How to Make Grad School Work for You

Many people go into college already knowing that the road doesn't stop there and that graduate school is absolutely necessary for their career. Then, there may be some of you who have graduated from undergrad, moved into the workforce and are still waiting for that dream job in your field. Graduate school may have crossed your mind a time or two and you're going back and forth about whether or not going back to school is a good decision for you.

I was definitely apart of the latter group. 2 years post-grad, I decided to enroll in graduate school. 

Here's a quick summary of my decision to go to graduate school:

When I graduated from undergrad in 2015, I was still under the assumption that having a BS and a good GPA guaranteed me a job in my field of psychology and criminal justice making decent money. Instead, after graduation, I landed a full-time job at the agency where I had interned during my senior year of college doing something completely irrelevant to my field - accounting. I was uninspired. I was drained. And I was using none of the material that I was currently in debt for. I stayed there for a year until I finally found a position that got me in my field - victim advocacy. Although I loved the job and was finally able to use my education, I felt stuck. I wasn't serving the population that I was passionate about and there really was no opportunity for growth within the agency itself. I wanted to do more and there were legal and political constraints associated with that position that really limited how much I could give. So, with a little bit of soul-searching, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in social work. As I began to explore career paths in social work, I started to see a trend - almost everything that I was interested in required a master's of social work (MSW). So, I started to look at MSW programs and visiting schools and quickly realized that pursuing the degree would result in a HUGE change in my lifestyle. Literally. I would either have to move and, even more, I would have to quit my current job because the program required field practice hours and my job did not meet the eligibility criteria for field. So no consistent income but more loans? I went back and forth for months about whether or not I should take the jump.

I applied to the school that made the most sense, my alma mater, just to see what would happen. I applied for FAFSA, just in case. It is a competitive program, so I was not 100% sure how things would work out; but, if I didn't get in, then I would continue to work where I was because I did enjoy my position. If I did get it in, I'd have to figure the rest out.

On my 24th birthday, I got my acceptance letter. I was elated but I was also super stressed. Was this a risk I wanted to take? Was this going to work? It had to, because I was going to make it work.

Ultimately, what guided my decision to enroll was the fear of working in a career that I felt stuck in. I didn't want another job that made me feel uninspired and drained, regardless of what the pay was. I didn't want a job where I felt stagnant and constrained, even if I did enjoy it. The potential salary difference also made sense. I would be putting myself in a position to actually pay on (not pay off, because honeyyyyy) my student loans and to acquire the lifestyle I dreamed of. I had support from my family and friends and boyfriend. I was going to work it out.

So, now I'm wrapping up my first year of the MSW program and it has worked. I'm working with a population that I am ridiculously passionate about and I've decided to concentrate in school social work for my final year of the program. I have not regretted my decision to attend at all. It's honestly one of the best decisions that I have ever made, not just professionally but personally. I've grown so much in this last year simply because of this program so social workers stand up!

Okay, that's it.

So now, I want to share the things that I did to make graduate school work for me, because they could make graduate school work for you, too!

·      Stay in-state or go online, if you have the option

Graduate school is generally more expensive than undergrad. It's most likely going to be more expensive if you decide to pursue school in another state. While the possibility of starting at a new school in a new place is really exciting, if you realistically don't have the extra money to do it, then it is perfectly fine to stay in-state and get that cheaper tuition rate. Remember, many schools don't have housing for graduate students, and if they do, it's expensive. So going out-of-state could also mean paying for a dorm or a new apartment. Depending on the cost of living, this could run you a LOT more coins than staying in-state would.

Also, if going to school online is an option for you, seriously consider it. Online distance education was an option for the MSW program, but I decided against it because of my learning style; I simply do better in classrooms. Additionally, online programs still required the field practice hours, which still made it difficult to work full-time. However, if you are someone who can really grasp material and stay on top of online assignments, go for it. Going online significantly reduces the chances of you having to relocate or quit your job. There may be extra technology fees associated with the program, but convenience might be worth the extra cash.

·      Go full-time, if possible

Going to graduate school full-time might sound crazy if you're working full-time. It may sound even crazier if you have a family to take care of, as well. However, going part-time not only doubles the amount of time it will take for you to get your degree, it may also increase the costs because you're paying double the amount of fees over time.

This isn't true for everyone, though. If you're pretty stable now and not in a rush to finish your degree, going part-time might absolutely make the most sense to you. For me, going part-time only stretched out the amount of time of the degree without any other real benefit. I still would have needed to complete field hours and class times (that were only offered at certain times) and it still would not have worked with my current job's schedule. I decided that if I was going to thug it out, I'd do so in the shortest amount of time.

·      Use financial aid/graduate loans

This is probably the number one thing that stops a lot of us from fully pursuing graduate school. More than likely, your student loans from undergrad are still haunting you and you're ducking phone calls from Sallie Mae back to back. Loans suck - there's no way around it. However, being extremely realistic helped me get over a fear of taking on additional student debt. If I stayed at my current job, or even found another in my field at the BS level, there was still no way that I'd make enough to pay for graduate school on my own. And although some companies do pay for their employees to get continued education, chances of that were slim in my field. Also, remember that student loans don't necessarily ruin your credit. I've consistently maintained a high credit score, despite my student loan debt. As long as you make payments on time, you will be fine. And yes, making payments may be the most annoying thing ever, but it's honestly just another bill. There are several payment options that can work for you over time. Also, don't forget that loan forgiveness programs do exist (real ones, not the ones on Instagram/Facebook or the mail scams) and you can look into them on the federal government aid site or through whoever you finance your loans through. Look into consolidating your current loans with existing ones so that you're only paying 1 interest rate and making 1 payment per month.

If you're sure that this is a career path that you'll be happy in and that will give you the means to support yourself throughout your life, then don't be afraid to take out the loans that you need. This is especially true for programs, like mine, that don't really give you the option to work. My loans/refunds are literally how I pay my bills each month.

·      Take a graduate assistantship and apply for scholarships

There are so many scholarships out there that NOBODY applies for - apply for them! Especially look at the scholarships that offered specifically for your school and program. That way, you're not competing with applicants nationally and have a better chance at being granted some extra funds. Remember, even a $500 book scholarship helps.

Also, look into graduate assistantships at your school. They basically work like a work-study job except you don't have to be financially eligible in order to take advantage of it. These positions allow you to work for the school in some type of capacity and you receive pay for it, either through a paycheck or a stipend. Some of these positions also come with tuition assistance that is applied directly to your balance and cut back on the amount of loans used. My assistantship only requires me to work 8 hours per week for my stipend and they are extremely flexible because they understand the demands of my program, something that a regular job may not understand.

·      Budget like your life depends on it, because it does

Remember when I said that I am literally living off of my loans/refunds? That means that what I have is what I have and not a penny more. This has taken some extreme budgeting and tracking. I need to know what is in my account at all times and I need every expense and credit accounted for.

Here are a few tips that have gotten me through this year financially:

Placing my entire refund into my savings account and giving myself a "paycheck" at the beginning of the month that covers all of my bills, gas, groceries, etc.

Using my stipend cash as my enjoyment money. Once it is gone, it's gone.

Opening a second bank account to hold money that will get me through the summer. I did this to minimize the chances of me mistaking this money as available.

Split expenses - I live with my boyfriend, but if I didn't I'd have a roommate to supplement the bills. Living alone is just not an option for me with the cost of living + school. Don't let your pride/preferences get you into a lease that you can't afford.

Cutting unnecessary expenses - we got rid of fancy cable and use basic instead because between Netflix & Hulu we really have all that we need. See what's not necessary in your life and cut it.

 ·      Be real about your support system

I would not be able to do any of this without my support system. I am surrounded by people who are willing to give me a helping hand if I needed it. Thankfully, I haven't really needed to utilize them for more than moral support, but I know that if I did, they'd be there and that's me being realistic.

There is a difference between perceived support and actual support. Do not enroll in an intense graduate program assuming that you have the support that you need. Be 100% real about resources that you can tap into if you need them. If you're going to need a babysitter, make sure you have that locked in. If you're going to need your parents to pay for a certain bill while you're in school, make sure that the need is clear and agreed upon. If you're getting a roommate or living with your significant other, make it very clear who pays for what and when. Graduate school is stressful enough without having to stress about things that you thought you had covered. Most programs have strict attendance and course completion policies and a lack to adhere to them will get you removed from the program.

If you're taking the risk to go, make sure that you have the conversations that you need to have to secure your success.

Also, I completely am aware that a strong support system is not an option for everyone and that I am privileged that I have one. If you're one of those who are out here grinding it out on your own, I suggest building a really strong relationship with your school advisers and teachers. Although policy is policy, making them aware of your concerns and situations can really make or break your enrollment in the program.

Lastly, I just want to attest to the fact that graduate school programs do fly by! You are not in the struggle forever. I cannot believe that I am already done with my first year in the program and already prepping for my last. If this journey is something that you've been going back and forth about in your mind, do your research and remember these tips!

If you have questions about social work or grad school in general that wasn't covered here, leave it in the comments or feel free to DM me on my socials (@jaselizaaa)!