Grad School Choices: Full Time or Part Time, On Campus or Online, Now or Later?

Freelance Writer

Thinking about starting your graduate school search—and wondering where you should possibly begin? There are many options, and the prospect of sifting through them to find the right program can be daunting. However, going back to school is an investment in yourself and your future, and it can be one of the most personally and professionally rewarding experiences of your life.

Before checking out program rankings and school websites, it’s worth taking the time to consider what you want (and need) at the most basic level: Full time or part time? On campus or online? Now or later? The upside to having so many choices is that there will almost certainly be an option that works for you; it’s just a question of what best fits your desired time commitment, budget, and experience.

Full time or part time?

Full-time graduate programs are the norm at most institutions. They offer a chance for total immersion in a particular field, as well as the opportunity to develop important relationships with mentors and colleagues, which can be invaluable to professional development. Having a schedule entirely based around classes, readings, and course work allows extra time for internships, meetings, research opportunities, and discussion groups. It also gives students the opportunity to focus their creative attention exclusively on their chosen field. Additionally, studying full time will allow you to complete a degree in a more timely fashion; in fact, many accelerated programs can be completed in less than two years.

Yet, for all its benefits, full-time study can require a massive shift in financial and social priorities. If you are currently employed, you will likely need a reduced schedule or may need to leave your job altogether. Aside from this potential reduction in salary, full-time students who aren’t lucky enough to land financial aid or scholarships face a larger up-front commitment. If you have other hobbies or family responsibilities, taking on a full-time course load could lead to poor grades, little sleep, and heightened stress. Robin M., who recently completed an accelerated one-year master’s in education, weighs in: “I was happy to move through graduate school quickly, because it meant I could start my career earlier. However, the intensive program left no room for anything but course work. It was nice to focus on my work so intensely, but I had no time for anything else, like social relationships or having fun.”

If this type of commitment leaves you cold, part-time school could be the answer. Many programs offer part-time day, night, and/or weekend courses, which allow students to fit school into their lives—not the other way around. Going to school while juggling other responsibilities requires a large degree of flexibility, especially since graduate courses can require several hours of work per week in addition to classroom time. Staying on track in the face of other commitments requires a great deal of willpower. Additionally, it can take years longer to earn a degree on a part-time schedule. However, part-time programs can make graduate school a possibility for those who may not have considered it a realistic option otherwise.

Going to school part time can also be less intimidating financially. While traditional full-time programs tend to charge traditional (read: skyrocketing) tuition rates, many programs that target part-time students offer courses at a more competitive cost. Part-time school also leaves more time for employment; this can help defer the costs of books and tuition or, at the very least, help avoid the burden of taking out loans for necessities like rent and groceries. An additional consideration is tuition reimbursement, as many employers will pick up the tab for full-time employees taking courses and/or pursuing a degree related to their current job.

Keeping a steady income and taking advantage of tuition benefits can save thousands of dollars in the long run, and it can also foster simultaneous professional growth if you’re already employed in your field of interest. As Meredith G., who is currently working full time in communications while pursuing a graduate degree in marketing, explains, “My employer has offered to pay for my education, and I have the opportunity to apply things that I’m learning in the classroom in the real world . . . I can see the results of my education firsthand and as it progresses.”

The experience of attending school part time can make it more difficult to network and focus solely on your degree, and it’s important to weigh this against your own learning style and prerogatives. If a part-time program does not serve your professional needs or suit your learning style, it is not worth the time. However, nontraditional programs are quickly becoming more acceptable—even the norm—for working professionals.

Speaking of nontraditional . . .

On campus or online?

While it varies by program, online, partially online, and on-campus programs are generally similar in terms of total time commitment per course. Some online courses require students to log in at a specific time and interact with others via a camera or microphone; others are prerecorded lectures that allow students to progress at their own pace. They can require an enormous amount of self-discipline but reward students with flexibility.

Online and on-campus programs also tend to even out in terms of cost. Some institutions charge a slightly higher tuition rate for online classes, due to the necessity of hiring camera crews, production teams, and technical help staff. However, many online courses are available through night or extension programs, which, as mentioned above, can offer competitive tuition rates.

It seems, then, that most important consideration is the experience each type of program provides. On-campus courses provide opportunities for in-person networking with other students and the stability of set hours each week. In many cases, they allow for better access to the professors or teaching assistants, and the opportunity to attend physical office hours is beneficial for those in need of extra help or who simply want to build better relationships with teaching staff. Online courses can be large, and although most don’t come anywhere near the size of the massive open online courses (or MOOCs) recently making headlines, being one of many via a Web chat room may feel distinctly more impersonal than it does in a lecture hall.

Dr. Patricia Bellanca, Director of the hybrid online/on-campus journalism graduate program at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, offers her take on the in-person vs. online debate. “Offering courses online opens them to the world,” she writes. “[One] course this spring drew a young Russian woman who has been stringing for all sorts of major publications in the wake of the crisis in the Crimea, a student from Los Angeles who has been writing for Newsweek on the Middle East, and a sportswriter from Puerto Rico who wants to learn to do other kinds of writing and reporting. . . . The diversity enriches the experience for everyone. But we also believe in the importance of the face-to-face classroom instruction, the in-person class discussions that take place in real time, the hands-on production and editing work that requires real experience with the tools of the trade. It seems to me that the best programs combine the advantages of both kinds of instruction.”

Hybrid programs can be a great option, and in a field like journalism that focuses both on online and in-person work, they can work particularly well. It’s essential to consider what type of program would be most beneficial in your chosen field. It’s also worth speaking with colleagues and professional mentors to get a feeling for whether an online or on-campus program would best suit where you want to go with your career.

Having considered the pros and cons of various types of graduate programs, one question remains . . .

Now or later?

In many ways, this question can be the most difficult to answer.

Some sayings come to mind: “Now is the time.” “If you don’t do it now, you never will.” And, of course, “Carpe diem.” However, idioms are not answers, and fear of regret is not a justification for going back to school before you are ready. Graduate school requires a massive commitment of time and resources, and in many fields it remains an elective (or even unnecessary) credential.

What do you hope to achieve with your graduate degree? What is your goal? Is graduate school necessary to achieve it, and will its costs justify its benefits—financial or otherwise—down the road? What type of program would best fit into your schedule and budget at this moment? If you are deciding between several types of degrees or feel you don’t have the means to support yourself, it is worth waiting until you are on firmer financial ground. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait passively. You could contact a school and see if you can sit in on a class or audit a full semester; this can often be done at a fraction of the cost and can be a great way to see whether a program is a good fit. Waiting does not mean that you will never take the leap; it simply means that you are giving a large decision the time it deserves. 

Teresa M. graduated in 2008, just as unemployment numbers were skyrocketing, and found herself scrambling. “There is a pressure to either get a good job right away or go to grad school,” she says. She landed a job, delayed her decision, and now, years later, she is beginning a graduate degree in a different field. “When I was a senior in college,” she recalls, “I changed my mind on what to go to grad school for on a weekly basis. But time away from the classroom allowed me to really think about what I wanted to study. Now, I will earn a degree in a field that I am passionate about and have the work experience to back-up my classroom experience.”

Troy V., who recently started a graduate program in Europe, is also glad he waited. “Although I can see pros and cons either way, for me it was best to wait until my late 20s to start grad school,” he says. “I’m at a point where I do not have the responsibility of a family or a high-level career, but I still have the foundation of a few years’ work experience to better inform my studies. In terms of social life, I still have the eagerness to meet and interact with new people, but I’m more able to balance this with work than I would have been a few years ago.”

On the other hand, don’t let hesitation stop you from committing. If you know what field you want your degree in and have given thought to the type of program, there is no reason that graduate school cannot be a reality now. Not sure you want to leave your job? Join a part-time program. Can’t sit through classes in addition to your day job? Consider an online or evening program. Bank account running low? Find a job that offers tuition reimbursement. New program options are flooding the market; as more students voice their needs for more flexible and inexpensive programs, academia is slowly shifting its focus toward the nontraditional. It’s an exciting time to go back to school, and there are many choices available. As long as you’re sure of yourself and where your feet will land, there is no reason you should not make the leap.

Geoffrey Hill is currently an English instructor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the holder of multiple degrees. His verdict on graduate education? Do whatever feels right, as long as you know what you’re doing. “The good news—and the bad news—is that there isn’t really a wrong answer,” he says. “I took one year ‘off’ between each degree and found that to be extremely helpful, both in terms of my approach to selecting programs and how I navigated each program, but going ‘straight through’ also has its benefits. In either case, finding a program that is a good fit is most important.”

Breaking the question of graduate school into easily digestible pieces is often helpful in beginning your search, and thinking out these questions is the most essential step. Once you’ve decided, graduate school search websites (like this one!) and program rankings can provide basic information on how different programs stack up to help you make a starter list. You can then find more information on degree requirements, time commitment, financial options, and the general atmosphere of your school through its website, by taking part in visits, or by contacting current students and professors.

Best of luck in your search!

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