For many people in business or higher education, the idea of obtaining a master’s degree online while continuing to work full time is daunting but doable. If you find a program that advances your current career, you may be lucky enough to use related work projects as the focus of your assignments. Online education has grown in leaps and bounds to make graduate work accessible, relevant and, while still challenging, also feasible.
I was not so lucky. I began my graduate work directly after my bachelor’s and only completed one year, feeling unprepared to commit to my field of study so early in life. I knew I wanted to be in education; I was just not entirely sure what that meant.
Five years later, after building a career in higher education management, I found myself returning to the school I left. My peers encouraged me to pursue a Master’s in Adult Education while continuing my work. It was online, it made sense with my work and I could advance the career I was building. The other option was, of course, returning to finish what I started, but that department did not offer an online option, and the degree I obtained would be in a field starkly unrelated to my current position.
Two main reasons influenced my decision: one emotive and one practical. First, my lifelong passion is to write, teach and research in this theology, and knowing I could pick up where I left off made it feel like coming home. Secondly, I was fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship, meaning I would not have to rely on a business to finance it for me. This gave me the freedom to not feel contractually obligated to stay with an employer, especially if I decided to head directly into PhD studies or move.
But this fortune was also a curse. My scholarship required me to attend as a full-time student, meaning more than 40 hours of expected work per week both on and off campus. This was the killing blow to my career; I simply could not do both and, ultimately, I could not turn away a second time from the degree that I believed had the power to move me into my ideal career as a professor.
As a now former higher education administrator, I have to wonder why we put students in this position. What is it about finishing a degree faster, rather than slower, that makes me more worthy of my scholarship? Now, instead of being able to support myself and maintain a high quality of work — just at a slower pace — I, along with so many others, must choose poverty and debt while being grateful for the funding of my education.
Perhaps it’s true that, by their nature, these classes simply could not be offered online in a more flexible format. Or perhaps taking on more coursework to the exclusion of a full-time job will increase the quality of my work. But shouldn’t we, as educators and administrators, regard quality of work as a function of quality of life? Is that not the central point of Student Success programs?
I hope that, if you’re exploring the value of an advanced degree, you’re able to fit it into your life in a reasonable way and, if not, that support systems exist to allow you to maintain a sensible quality of life. I also hope that, if you are a decision maker for grants and scholarships, these issues are taken into consideration. Let us never forget that valuing education also means valuing the student.
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