Making a decision to return to university for a Master’s degree can be agonizing. Navigating university options and program features can be complex. Today’s application process is time-consuming, while the competition is intense. The actual costs of completing full-time Master’s degree over a 1- or 2-year period can be the equivalent of a down payment on a house in Toronto, if you include the opportunity cost of quitting your day job.
Don’t let these obstacles discourage you, especially if you know in your gut that pursuing a Master’s degree is something you must do for your future happiness and career success. Just be ready to ask and get satisfactory answers to a long list of important questions.
How many questions? I dunno, at least 40 of them, that I can count. Download the Checklist for Assessing my Readiness for Graduate Studies worksheet and keep it by your side as you hunt for details online, talk to school representatives and reach out to alumni of the programs that interest you.
The rest of this post expands on the four categories of questions in the worksheet. It invites you to:
- Clarify your academic motivation
- Clarify your career motivation
- Conduct careful research into admission requirements
- Anticipate the financial realities
I close with some thoughts on how to make it to the other end of your Master’s degree, once you start it, and suggest some helpful web resources to support your research into the possibilities.
Clarify your academic motivation for a Master’s degree
Let’s assume you actually get into a Master’s degree program. Are you motivated to finish it? Do you have one of the most important aspects of motivation – passion to pursue the academic subjects, questions and issues at the heart of your program(s) of interest?
There are two reasons why passion for the program is critical.
First, courses in a Master’s degree program require a ton of reading, researching, writing and group learning. There is a reason they call it higher learning – it is intense.
If the material you’re studying doesn’t interest you, you will either fail or drop out, losing precious time, money and self respect. Be your own inner parent and remind yourself: “don’t start something unless you know you will finish it!” And I’m not talking about a hot dog here.
Second, as those in control of admission decisions are passionate about their discipline, they look for prospective students who share that passion. They assess you on the basis of whether you can demonstrate this passion in your statement of interest through your previous academic, work and life experiences.
Do you know what subjects generate in you genuine, get-me-out-of-bed-in-the-morning passion?
So what do you think?
- Are you passionate about the field of study you hope to pursue?
- Are you energized by the realities of higher learning?
- Have you talked to people who have completed similar programs to learn about the pros and cons of their experience?
- Have you visited schools or sat in on classes to test whether your body reacts with a snore or a smile?
High five if you can answer yes or maybe to most of these questions. You have the academic raw material to complete a Master’s degree.
Clarify your career motivation for a Master’s degree
Not everyone returns to school for a Master’s degree because they are career minded. But many, if not most these days, do have career goals in mind.
Is a Master’s degree appealing to you because of the promise of improved career options? The lure of great job offers at the end of the road? If so, do your homework before entering the program, so you are not disappointed upon graduation.
Do you have a realistic, tested and informed plan for your future?
Begin first by getting clear on your career fantasies. Where do you hope higher learning will take you in your future? Do you have a clear road-tested career goal in mind for which a Master’s degree might fill in theoretical holes and build related qualifications?
As you discover university programs that might be the ticket to these dream jobs, investigate their career-related support systems. Find out about their networks with employers, the job and salary outcomes of their alumni.
Have you honed in on programs that give you a sense of confidence about positive career outcomes? Congrats. Now let’s get real.
Conduct careful research into admission requirements of your Master’s degree of interest
Admission to most Master’s degree programs is generally highly competitive. Anyone confident in their fit, and willing to invest the time in a demanding application process, can consider doing a Master’s, which can generally be done only after you have an undergraduate degree – i.e., a Bachelor degree. Do you have one? Great – give yourself a check mark.
Know the difference between graduate and professional studies
Before getting more deeply into admission requirements, let me make an important clarification. Master’s programs can be roughly grouped into two categories: graduate studies and professional studies.
- Graduate studies go deeper into subjects you have studied in your undergraduate degree, such as biology, international relations, or psychology or broad fields that accept students from any previous disciplinary background. The career outcomes for these programs are less predictable and depend in part on any previous experience you have.
- Professional studies at the Master’s level prepare students for direct entry to regulated professions such as social work, teaching, occupational therapy and an array of medical programs from dentistry to medical doctor. A few of these are offered as a first Bachelor’s degree, such as Nursing, Teaching and Social Work. The majority of them require either two to three years of undergraduate study and in some cases a completed undergraduate degree. For the purpose of this blog post, we’re focusing on Master’s level professional programs.
Requirements for programs vary widely from school to school and program to program, so your research is important. As a general rule, professional Master’s programs have steeper admission requirements than graduate Master’s programs.
Are you being realistic about getting into your program(s) of interest?
Let’s look a little more closely at general requirements that admissions committees take into consideration:
- Academic transcript(s) from any previous education after high school provide starting information. Those with a B+ average in at least the final year of their program can likely find a graduate studies program for which they are both eligible and competitive.
- Course-specific requirements are listed for some programs, along with a minimum grade. For example, science programs require you to have a certain number of courses in related discipline(s). Many social science programs require a course in statistics or quantitative methods. Some business programs might require university-level math.
- Recency and duration of academic performance are important. Some programs look at the last year of performance. Others demand 2 years of sustained performance. Some look at the top 10 or 20 courses overall. The most competitive of all are admission requirements for regulated professions, where they can look for up to 3 years of sustained high performance at an A standard – e.g., medical and law schools.
- Standardized test results for some programs are required and high scores are generally the norm. Whether it be the GMAT for business school, the MCAT for medical school, the LSAT for law school or the GRE for a number of social science programs, anticipate that your preparation for standardized tests will take time, money and mental focus.
- Higher than the minimum stated is generally the reality. While all schools will state on their website minimums for both overall and course-specific grades, aim for higher than the minimum if you want to be competitive.
- Relevant experience counts. Conversely, for students near or slightly below the minimum-stated requirements, some programs will consider “mature students with relevant experience”. Even with high grades in your undergraduate, many programs expect some evidence of related academic, work and/or life experience.
- References from professors and employers rate and rank you against others. Typically at least two references are required from those who’ve worked closely with you and can vouch for your ability to perform well in higher education studies.
- Supporting documents illustrate your experience and motivation. For each application fee you pay, in addition to sending academic transcripts, you might need to prepare supporting documents such as:
- personal statements tailored to the program
- written answers to short essay questions
- writing samples
Are you willing to invest substantial time in research to find the best program to meet your goals, interests and level of competitiveness? Are you up for the process of preparing a quality, stand-out application and chase down references from employers and/or profs? If so, keep reading.
Anticipate the financial realities of completing a Master’s degree
Actually, graduate studies can be cheaper in the long run than your first degree. First of all, a Master’s degree is 1 or 2 years in length, so shorter than an undergraduate degree which is usually 3 or 4 years in length. Often, but not always, an offer of admission to a graduate program includes a guarantee of funding, through Research and Teaching Assistantship bursaries. As a mature student, the bank of Mom and Dad is no longer factored into your eligibility for government funding. So you could discover that you’re now eligible for a loan and might even qualify for a sizable grant.
It’s nonetheless an expensive undertaking – costing up to $20,000 per year if you are pursuing your studies full time and not living at home rent-free.
Do you know what your studies will cost you and where the money will come from?
- Are you prepared to invest time and money to complete a 1- or 2-year program of full-time study or a 3- to 5-year part-time program based on at least a rough sense of the return in lifetime earnings on such an investment?
- Have you budgeted how much you need annually for tuition, books, other fees and living expenses?
- Do you know where the money will come from – considering grants, loans, savings, part-time work and family support?
- Have you had the conversation with the bank of Mom and Dad to know if they will be there to support you and conditions of that support?
If you’re still with me, still hankering for higher learning, you could and perhaps should consider completing a Master’s degree.
But hang on, there is one more reality to consider. Successful completion of grad school studies starts with a successful application. It doesn’t end until you finish the program! So let’s also get real about the roller coaster ride you’re about to embark on that is graduate studies.
Make it to the end of your Master’s degree
Imagine it’s September 2018, week 3 of your studies in one your programs of choice. You’re up to your neck in the realities of the academic grind – attending classes, studying for mid-terms, writing papers, navigating the new rules.
Prepare to ride the roller coaster of lows and highs of higher education!
You’ve discovered that grad studies can be:
- Anxiety-provoking. Like all transitions, returning to school at any age can be scary. In the beginning, you’ll feel a little rusty in a completely new environment, with new people, new rules, new learning.
- Time consuming and 24-7 stressful. You’ll be juggling deadlines for different classes and projects with different classmates. Be prepared to sacrifice time with family and friends. Anticipate late nights and weekend work to finalize papers and presentations.
- Interpersonally frustrating. You might be working with classmates who may not be as committed as you to a quality product, conversely unnecessarily perfectionist or just plain miserable colleagues. Faculty members can be notoriously challenging to hook up with when you need them!
- Expensive. Those daily Mocha Frappuccinos you used to enjoy? Gone – you can’t afford them anymore. Weekly visits to the movies? Not in the budget. A new pair of jeans to match up with your new school t-shirt? Forget it; you’ve maxed out your credit card limit for the month.
- Deadly boring. If the subjects you are studying are not truly your passion and you’re pursuing higher education for the sole purpose of landing a job, you might find your studies more painful than promising.
- Creatively taxing, leading to mysterious weight gain. If you’re writing challenged, you’ll find it agonizing, every time you sit down to write a report, to stare at a blank page. And resort to eating Oreo cookies in the hopes they will inspire you. They won’t!
A Master’s Degree offers many benefits
And yet if you stay the course, you will discover many benefits of completing a Master’s degree. I’m biased, for sure, but I preach from a place of wisdom. My experience has taught me that a Master’s degree:
- Enhances your skills. Writing, research, presentation and data analysis skills are all “employability skills” you’ll develop, valued by most employers.
- Engages you in questions that matter to you. A Master’s degree exposes you to the big problems, from local to international ones, from social to scientific. It acquaints you with research from leading experts on these topics.
- Builds community and relationships. Many of your colleagues in the classroom are mature, connected and really smart/interesting/funny people – you learn a lot from Faculty, but also from your classmates and these same folks become your future network and life-line companions.
- Can differentiate you in a job competition. Doors will open to certain fields where a Master’s degree is the minimum requirement. A few examples include policy analysis, management consulting, counseling or advisory roles, and many functions in scientific research and development.
- Gives you immense satisfaction. Whether apprentice or accomplished writer, each time you complete a dreaded report, or make a presentation to a group of classmates, you will feel an enormous sense of accomplishment.
So should you pursue a Master’s degree? You be the judge. Download the Checklist for Assessing my Readiness for Graduate Studies worksheet to guide your research and make a good decision for your future. And if you’re not sure where to start, check out the ten resources below to help you discover some of the answers.
10 resources to research and apply to graduate studies
- Research career and related education options through Canada’s Career Cruising website – your local library membership gives you access if you are not currently a student.
- Find out about occupations in demand through Canada’s Occupational Projection System (COPS). If you prefer a more user friendly interface, check out O*Net Online, a U.S. Occupational database that conducts comprehensive job outlook research relevant to the Canadian labour market. It gives you everything you want to know about occupations that interest you.
- Use LinkedIn to research career paths and network with professionals in careers that interest you – make sure you first have an account!
- Search university programs in Canada, using the program filter to isolate the level (Master’s degree) and other key words to identify programs that meet your criteria.
- Research your options if you are thinking about studying abroad.
- Link to all professional bodies in Canada from Accounting to Veterinary Sciences and find out which universities programs are accredited to teach that profession. Learn about application requirements for common professional programs in Canada with UTSC’s tip sheets (from the link, scroll down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see the professions individually listed!)
- Apply to university programs in Ontario and across Canada.
- Compare tuition fees across Canada – note that tuition rates listed are for undergraduate studies. The trends by province will be similar. See the link to professional programs for fees related to specific regulated professions
- Find out how Ontario’s OSAP program is changing to support low income students pursue their education.
- Research scholarships and bursaries in Canada.
Good luck learning what you need to know and making a great decision for your future.
If you have comments or questions, feel free to add to the conversation here. Or if you have a private question and/or need help to prepare a competitive application, fill in my contact form. We can talk.