Navigating Grad School as a Working Professional

11 Tips From Those Who Survived the Experience

Considering graduate school while you work? If you've been out of college for awhile, you may be wondering what it takes to get back in; what school is like as an adult; how you can fit class into your busy life, and more. Three professionals who recently completed UW grad programs while working full time offer their advice.

Cyndy Clegg, assistant director of Ambulatory Pharmacy Services at Harborview Medical Center, earned an Executive Master of Health Administration in 2007. Jeremy Snook, senior business development & strategy manager for Microsoft Game Studios completed a Master of Communication in Digital Media in 2009. Kelli Bixby Bays is construction project manager for Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). She's a graduate of the Master of Science in Construction Management.

The three professionals recently joined a panel discussion hosted by UW Professional & Continuing Education. Here are 11 takeaways from the event.

  1. Consider Several Factors in Your Decision to Return to School
    Ask yourself, are you at a juncture in your career where further education will help you move ahead? That was the impetus for Clegg, who found that a B.A. was no longer the gold standard for top positions in her profession. Bays, who lacked the hands-on construction background of those she managed, sought a master's degree to strengthen her leadership position.

    Another question: Does the program schedule fit around your job and family responsibilities? Snook attended class in the evenings. Clegg's program, built on monthly intensive weekend sessions, allowed her to limit time away from her young son. Bays could never have managed the commute to the UW from the Olympic Peninsula. She was pleased to find her program offered online.

    Third: Is the Timing Right in Your Personal life?
    That was a prime factor for Snook. He and his wife hadn't started a family yet and had already practiced the working student existence together.
  2. Discuss Grad School With Your Employer Before You Apply
    "Approaching your boss ahead of time and asking 'what do you think' is a great way to get his buy in," said Clegg. "It's critical to have that support from your employer." Make a business case when seeking financial assistance from your company, says Snook. Detail your plan for maintaining productivity at work. "It was a big selling point that my program was scheduled in the evening," he said.
  3. You Might Be Able to Skip the GRE
    Everyone dreads the GRE. Here's the surprise: some UW graduate programs allow applicants to get around the GRE by substituting work experience. Be sure to check with the specific program you plan to apply to.
  4. Keep an Open Mind When Selecting the Right Program for You
    Research your options because the right fit may be in a different program or department than you would have originally thought. Snook considered an M.B.A. but realized that "everyone has an M.B.A. The M.C.D.M distinguishes me; I have a different perspective to bring to the table."

    "Talk with your peers and with your boss about what makes the most sense today and where the industry is going," Clegg advises.

    Graduate school advisors are paid to help you assess whether the program fits your goals. Make an appointment early in your decision-making process. (Added benefit: they'll tell you what they're looking for in a grad school application and how to package your professional experience to your best advantage.)
  5. Learn in Class, Apply It Immediately at Work
    Each chose a professionally-focused program emphasizing practical, real-world skills and knowledge as well as theory – and each found immediate synergies between work and school. Bays spoke of learning industry best practices at night in class, and then using them at work the next day. "I was teaching others at work as I learned," she said.
  6. Grad School Is Not an Extension of the Undergraduate Experience
    Snook was surprised to find that grad school is "more about discussion than lecture" and that his work experience was valued in the classroom. Many of their classmates were working adults with real-world experience to share. "We learned so much from each other," said Clegg. "It was a wonderful experience. You're giving more, contributing to the conversation as an adult student."
  7. For Adult Students, Learning Is Often Its Own Reward
    "Stimulating" and "empowering" is how the three described their return to school. Said Clegg, "I had a really different learning experience as an adult. I found I was really hungry to learn. I wasn't just going through the motions of writing a paper and getting something checked off."

    "I'd come out of a long day at work and check my hat at the classroom door," said Snook. "It was great to be in an environment where I could disconnect from work problems and office politics and think creatively, explore the 'what if' situations. 'I just loved it."
  8. You Will Need to Adjust Your Personal Life to Accommodate Grad School
    Snook kept his weekends low key for studying but was careful to keep up on his pleasure reading. "Don't lose all sense of fun or you won't be able to continue the pace," he said.

    Clegg concluded that "work-life balance" doesn't exist. "Either your work life takes precedence or your home life does, and it can shift around … you have to be creative and roll with it because you never know what will happen," said the single mother who took her eight-year old to Chuck E. Cheese, bought him 100 tokens, and sat down with her laptop to rework a class project gone unexpectedly wrong.
  9. Reviving Your Study Skills May Not Be as Hard as You Think
    Each spoke of careful and deliberate scheduling. Clegg plotted out all her school, work and family responsibilities on one big calendar and held herself accountable for deadlines. "In school as a working adult, you become so organized and so focused that you just plow on through," she said. She's still amazed she managed to accomplish so much.

    The professional business skills they'd accumulated over the years aided them in unexpected ways. "Giving presentations, writing business cases, triaging work projects, working on teams – that experience was directly applicable to class work," said Snook.

    After years of writing short emails and bulleted PowerPoint presentations, Clegg did have to relearn the patience necessary to produce a 20-page paper. "But you get through it," she said, aided by UW resources from tutorials on how to write an academic paper to the fantastic depth of UW research materials available.
  10. Career Changers Are Welcome in Grad School
    Having come to construction management via a career in interior design, Bays was concerned about keeping up in class because technology was not her strong suit. "The instructors were glad to help me because they knew I had other strengths," she said. "Don't take no for an answer. Look for the person or program that says yes this will work or just keep pushing through. Don't put up barriers yourself there are enough barriers already."

    Clegg appreciated the different perspective provided by engineers in her health management courses. "Go for it," she says. "We're all lifelong learners."
  11. Investigate Funding Options Far in Advance
    Give yourself a long lead time, up to a year or more, to apply for grants and scholarships. Also, ask the department within the program you're applying to about any funding options they might offer. Do fill out federal financial aid forms – the UW uses those to award any need-based scholarship funds given at the department level. Also, remember to take advantage of the lifelong learning credit when you file your federal income tax.
About UW Professional & Continuing Education

UW Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) is a unit of UW Educational Outreach at the University of Washington, the nationally and internationally ranked public research institution based in Seattle, Washington. In addition to the certificate programs, advanced degrees, short courses, conferences and workshops offered through UWPCE, UW Educational Outreach administers programs for youth, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for people age 50 and over, UW-Community Partnerships and more. For additional information: www.keeplearning.uw.edu and www.outreach.washington.edu.

About the Career Management Event Series Hosted by UWPCEFor details on future events, please see the UWPCE website. For video highlights of past events, visit the UWPCE YouTube channel.

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