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Question From a Reader: Where and When to go to Graduate School?

One of my readers, “Em,” is thinking about going back to graduate school so she can transition in a career in Human Resources.  I thought I’d open her question up to all of you.

I am in a bit of a career rut.  I received my BA in 2006, and have since been working in assistant/office manager/receptionist-type roles.  I am 26, and have been thinking it’s time to start thinking seriously about my career and the steps I need to take so that I can start down an official Career Path.  I know there are no typical, proven, Total Success Guaranteed ways to approach the elusive Career Path, that different careers have different requirements, and that people find their dream jobs in multitudes of ways.  However, I am finding myself stuck in this rut, and not sure how to move forward.

I would like to pursue a carer in Human Resources, specifically in the area of employee onboarding/training and learning and development programs.  In this job market, I’m finding that you need previous HR experience even for the most entry-level jobs in the field, and because I cannot figure out how one gains experience in a position that requires the experience to be hired (which came first, the chicken or the egg?!), I’m thinking about going back to school.

However, school costs money.  I do not want to stay at my current job long enough to take advantage of their education reimbursement program (I’d be required to stay at least another two-three years, if I even qualify for it, which I might not, since it is hard to justify how an HR program is important to my role as a receptionist in a company that doesn’t even have an actual HR department), but I have been thinking about my options, and trying to see what is worth the investment.

There are a few Human Resource Management Certification programs that I’ve been looking into, ranging in cost from $1500-$6000.  The higher cost comes with the UC Berkeley (extension) label, better classes, and a (somewhat) closer proximity to where I live (though it’s still about a half hour.  The lower cost comes with a California State school label, less interesting-sounding classes, and a location that I might not even be able to get to (I would likely be attending these classes at night after work).  The other option is a strictly online university, but I’m not sure that would carry the same weight as even a state school.

The other option that I have just started thinking about is some sort of Masters program, though I haven’t begun to research programs, schools or costs yet.  I always said I would only go back to school if it was necessary for furthering my career, and I’m starting to think that it’s time, but we’re talking about a lot of money here! Although the other side of me says “$1500?  That’s like one, nice vacation.  Or my portion of two month’s rent.  It’s not THAT much, if it means doors opening to a new career.”

How do you decide when a higher degree is a necessity for career advancement, and then how do you decide how much money is worth it to spend?

image source: studentbranding.com

  • eemusings - If this is what she wants, I say go for it. That sounds pretty reasonable to me in terms of fees, and she can start looking at available financial aid in preparation for it. ReplyCancel

  • Lindsey - The programs she is looking at are actually very affordable, as far as grad school is concerned. I am in a somewhat similar position, and after falling into the field of fundraising, I have decided to stay, and also advance my career by going to grad school this fall. One thing that really pushed me to do it (and my degree is going to cost upwards of $30k, private school, no cheaper options in the area, and moving is not an option, neither is quitting my job to go full time) was when I was job searching SO many places requested that you have a master's degree, any master's degree. So hopefully in the end it will be worth it. I might not get back the money I invested right away, but hopefully down the line it will pay off. So I say go for it! ReplyCancel

  • FinEngr - Em – Congrats on the decision to move forward. And during a time when people go back to school because they're "not sure what to do", I commend your conviction to only going back if it will further your career.

    First, is there any way you can expand your current role and start assisting your HR co-workers? Looking within your current organization is always a good place to start. A way to gain varied experience while maintaining job stability.

    What types of professional organizations are available to you in your area? This would be a great place to field some of these specific questions and get people who know the answer (I'm only doing the best I can). They'd have suggestions on your schooling, career paths, and even potential career opportunities. ReplyCancel

    • Ms. Em - Unfortunately, there are no ways to expand my current role at this company. My company has no real Human Resources department, and no interest in developing one. They are also highly disorganized, and not someplace I would be interested in staying. Right now, I'm hoping to find a low-level HR job at a company that DOES encourage growth.

      And an update: I have reached out to a few connections, and am going to be speaking with a few HR people (friends of friends) about this very subject soon! ReplyCancel

  • FinEngr - PART 2:
    While a certification is a quick way to obtain some credibility, I'd be hesitant. As I see it, certifications are more of a way to strengthen your current career abilities – not launch into a new one.

    You mentioned a Masters program, could you roll the credits from the certification into a Masters or would you need to take all new classes? Given that you already have a BA, are there any accelerated-second degree programs available?

    Best of luck in your search as I'm in the same condumdrum and have been debating going back to school for over 2 yrs now! ReplyCancel

  • amberto - my advice would be to really look at the field you want to go into. find out how many jobs are realistically available, how much post-graduate experience you will need to obtain these jobs (a graduate degree does not always equal jobs), where these jobs are located (and if you're willing to relocate if necessary) and finally how much these jobs pay and how long it will take you to pay off your newly acquired debt.

    also, find out what kind of weight these certification programs carry – will these certifications (or online schools) REALLY get you the job you're looking for? I've found that a lot of people tend to think that they will, or are being sold that this is what they need, but in reality – these certs are nothing more than another piece of paper & another dollar spent. (cont…)


  • amberto - talk to people in the field/positions you want to be in and ask for their advice. They can best tell you whether or not your decision will make sense as a long-term career move.

    continuing your education is great, but i wouldn't do it unless you can prove that you'll be able to get a better job that not only pays more but that will make you happy & improve your quality of life, which in the end, is most important. ReplyCancel

    • Ms. Em - That is exactly my dilemma, Amberto! Before embarking on this continued education thing, I want to make sure that the Certificate will actually carry some weight. I mean, I don't want to spend even the money and time if it turns out I should really have been going for a Master's instead of a Certificate. I think I need to do some research and talk to some HR folks to see how they feel about the Certification in Human Resources Management situation. :-) ReplyCancel

  • Investing Newbie - Hey Em! Well, my advice is why not both? I think that with your experience as a receptionist, you should be able to get a job as an HR Assistant/Coordinator or even Junior Recruiter with most firms. At that level, employers are looking for multi-tasking skills, attention to detail, and good Microsoft Office skills. I'm assuming you've developed these thoroughly in the 4 years since you've graduated, so you really will not have a problem snagging one of those junior roles. I would also encourage you to take a certification class. The thing is, HR is only recently being considered as a major business function with a few Fortune 500 companies creating the CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) role. Many of the people in that function, or even SVPs of HR, usually have a certificate. Very few have Masters in HR/Industrial Organization and even fewer have MBAs. I would not pursue a graduate degree unless you have some experience and, based on that, you are 100% sure that this is the field for you. Until then, I wholeheartedly recommed you get a certificate in HR which will not only boost your hiring potential but also your salary as well. Good luck with everything. ReplyCancel

    • Ms. Em - Thanks for the advice. I'm going to start applying for the HR Assistant/Coordinator type of roles – most of them say that they require previous HR experience, which is why I am considering the certification. It's not that I don't think I could handle the work – I know I could kick butt in HR (especially in Coordinator/Assistant-type roles – basically the same stuff I've been doing for years), but if I can't make it past the resume screening because of my lack of *actual* HR experience, that doesn't do me much good! I'm hoping that the certification would help make me a more attractive candidate…even if on my application I just write that I am currently pursuing it. At least then it makes me look more serious about my interests in HR, right? ReplyCancel

  • Karma Links (Yakezie and otherwise) | Narrow Bridge - […] Blogging buddy Well Heeled (who has an awesome blog that you should read) discusses when it is time to go to grad school. […]ReplyCancel

  • Ashley - I'm not entirely sure if it's necessary for your career to go to grad school or not, but one thing to look into if you do choose that path would be assistantships. Not every department works this way, but many departments offer assistantships for students. You go to school for free in exchange for teaching some classes or helping professors with research on campus, and you also get a monthly stipend to live off of. I mean, it's really low and not great, but then you have zero student loan debt when you graduate. Sometimes you have to compete for them, but in my department everyone is guaranteed a place for at least 5 years. ReplyCancel

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  • Carmesha - I think if you want to get further education, it may be beneficial to get another BA degree w/ a HR concentration so you could possibly use alot of the credits you've already received w/ your first degree. Many ppl who work in HR typically A) have a BA in some business or labor relations field & may go back to get an advanced degree (MBA or Master's in HR) after several years of work experience or B) have been with the company for like 20yrs and was able to take on HR responsibilities & move up. I think the last thing you would want to do is get advanced degrees (which signal to employers that you probably want more money) and you are still in the same boat (so to speak) with no HR work experience. Other than that, I agree with your plan to apply for HR coordinator roles, but in my experience many employers in this economy want ppl with prior experience for those positions as well so it is best to network & get to know someone within the company. Internships are good too, and (if you are willing to travel) some companies have entry-level HR rotational programs (you can do a google search for those). ReplyCancel

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