Think you’d like to give an online graduate program a try, huh? That’s great! Online learning can be a fantastic option for busy professionals. You can take the virtual classroom with you wherever you are and wherever you go. As long as you have a laptop with Internet access, you’re in business! Plus, depending on the program, you may not need to carve a designated time out of your schedule. And you definitely won’t have to drive to school and sit in a classroom.
Online learning can also open the world of possibilities. You are not limited to programs offered at your local university. And you get to “meet” students and professors from all over the globe who come from many different walks of life. Your classmates aren’t the same people you went to high school with or who you see at the grocery store. You may be thinking to yourself, “This all sounds wonderful! Where do I sign up?” But before you start filling out online inquiry forms or contacting admission counselors at potential school, you need to ask yourself the following four questions:
1. Are you comfortable with technology?
Online graduate programs have a number of moving parts you’ll have to navigate. At the bare minimum, there are discussion boards you need to post to multiple times a week and assignments you need to submit through virtual dropboxes. It’s not as simple as handing a paper to your professor. You may also have to participate in conference calls or Skype sessions with your professor and/or classmates. In addition, you’ll more than likely have to purchase your textbooks online and sift through online databases in your school’s virtual library to do research.
2. Are you self-disciplined?
The nice part about online learning is that you have a designated day of the week for assignment deadlines (often Sunday evening). This is great for planning purposes. However, you do not have an instructor in front of you to remind you about any important deadlines or exams coming up. You’ll receive your official course syllabus at the beginning of the course...and that’s about it. So, if it’s Sunday morning and you have a 10-page paper due at 11:59 p.m. that night, you might be in trouble. If you’re going to attend grad school, you need to make sure your organizational and time management skills are up to par.
Related: Undergraduate vs. Graduate School: What to Expect
3. Are you an independent learner?
With online learning, you do not have the luxury of having your professor directly in front of you. He or she could live hundreds or thousands of miles away. If you have a question about an assignment or about a topic covered in class, it’s not as easy as raising your hand and waiting to be called. You may have to email your professor and wait a day or two for a response. What if you’re dealing with a topic you aren’t quite grasping? Again, your professor doesn’t have traditional office hours before or after class where they can offer extra help. You may find yourself looking for outside resources to help you with comprehending the material.
4. Do you have a contingency plan in place?
That is to say, are you prepared for if (ahem, when) things go awry? Internet at your house going down, coffee spilling on your laptop, your laptop gets dropped by your five-year-old, etc. You should be prepared with an emergency fund for a new laptop, be willing to make friends with your local library to use their computers, and know where the nearest Starbucks or other free WiFi establishment is. (And that last option isn’t so bad. A venti something or other and a snack can help you get through that midterm.)
Related: How to Create an Effective Distance Learning Routine
Making your decision
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, congratulations! Online learning is a great match for you. Let your education journey begin. If you answered “no” to some of these questions, fear not. Online learning may still be a viable option for you. When researching schools, you want to look for programs where you’ll be paired with a designated professional academic advisor (this advice goes for all students). This needs to be someone you can work with regularly, not just when it’s time to register for classes—someone you can turn to if you have some trepidation about online learning, are struggling with time management or course content, and/or your offspring spilled juice on your laptop. A great advisor will be able to guide you through your online program from your first day in your first course to graduation and everything in between. No matter how you decide to pursue furthering your education, good luck!
If this article has you more confident about being ready for grad school, use our 12-month grad school checklist series to get planning for your next academic adventure.