Hello! My name is Danielle, and I’m the newly appointed Professional Graduate Team Leader! I’ll be publishing blog posts on life as a part-time or professional student. You can learn more about me in my Graduate Student Spotlight. While most of the Grad SWE community is made of full-time students, I know you non-traditional students are out there! I’m always open to learning the stories of part-time, MBA, MD, or other students that might be juggling just a bit too much with graduate school. And here’s to my first post…
The Non-Traditional Graduate Student
When preparing to graduate from their undergraduate education, young engineers are tasked with the first major hurdle into their careers: jump right into their field or continue to graduate school? Certain career paths require a graduate degree at a minimum, giving a clear answer. Other people may never want to sit in a classroom again.
My Journey to Graduate School
There remains a group of people in the middle- wanting to enter the professional world yet still yearning for a graduate degree. I found myself in that group in 2015. I had a goal of obtaining a Master’s degree; yet, I was anxious to start my career and start raking in that early experience. I began my job and learned my company had a tuition reimbursement program. A fellow coworker pointed me towards a local university with an evening, non-thesis graduate program. I resisted at first. Degrees at any level are a large commitment, and I was about to devote 3 to 5 years of life to this. Positive peer pressure won, and I entered graduate school in Fall 2016, funded by my employer.
The Professional Student
Universities are starting to give more notice to non-traditional students, providing additional programs, adjusted schedules, and support services. It’s no longer unheard of to be pursuing a Master’s degree without a research focus. These programs are designed for working engineers without research goals, looking to further their education while still working full or part-time. Other students may be interested in these programs due to the time constraints of childcare or other life circumstances keeping them from the “traditional” graduate school model.
Students looking for a classroom-based school can now find flexible work schedules or evening-based programs. With the increase in online Master’s programs, it is becoming more accessible for any engineer to attend graduate school. Engineers may also be interested in the expanding number of online MBA degrees.
Picking the Right Job
Not every job is a good fit for aspiring professional students. If an engineer’s goals include a part-time Master’s program, here are potential things to look for in a job:
Tuition Reimbursement Program
Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs to assist employees with further education related to their jobs. As of 2019, the United States IRS allows employers to provide up to $5,250 in tax-free fringe benefits for qualifying educational expenses (including tuition and fees). Many companies cap the yearly benefit at the same $5,250 level. Tuition reimbursement in non-US based jobs may vary.
Ask these questions to potential or current employers:
- What is the requirement for receiving the benefits (e.g. full-time employee, minimum time with the company, etc.)?
- Will I be required to work for the company a period of time to avoid repayment of the money? (Many employers require one or more years of continuing employment with the company, or the employee may be required to repay the tuition.)
- How closely related does the program need to be to my current position? (e.g. Can I use the program to gain experience for another department?)
- Do I have to be in full degree program, or can I take individual courses? (Employees may be interested in only one class and not a full degree.)
- What specific fees and expenses are reimbursable? (Some employers may not reimburse things like books and parking passes.)
- What grade is required for full reimbursement? (Some employers require above a certain grade, such as a “C.” Other employers give a laddered decrease in full reimbursement for anything less than an “A.”)
Unfortunately, some jobs are too time-intensive for even online school. If your future employer will require 80 plus hours a week in the office, you might not have time for school. Some managers may also be upset if you have to leave the office every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 PM sharp to make your class. If your program is only offered during traditional school hours, a standard 9 to 5 schedule will be difficult.
Ask these questions to potential employers:
- Is flextime offered? (You may be able to work non-standard hours or work on the weekend to reach your weekly hourly quota.)
- How stable is the work schedule? (A stable work schedule is vital for classroom or scheduled online classes. Overtime projects can interfere with making it to school on time or at all.)
- Is there any option for a 9-80 or 8-80 schedule? (A 9-80 schedule gives every other Friday off, and an 8-80 schedule gives every Friday off – beneficial for homework time and meeting with professors.)
Having your future or current manager as a supporter of your education will make your educational goals much more obtainable. A supportive boss will understand that you need to make it to your 5:30 class on Tuesday, so you will work on that big overtime project on Monday and Wednesday evening.
Ask these questions to potential employers:
- Are there any members of the team or others in the company that obtained degrees part-time? (This is a good indication of if the company culture supports part-time students.)
- Have a general discussion with your future or current boss on your educational goals. Most managers will view this as a desire to learn, which is vital for any engineer.
You Can Do This!
If you have a dream of earning a Master’s degree, it is never too late. Graduate school is not only for the freshly graduated 22-year old with full research funding. New programs and employer support are allowing non-traditional students to obtain higher level degrees. Whether your goal is a technical or business degree, there is a combination of jobs and education programs that will allow you to reach your next degree.