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Graduate School: Which Path is Right for You? Part 2

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A library.

In the first post of this two-part series, I cover two aspects of choosing the right graduate degree, choosing between certificate, master’s, and PhD programs, and choosing between a subject matter degree (which teaches you the “what”) and a professional degree (which teaches you the “how”).

Now it’s time to explore the different ways to go to graduate school. Here are some expert tips for deciding how to spend your time in your perfect grad program.

Choosing full time vs. part time

The traditional undergraduate experience is full time. A student goes to school most days of the week and maybe takes on a part-time job to help pay the bills or gain work experience, but otherwise, focuses mostly on her studies.

This can be your graduate experience, too. Full-time students tend to finish their degree programs more quickly. Going full time also allows you to more fully immerse yourself in the classroom environment and form stronger relationships with your peers and professors, which could help you with networking later on.

However, consider the following:

  • Will a full-time program leave you enough free time to pursue interests and obligations outside of school, such as volunteering, part-time work, or caring for family members?
  • While the cost per credit hour is the same, Washington Post notes, full-time students often have to borrow more money since they’re forgoing income by not working (or at least not working full time) while in school.
  • If you’re already working in a relevant field, stepping out of that career trajectory to go back to school could hurt you more than it helps because you’ll be missing out on professional networking opportunities and work experience.

That’s why some graduate schools offer a part-time option, which could include evening and weekend classes, online components, or some combination of the two.

If you’re pursuing a graduate degree to help you transition into the social impact field, a part-time program could make it possible for you to stay in your current job and maintain a consistent work history before making that change.

Similar to the certificate program vs. master’s degree question, this might not be an either-or choice. Two of the schools that Washington Post profiled said you can switch between full-time and part-time status each semester. So you could start out part time and then switch to full time if you’re having trouble balancing work and school—or you could start out full time, land your dream job, and switch to part time to finish your degree.

Choosing how you’ll end the program: Thesis vs. capstone project

And now, everyone’s favorite part, finishing a graduate program! Contrary to popular belief, writing a research thesis is not the only option. Some programs—particularly the applied, professional programs described in the first post—will give you an option to complete a capstone project.

A capstone project is an experiential project that is meant to draw on all the knowledge and skills you gained in your program (as opposed to a project you might complete for a specific course). At some schools, your capstone is a team project completed for an external client, such as a nonprofit organization or government agency.

Christine Omolino, Director of Admission & Financial Aid at the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs in the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, says they receive and solicit capstone project proposals from external organizations throughout the year and then narrow them down to a list of about 30 projects, each of which is matched to a team of four to five students. Omolino says each team works on their project for four to five weeks (at some schools, the duration may be longer), and the project culminates in a written report and oral presentation.

Like many aspects of the graduate school decision-making process, choosing between a thesis and a capstone project comes down to your career goals. Do you want to be a professional researcher or subject-matter expert? If so, writing a thesis might be a good fit for you. You may even be able to publish your thesis and start making a name for yourself right out of school.

If you’d prefer to work in a more applied, team-oriented setting, a capstone project might be a better fit.

Pro Tip: A client-based capstone project could help you land a job after you graduate because it gives you a chance to build a relationship with a prospective employer.

What questions do you still have about choosing the right graduate program for you? Learn more about what's out there and find the perfect program for you by attending one of the Idealist Grad School Fairs!

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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