A popular graduate school path is to be what is called a “professional student” – this means you work full-time and you attend graduate school part-time, usually online though there are options for in-person night classes. I have been pursuing an online graduate degree at Purdue since this summer part-time while I work full-time, and I wanted to share some insight into it in case you’re considering this option too. Keep in mind these are my opinions and there are no perfect answers! Also remember that I’m answering these from an engineering perspective and the answers might differ in different career fields.

Do I NEED a graduate degree to succeed?

The first thing I want to talk about is whether or not you NEED a graduate degree to succeed. The answer is absolutely not. You can be successful regardless of what degree you hold. However, it can’t hurt you. So if you’re interested in learning more about your field or gaining another degree to potentially set you apart from other candidates in the future, then go for it! **This is definitely one of the most disagreed upon questions out there, but this is my opinion based on many conversations with executives in the aerospace and defense industry.

How soon after undergrad should I go back to grad school?

I get asked this question a lot and there really isn’t a perfect, most opportune time. But the most important thing is this: only go when you are confident you are pursuing the right degree. Don’t go right after undergrad and get a degree in something you aren’t sure you actually want just because you want to get it over with. Your graduate degree will mean more than undergrad and you should pursue something that is meaningful to you and helps you achieve your career goals. Remember that you are going to be studying after a 40+ hour work week, so pick something that interests you and makes you want (or at least be content) to sit down and study on a Friday night.

Another thing to consider is life events and your graduate school timing. This can include getting married, having children, traveling the world, or other life goals you may have. Graduate school is a lot of effort and you want to make sure you have enough time set aside each week to study, do homework, and take exams.

I personally want to finish graduate school prior to having kids in the future, so starting young was important to me. But it took me a year after undergrad to realize what I wanted to study and what I was willing to sign myself up for. I was completely against ever going back to school for a long time because I valued my freedom and lack of stress after graduation. What pushed me toward applying in April was the fact I was finding myself incredibly bored and I felt like I needed to learn more about my field to set myself up for the role I eventually want to have.

How many classes should I take at once?

The graduate program I’m in at Purdue strongly suggests that you only take one class per semester. My husband’s program at Johns Hopkins follows the same advice. This is because even one class can be a lot of time commitment and your job needs to be your first priority. Yes, it will take longer this way, but remember you’re running a marathon, not a sprint when you’re a professional student.

How much time commitment is this going to be?

This depends obviously on your specific program and class. My summer class only required a few hours a week if that, sometimes even less. My class now requires ~5-10 per week but even that varies by week depending on when my professor assigns homework. My husband’s classes require a little bit more than mine do but he’s taking more technical classes than I am and he’s at a different university. So it all depends, but most professors understand you’re a working professional first and foremost and will be accommodating to work schedules.

How do you manage work, life, AND school?

This is a tricky one, and I’m still learning to manage it every week.

  • Set aside time during the week to do homework and study just like you would schedule meetings at work. For me, I like to work on homework on the weekends so I’m not packing my days too full during the week, but that can vary depending on your situation and preference of course!
  • If you have group work, set boundaries for yourself. Be accommodating but also be sure to set aside time for yourself and your personal/work commitments too.
  • Set boundaries at work, too. Again, be accommodating but if you have a huge assignment due tomorrow, don’t be afraid to make it clear to your team that you have a huge time commitment tonight and will need to leave work at 5pm like normal (or whenever you need to).
  • Lastly, make quick and easy meals. My husband and I used to have time to cook meals with lots of ingredients and that took longer than 30 minutes to make. Now, we eat ramen or a simple pasta at least once a week with no shame. Cook soups, make sandwiches, and don’t be afraid to order food if you have a lot of work to complete that night.

Balancing part-time school and full-time work, plus all the other commitments you have in your life can seem daunting, especially when you’re told it could take 3-5 years to complete. But remember, if it’s truly something you want to pursue and you’re interested in the subject, it’s just another phase of life that you will look back on and be proud of!