Many people earn their undergraduate degree and then enter the workforce with a goal of eventually returning to graduate school to earn their master’s or professional degree. But when the time comes to begin considering enrolling in graduate programs, many of those same individuals begin to worry that their time out of the classroom may have made it more difficult to go back to school and earn an advanced degree.
The good news is that tens of thousands of workers every year decide to pursue—and earn—a graduate degree. In many cases, time spent working in industry was actually an asset, making it easier to complete the degree.
Below, we offer a high-level overview of the application process and the value that your work experience can bring to the mix, and provide a number of tips to help you prepare for graduate school after spending time in industry.
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Applying to Graduate School After Working
Returning to academic life after working doesn’t have to be intimidating. After all, you now have relevant insight and practical skills to back up the theoretical concepts you’ll learn in the classroom. As an undergrad, you weren’t required to have extensive knowledge and training at the start of your education. In grad school, however, admissions counselors want proof that you have a sense of purpose, clearly defined career goals, and proficiency in your field.
While every school has its own standards for applicants, here are some common requirements in the application process.
- A completed application form
- Undergraduate or graduate transcripts from schools you’ve attended
- Test scores for graduate-level exams, such as GRE, GMAT, or LSAT
- A professional resumé or CV
- A personal essay or statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation
- An application fee
Career experience can distinguish you as a strong candidate when you start preparing your recommendation letters. Working in a real-world environment exposes you to a wide range of skilled workers across multiple departments. Not only are you able to learn from fellow professionals, but you’re also in a position to observe how different roles serve an organization. By including recommendations from co-workers in diverse roles, you can demonstrate strong networking skills and your ability to perform well in demanding environments.
Your grad school resumé and statement of purpose are your chance to establish credibility in your own words, and both should be tailored to each program application. The professional experience you gained from an industry job provided the opportunity to explore your strengths and discover work that you find both challenging and satisfying. Use your resumé to show career progression by listing relevant skills, on-the-job achievements, and professional certifications you obtained.
Think of your personal statement as a narrative journey. Admissions counselors want to feel your passion and get a sense of what motivates your career decisions. Drawing on your educational background, work history, and life experiences, your essay should tell a cohesive story of how your career has evolved and what you hope to accomplish in grad school.
Tips to Prepare for Grad School
Start preparing yourself to ease back into an academic mindset as soon as you make the decision to go to grad school. If you’re like most students, the application process will end up consuming more time and focus than you realize. Before you know it, major deadlines will be looming ahead, and you’ll have a harder time managing all the elements you need for a successful application. Instead of letting yourself get overwhelmed, follow these tips to ensure you’re ready for enrollment.
1. Practice time management.
Good time management will aid you before and during your studies. Whether you’re raising a family or you plan to keep working through school, it’s essential to find a balance that allows you to finish important tasks on time. Create a to-do list for each degree program you’re applying to in order to track key deadlines. An application timeline is crucial for tasks with built-in delays, such as requesting transcripts and recommendations. You want to make sure your contacts have adequate time to return materials to you, so you aren’t left scrambling at the last minute.
2. Focus on relationships.
Networking is one of your most advantageous resources in the application process and afterward. Friends, co-workers, or mentors who have already been through the process often have valuable tips on how to get into grad school after working.
As you compare schools, it’s also beneficial to speak with enrollment counselors who can answer your questions about the degree programs and even connect you with faculty or past students. Many institutions host events for prospective students throughout the year, which provides opportunities to meet people who may end up being your classmates.
Once you get into grad school, building relationships with peers and professors will play a key role in completing class assignments and growing as a professional. Networking helps you to tap into skill sets and perspectives that are different from your own, and you can continue to leverage these relationships throughout your career. The sooner you start building a professional network, the easier it will be to make the transition into grad school.
3. Explore financial options.
Research payment options for grad school that can ease your financial burden. Many colleges require you to fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid, which helps to identify federal grants and loans that are a good fit for your situation.
If you’re currently working or plan to get a job during enrollment, find out whether your employer offers tuition reimbursement. By taking advantage of employer-based tuition assistance, you can receive full or partial compensation for courses that are relevant to your job. Eligibility requirements vary by employer, but it’s a common condition that you must stay at your job for a specific period of time to qualify.
Another way to avoid debt is to apply for fellowships or assistantships at your institution. Fellowships are academic merit awards that are designed to fund a specific element of your studies, such as a semester of tuition or a graduate research project. Assistantships are work-study opportunities that involve working for a faculty member on campus. Both programs support activities that are beneficial to your career and education, making fellowships and assistantships attractive options.
Talk to a financial aid counselor at your prospective college to learn more about paying for grad school. Professional counselors can help you find grants and scholarships that match your student profile, so you can subsidize the cost of going back to school.
4. Choose the right program.
Doing more prep work upfront will help you choose a graduate degree program that’s compatible with your personal and professional goals. Consider whether you prefer to enroll in a traditional, hybrid, or fully online degree program. Most colleges have several degree options for each field of study, and while the curricula may overlap, the individual programs have their own specialized focus. Consulting an admissions counselor early on is the best way to understand the distinctions between each program and how the curriculum relates to your skills and interests.
Ask questions about the pacing of the courses, the grading structure, and the frequency of required activities. By setting up realistic expectations in advance, you will get better at managing your time and creating a balanced schedule for work, school, and personal obligations.
The Next Step In Your Career
Although work experience isn’t mandatory for many graduate degree programs, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning in a professional setting. An industry job gives you a practical, firsthand look at the challenges and benefits of working in a specific field, so you can decide if it’s right for you. If your exam scores or undergraduate GPA aren’t as high as you would like, a robust work history can significantly strengthen your graduate school application as well, making it more likely that you will be accepted.
As you begin preparing for graduate school, it’s important to note that many of the same things that served you well in your professional career—especially time management and relationship building—will prove essential to your academic success. By following the tips above, you can feel confident in your abilities to reach your goals of earning a master’s degree.