing, and that I’m passionate about what I do. While it’s not always easy to make the decision to go back to school, and accept how it affects your ability to vacation, work, and go out with friends, I know this sacrifice comes with the career I’m building for myself. My partner has always pushed me to reach my full potential. Even if the loans can take a while to pay off post-graduate, I know that I’ll be specialized when I get out of school. It will make it easier to find work (I hope!), and I plan on hustling and doing whatever I need to do to get the job I need and repay my loans.

What is your outlook on job prospects after graduate school vs. your undergraduate?

I feel more stressed this time around because the degree I’m getting is much more specialized. When I graduated from college with my degree I felt that my opportunities for work were much more flexible. However, now that I’ve committed myself to this degree and two additional years of schooling, I’ve really narrowed down my focus. It puts the pressure on me to not only find a job, but a good job, and make decent money while I’m at it. It’s the underlying fear of the unknown that feels more stressful this time around — I took the plunge and I wonder if I’ll land on water or concrete.

However, I’m very hopeful and to me I’ve felt a calling to be a therapist and a counselor since I was 13 years old. It’s the only career path that ever made sense to me on a deep visceral level. I knew it was my ~calling~ so to speak for a very long time. Graduate school and more student loans are just part of that equation, but there was really no option when figuring out if higher education was right for me or not. Anyone who is considering high education/graduate school should really think about whether or not it makes sense for their career path and career dreams.

Are there any helpful links and resources that you could provide us with that would help another twenty-something figure out if going back to graduate school is the right decision for them?

Yes! I researched the hell out of graduate school programs, financing, etc. before I applied to one. I think that everyone needs to take a hard look at whether or not graduate school is the right choice for them. Use caution and think about your 5-10 year plan. The amount of loans you take on, especially later on in your mid-twenties, means shifting life’s milestones down a bit. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not something that anyone should take lightly. For me, it was necessary because advancement in my career requires additional certifications and coursework. Everyone should take enough time to figure out what is it they want to do, and should put in hours at a job or paid internship relevant to the higher education degree they’re seeking. Below are some really helpful links that I found to provide insight and support. Check them out!

Image via Flickr

  • clea

    More like this, please!

  • VVV

    I’m currently in the process of applying to grad school, and the two things that are at the forefront of my mind are 1) if I don’t get into a school/program that I’m genuinely excited about, I won’t go this year; and 2) making sure I can get a job ASAP after graduation. I’m only applying to schools that I think would really be good fits for my interest, so I know there’s a risk I might not be accepted to anything in the spring. However, rather than broaden my search to make sure I get in this year, I’d rather just work hard for another year and save money and build my resume (eg by increasing my field-related volunteer work or publishing papers) to apply again in 2016. Knowing that this is going to be a huge financial commitment makes me unwilling to jump into $60k+ of debt if I’m not feeling 100% invested in the program.

    And, like Rachael, I’m also more nervous about getting a job after having a Master’s because it’s going to be pretty niche and I’ll have fresh debt. Networking has always made me kind of nervous because in college it felt so forced, but in recent months I’ve been joining professional groups, attending panel sessions, and looking into getting involved on relevant non-profit boards so that by the time I get into school, I’ll feel way more comfortable navigating the world of networking–and hopefully I’ll be able to snag something soon after graduation! (My aggressive stance toward this comes from not really having a job after undergrad–something that was royally shitty then but appears to be paying dividends re: my preparedness this time around??)

  • becker

    it’d be great to have a similar post, but about law school

  • disqus_55Y3RhAGGM

    It would be great to see something like this but geared towards an academic graduate program. There’s a big difference in lifestyle and financials when you’re going to be in school for 6-8 years.

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