The Second Degree

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Why going back to school is now more important than ever.

Graduate school programs report an increase in enrollment by professionals returning to academia to earn a second degree. And, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, women comprise the majority of graduate degree earners.

Jill Smart, chief human resources officer at Accenture, is no stranger to the proverbial balancing act. The University of Illinois grad earned her MBA at University of Chicago, working full-time and planning a wedding. Ms. Smart isn’t alone in her multitasking skills; she is part of a growing number of professional women earning
advanced degrees.

“As individuals realize the increasing demand for greater knowledge and skill levels in their current employment, they recognize the importance of graduate degrees to not only provide great career mobility, but also enhance their skill set so they’re better able to work in today’s market,” says James Wimbush, Ph.D., dean at the University Graduate School at Indiana University.

According to Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, a joint study conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, 2.6 million jobs will require an advanced degree between 2010 and 2020, with 22 percent requiring masters degrees and 20 percent requiring doctorates. In addition to this massive wave of job creation, graduate degrees are also huge increasers of earning potential, which makes that diploma your bank account’s new best friend.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported people with graduate degrees earn, on average, 38 percent more than those with bachelor’s degrees, and many individuals were women. “In 2010, women earned about 60 percent of all masters degrees and 52 percent of all doctorates,” shares Debra Stewart, Ph.D., president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Robert Augustine, Ph.D., dean of The Graduate School at Eastern Illinois University, attributes the increasing importance of a graduate degree to a growing focus on the future. “Employers look for a highly skilled work force who brings a depth of content knowledge to the discipline and help the agency or business…create its future,” says
Dr. Augustine.

According to Ms. Smart, the benefit of a graduate degree also includes access to new opportunities in your current career. But why go now? For Ms. Smart, returning to graduate school after building a repertoire of work experience was preferable to continuing her education straight from undergrad. “Songwriters use their lives to write their songs, and I used my professional life to write my work at grad school,” she says.

Returning to grad school, whether that means taking time off from your career or balancing classes with a full-time job, isn’t quite as simple as Ms. Smart makes it look. “What is applicable now more than ever is the question, ‘Is this going to take any of my energy away from my current job?’ In today’s economy, that’s last thing you want to do,” she advises.

Sacrifices are unavoidable, but Dr. Stewart recommends performing a cost/benefit analysis to evaluate the expected increase in earning potential and explore options for financing your graduate degree. “The sacrifices made up front pay huge dividends later on,” affirms Dr. Wimbush, who also praises the benefits of a graduate program’s environment, which offers opportunities for hands-on experience and networking.

Grad school is the perfect time to apply the social skills perfected at all those company parties. In the context of grad school, “developing informal networks is the way we make the implicit, explicit,” says  Ms. Stewart.

Clare Forstie, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, knows the effect networks can have on a career after spending seven years in the workforce before returning to grad school full-time, emphasizing the value of networking with other women in the same graduate program. “It’s a good idea for women to be actively considering, if not pursuing, opportunities and connections both within their chosen careers and on the fringes of their careers, because you never know what looking at the edge of your career might yield,” she says. “Consider pursuing a degree, even if it seems unrelated to your current career path. Perhaps it can be a springboard to another, more satisfying or better-paying career path.”

Today’s grad school market offers a plethora of programs and degree options for the working woman, including part-time and evening classes. But what Dr. Stewart suggests is answering that intangible question of “match” when looking for a program that will best meet your needs.

“The most important thing is to follow your passion,” advises Dr. Stewart. “But you have to know where your passion is going to take you.”

By Macaela Mackenzie

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