Employee Development: To Graduate School... and Beyond

It's a time-consuming, enlightening, and sometimes costly venture to pursue an advanced degree. It should be it's one of the bigger career development decisions an employee will make. So how does one decide what school to attend or what degree to pursue? Here are some things manager should help employees consider before applying to graduate school.

Questions to Help Employees with Grad School Decisions

Is a graduate degree the right choice?

As an Educational Advisor, I often tell the adult learners I work with that the first thing they need to do when considering a degree is to evaluate their personal and professional goals. There could be a handful of reasons for taking that step: a career change, a promotion, increased salary, advanced knowledge, etc.

But before launching into graduate studies, it's important to be prepared mentally as well as financially. Employees need to know exactly what's required during the graduate program, both academically and in terms of the time commitment.

For example: if considering an online program, are courses synchronous or asynchronous (on-demand)? If it's an on-campus program, what time are classes and how many times do they meet each week? Answering these questions before taking the plunge allows employees to determine how many courses they can feasibly take each semester. They'll also know if they can plan their course load around busy seasons at work.

I always encourage employees to calculate and budget for expenses well in advance of the first day of school, to allow ample time to come up with a plan for covering education costs. Tuition assistance is a perk, but it's key to understand an employer's tuition policy coverage before enrolling. 

Employees, with help of EdAssist advisors, need to ensure the degree program they want aligns with their policy's eligibility requirements ' otherwise, their tuition bill could be significantly higher than they planned for. There may also be out-of-pocket expenses outside of tuition assistance coverage that employees should account for.

How can employees find the right graduate programs?

I encourage employees to think about larger career and educational goals, which can help determine the right program to pursue.

There's the "work backwards" approach to answering this question - employees can speak with people working in their desired field to see how they got there, and they can discuss career growth pathways with supervisors to help narrow down program options. From there, it's a smart idea to create a list of programs that align with goals and interests. Then, employees need to consider the kinds of schools that offer those programs.

There's nothing worse than being in an uninspiring class, so review curricula, read faculty bios, talk with current students and alumni, attend an info session, and determine if course modality options (on-campus, online, or hybrid). If classes are online, read the fine print, there may be residency requirements.

They've identified the ideal program. What's next?

It's invaluable to speak with an Admissions Counselor or Department Head to look at the academic requirements before applying and to get tips on how to structure a compelling application.

There may be an entrance exam such as the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or MCAT. Employees need to factor in time to both prepare for the exam and to have their scores sent in time for the application deadline. Depending on the graduate program, some schools also require an undergraduate degree or coursework in a particular area, or a certain GPA. Other schools may require a set amount of years in the workforce. The more a prospective adult learner knows, the better prepared they'll be.

Are there employee development alternatives to a graduate degree?

The short answer, yes. Certificate and certification programs are becoming a popular option and can be a more feasible financial investment and time commitment.

Certificate curricula target a particular subject area and provide practical skills, needed in the workplace, that can be applied immediately. Certification programs, conversely, are governed by a set of standards and allow for mastery of a subject area, usually demonstrated through an exam. Passing the final exam usually means an employee will receive a designation he or she can use after their name for example, CPA (Certified Public Accountant).

Certification programs can be for credit, which may transfer into a graduate program, or non-credit (often referred to as Continuing Education Units or CEU's). Depending on the industry, some professionals are required to obtain a certain number of CEU hours to keep their certificates current.

For those anxious about committing to a graduate degree, consider a certificate or certification program as an alternative option. Both are great options to help an employee transition from one career field to another. They're also less of a time commitment. Typically the four to eight courses in one area of specialized study have less of a financial investment, and perhaps significant return.

Encourage Employees to Take the Long View, Too

I can't stress enough how important it is for employees to determine which advanced degree best fits their current schedule, financial needs, and learning style - and that aligns with their overall professional goals.

The decision's a lot easier when an employee understands the true cost and return they can expect from obtaining a particular degree. I speak with hundreds, if not thousands, of adult learners across several industries each year, many of them considering graduate programs.

But regardless of discipline, employer, or tuition assistance policy, I start each advising session by asking the question: 'Why'

By understanding the employee's end goals, we can work backwards to find the program that best suits their needs. So whether you're a learning and development officer, a manager going into an employee's performance review, or if you're thinking about going back to graduate school yourself, think about what's after the degree, as well as what you can accomplish now.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

Bright Horizons logo on yellow background

The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.