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Balance Work And Grad School

James Kerin

Many students think that they are done with school forever after they graduate college. If only this were true. Unfortunately, the recent economic downturn coupled with an already highly competitive and educated global work force has prompted an increasing number of students to pursue graduate degrees. Some people choose to begin their careers at the same time, incentivized by mounting college debt as well as the inherent pressures of a down economy. However, there are a variety of benefits associated with entering into a work-study lifestyle.

Why People Do It
In economics, human action is analyzed through the lens of opportunity cost. Given that time is ultimately a scarce good, the opportunity cost of any decision is the net cost of all foregone alternatives. For example, when a consumer purchases a Honda Civic, he or she is doing so at the opportunity cost of owning a Toyota Camry, a Lamborghini or a Razor scooter. Thus, individuals often choose to attend school while working simply to minimize their opportunity costs.

A more concrete explanation for why people choose to pursue graduate degrees while working is globalization. While beneficial for the international economy, globalization has given rise to a much more competitive labor market. Companies frequently outsource jobs overseas to developing nations, where labor is generally much cheaper. In addition, businesses will recruit internationally to fill positions that were previously filled domestically. Individuals who choose to focus on graduate school must consider the danger of being over-educated and under-experienced, as well as debt-laden. On the other hand, the security of a steady job balanced with the pursuit of a graduate level degree is alluring.

Globalization, among other factors, has also driven up high school and college graduate rates. According to the United States Census, the percentage of individuals nationwide with a high school diploma rose from 75.2% in 1990 to 85.3% in 2009. In addition, the percentage of individuals nationwide with a bachelor's degree rose from 20.3 to 27.9% over the same time period. These figures are sure to continue to increase in line with the growing sentiment that "a college degree is the new high school degree." As a result, many students have resorted to graduate degrees in order to get some separation from the pack.

A major benefit of balancing work and graduate school is that often companies will step in to help offset the costs of graduate education programs. These programs are often referred to as "company sponsorship" or "tuition funding" programs. Not surprisingly, they have exploded in recent years. According to Business and Legal Reports, the percentage of companies participating in such programs rose from 52% in 2007 to 85% in 2010. Such programs dramatically helped employees manage their debt, a significant problem for many students. Never before in U.S. history has student debt risen to the levels at which they currently reside: nearly one out of every five households have owed some form of student debt in 2010. While often highly competitive, company-sponsored employees can begin their careers without student debt looming over their heads.

In addition, entering a graduate program while working is a great way to get a head start on your career. Every business finds the opportunity of landing ambitious, driven employees mouthwatering. Companies actively search to hire such workers in order to raise their retention rates and continue to infuse the lifeblood of the organization with new talent. Thus, companies will help guide their employees doubling as graduate students along the path of success by helping them to manage their workloads. Despite its difficulty, the rewards for the working graduate student are tremendous.

Another benefit of the work-study balance are the opportunities for rapid career advancement. Many high paying jobs require Master's degrees. As ranked by Forbes, the top three Master's degrees with the best return are in the fields of Medicine, Computer Science and Civil Engineering. In the Computer Science industry, for example, the mid-career median pay is $111,000, and the projected employment increase is as high as 27% by 2020. Common jobs for the industry include database administrators, software architects and information technology consultants. All of the above opportunities are in industries that are booming and will continue to be prominent drivers of growth in the U.S. economy.

A Balancing Act
Unfortunately, the challenges posed by the work-study lifestyle often prove to be too taxing. For some candidates, the degree program's rigorous schedule creates too much stress. With little to no flexibility with the hours in the day, an increase in one's school or professional workload will have a direct impact on time for family, friends and sleep. The ability of any student-worker to fulfill the responsibilities to their academics and professional lives depends also on the company sponsorship company that they are involved with. Different, less time-consuming programs may be a better fit for some individuals. For example, only remarkably disciplined individuals should attempt attending medical school while working.

An equally important aspect of working and studying simultaneously is the support of your company and school. As previously mentioned, there are a myriad of benefits to be had with the official and unofficial backing of your company. While not as celebrated, the endorsement of your graduate school upon the program pays dividends as well. The graduate school's academic advisement department can help work-study participants juggle their duties by fine-tuning the student's approach to the program. Campus resources can prove to be invaluable in this capacity.

The Bottom Line
Graduate programs are never easy. Neither is the beginning of one's professional career. In junction with one another, the workload can be daunting. However, the advantages afforded successful work-study participants are well worth the time and effort exerted. Provided that a strategic and holistic decision-making approach is taken before making the decision, balancing the rigor of the program with the eventual payoff is of paramount importance.

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