WWYD: I Want to Go to Grad School … Again

So here’s the deal. I graduated from college in 2009 with a degree in urban and regional planning and have been working ever since in the urban planning field. During the past five years of work and various life experiences, I have discovered that this field is absolutely not for me and I feel a strong calling to become a marriage and family therapist. The only thing is: becoming one requires a state license and two-year graduate program. I am willing to be a student again at almost 30, but the one thing that holds me back is money. How do I leave my good paying job with benefits to be a broke student?

I have zero credit card debt, but have massive student loan debt of $60K from undergrad and grad school. I know that ultimately this new career path will make me happy and more aligned with my interests in the long run, and I have made the decision to follow through and apply to attend grad school in the fall of 2014. This would give me a little over a year to work and save money.

So I guess my question is not what would you do, but how would you go about planning for this change? Should I work for a few more years to save enough so I don’t have to take out more loans? Is this even a feasible idea? Am I totally nuts?

Some other stats, I make $54,000 a year (before tax). I pay the minimum on my student loan, $326/month, make no contributions to a retirement fund, and have very recently paid off a large credit card balance so I am able to save around $400-$700 per month (depending on how disciplined I am-I like good food and travel). I currently have $1,500 in savings. I also plan to apply only to state schools. — M.S.

No, you aren’t totally nuts. Plenty of people discover that the fields they are currently working in aren’t right for them and decide to make a career change. It’s great that you’ve identified a calling that you believe will be better suited for you, and have committed to going after it.

And yes, I can tell you about how I would plan for this kind of change, or rather, I’ll tell you what I actually did when I decided to get a master’s degree.

I made the decision to go to grad school a year or so after I completed my undergraduate degree and had little in terms of savings when I made the committed to doing it. At the time, I had about $14,000 in loans from undergrad and I wasn’t too concerned about taking on more student debt. Even so, I immediately went into austerity mode. I moved back home with my parents to save on living costs, saved every dollar I could from my job as a magazine contributor, and took on a second job as a cashier for additional income. When I was accepted into my program, I thought a lot about what it was going to cost, and ended up asking for more money—the lesson being: If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.

I had about $10,000 saved up by the time I started grad school. That money wasn’t for school—scholarships and loans paid for that—it was there for me for after I received my master’s degree. It allowed me to live in New York and pay the rent while I looked for jobs and jumpstarted my career. It allowed me to not worry about how I was going to start making student loan payments once the grace period ended. That money was peace of mind. It gave me a feeling of stability I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t gone into austerity mode and saved up before moving across the country.

If you’re able to save $700 a month, go for it. You could have $10,000 in savings in a year. If you have the discipline to cut back even more on non-necessities (like travel) and save even more, do it. Set the highest attainable savings goal you can. Make a list of reasons why being a marriage and family therapist is your calling, and why it’ll make you happier. Whenever you need to remind yourself about why you’re saving, pull out your list and read it.

You could work for a few more years and save, but I’d set a goal to start the program in the fall of 2014 and save as much as I could until the program started. That way, I could focus on doing one year of austerity and look forward to starting the program sooner rather than later—especially with the cost of college rising steadily every year (I did a quick Google search and it looks like the average cost of your grad program at the state schools where you live is about $8,000 a year, which isn’t so terrible. Also, it looks like you’ll be earning a similar salary to your current position once you hunt for a job).

A plan is has been hatched, and I believe it’s well within reason. It’s just a matter of pulling it off.

 

Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments. Photo: Vancouver Film School

---
---
---
---
---

12 Comments / Post A Comment

rabbitrabbit (#3,404)

One addition: I don’t see the point in limiting yourself to applying only to state schools. If there is any shot at receiving financial aid in other programs – and often the richer, private schools are better placed to offer aid money – then you should apply to at least a few, and see what happens. The extra $250 in application fees is worth the possibility of getting significant aid at an out-of-state program you might be interested in. Why limit your options preemptively? If you know you wouldn’t leave the state for any reason, fine. But otherwise I don’t see why it’s rational/frugal to decide up front you won’t leave the state.

sony_b (#225)

@rabbitrabbit Yep. I did a graduate degree in Computer Science in my thirties and went to a private school that was theoretically three times the price of a state school, but I worked 20 hours per week as a TA and covered my tuition entirely for 5 out of 6 semesters. I still needed about 45k in loans because I was an adult with a mortgage and didn’t want to go entirely back to starving student mode, but I’m OK with that because the salary increase upon graduation made it a good investment.

One other thing you could consider – are there any opportunities to do freelance consulting in your current field while you go to school for your new one? I found that working while I was a student was easier in my thirties than it was in my twenties – I was a lot more disciplined and self-driven, and could see the dollar signs at the end of my degree.

themmases (#1,959)

@rabbitrabbit I thought the same thing reading this. I’m looking at grad school right now too, in a field where it’s very common for PhD students to get money but far less common for MS students to get much, as best I can tell (and you do need the MS first).

I’ve been using a tool on PhDs.org that lets you sort programs by percentage of funded students (among other stuff, that’s just the thing I care about most). The data is usually a couple of years old, so I’ve been going down the list confirming that they’re still offering money/work opportunities to people in my program, that I’m even interested in the program, that I would be willing to live there, etc.

It’s not always the places you think. It’s hard to know what the truly worthwhile programs are (as opposed to just “good schools” you assume will have a good program) without studying and working in a given field. Luckily the life skills from working for a few years can help you use this time to figure it out.

Catface (#1,106)

Although I basically agree with Mike here, an additional important consideration for me would be what the prospects are for my actually getting hired as a therapist, at an acceptable wage and in a place I’d like to live, after completing the program? I note that the blurb Mike links to covers “salary outlook,” which is not the whole story.

Catface (#1,106)

@Catface I should add: a friend of mine who is about the WWYDoer’s age gave some thought to changing careers and becoming a therapist. Then she did some research and learned that in our city there is a glut of therapists, she found a few recent grads of a well-regarded local program who are essentially doing home health-care aide work. This kind of investigation is never a bad idea.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Catface I agree. There’s certainly a big difference between a generic view of a profession and the conditions in one’s local area. I’d imagine that the demand for counselling services would vary considerably according to the region and the local economic conditions.

There is another alternative to jumping into graduate school. It sounds like the writer had very good plans for his or her original profession, but gradually didn’t like it once he or she experienced the practical reality of the job. I wonder how much risk the writer is at of experiencing a similar situation after graduation. It would be a shame to spend two years and incur additional debt only to find that the new profession also isn’t satisfatory.

Perhaps the writer can take two steps. The first year could be spent as Mike suggested: stay at the current job and save as much as possible. The second year (or part of the first year) could be spent working where possible in the counselling field. Even though the writer wouldn’t be able to be a fully-qualified counseller (due to the lack of graduate certification), it would give him or her a chance to gain practical experience in the field. If he or she enjoys it and wants to continue, that’s great. If it’s not a good fit, though, the writer can look at other options.

As we know, the practicalities of any job are often different than looking at the job from the outside. Perhaps getting practical experience in the field prior to enrolling in graduate school would enable the person to decide whether he or she actually likes the job prior to spending two years getting the certification.

jquick (#3,730)

@Catface
I know you didn’t ask for advice re being a therapist, but I sugagest that you “shadow” a therapist to see if you really would like the job, along with what others are mentioning re salary and job availability. Will you make enough to ever pay off all your loans plus save for retirement?

aetataureate (#1,310)

I’m curious why there’s no accounting here for the middle path — keeping the job AND going to school. Otherwise, this genuinely seems like lunacy to me, even though Mike’s advice is as prudent as it can be under the circumstances.

Kristin (#3,766)

@aetataureate I agree. I worked full-time through grad school, and a year in I actually got a job at the school, which gave me an insane discount on tuition. I know a few people who quit working to go to grad school, and they all had trouble finding work when they finished.

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

@aetataureate Yes! There’s no discussion about the option of going to school at night. He could cash flow the program with his $700 a month in savings and avoid the student debt that everyone is freaking out about right now.

pizzatourist (#2,449)

I went back to grad school when I was 32. I applied for an assistantship at the same time that I applied to get into the schools. The assistantship was a research position (which can mean a lot of things but basically it was more of an office position and NOT a teaching/TA scenario) for 20 hours a week during the school year. In return I got free tuition, healthcare coverage and a stipend that I was very frugally able to live off of (I didn’t have a car, etc). During the summer I worked a part-time job. I had credit card debt prior to starting grad school and this did not diminish during that time however I was able to pay it off after graduation and graduated without any other debt – no student loans, etc. The school that I went to also had a 10-hour a week assistantship that paid tuition but did not have a stipend. I’d suggest looking into applying for assitantships.

Emma M (#3,765)

Good for you! Figuring out that what you’re doing is not right for you is scary and hard to admit! I’d say totally go for it! My only thought is that having gone from undergrad straight to grad school and having seen other people who have taken time off and done other things, I feel like those who were out being “real grown ups” and making “real salaries” had trouble adjusting to being back on a student budget. Being realistic about that (which will be easier if you’re implementing austerity measures before you go) will probably help your overall happiness. Good luck!!

Comments are closed!