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Work Before Grad School: A Non Traditional Path to an Advanced Degree

Posted by Thomas Leusner on

Part 1: Know the Hurdles

By Viktor J. Cybulskis, Ph.D., P.E.

Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Many students are motivated to become chemical engineers to earn higher salaries and for the versatility to work in a broad range of sub-disciplines. The many fields you can practice in with a chemical engineering degree means that it is more widely accepted as a terminal professional degree than a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or another physical science. In fact, a 2009 survey by Chemical & Engineering News found that only 26% of B.S. chemical engineers were continuing to graduate school, compared to nearly twice as many chemists with bachelor’s degrees.

While chemical engineers may not need advanced degrees to enjoy lucrative employment, it is becoming increasingly common for young chemical engineering professionals to pursue graduate study in their early careers as a means to secure a promotion or gain the technical knowledge required to enter a new field.

If you are thinking of returning to school, this article examines your options and the difficulty in the transition back to the role of a student.

Fortunately, many employers offer competitive benefits that include continuing education support to full-time employees who are enrolled in part-time graduate programs aligned with business needs, such as a MBA or a non-thesis master’s in engineering. The curricula and flexible scheduling in these academic programs allow working professionals to complete coursework during evenings and on weekends (typically within 1-2 years) without having to sacrifice employment.

However, what if you are interested in an advanced degree that requires a full-time commitment for several years or longer, such as a thesis-based master’s, Ph.D., or even a law or medical degree? The transition from working professional back to full-time student presents a unique set of challenges compared to the more conventional route of entering graduate school straight from a baccalaureate.

Foregoing salary and work experience.

The opportunity cost of leaving a secure job to attend graduate school full-time is high, both in terms of time and money. While a master’s thesis can be completed in less than two years, there is usually not a definitive timeline for completion of a doctorate, which can take from 4 to 6 years. If your ambitions include becoming a faculty member or medical doctor, then you need to factor in several additional years of postdoctoral study or residency after graduate school before your hard-earned degree will start paying dividends for you.

Engineering graduate programs offer assistantship or fellowship positions, which subsidize the cost of tuition and provide a salary stipend (ChE graduate stipends are among the highest) so that you can obtain an advanced degree and maintain a reasonable living standard without incurring debt. In contrast professional degree programs, such as medical or law school, usually require you to finance the entire cost of attendance on your own.

You should carefully weigh the combined loss of potential income and professional experience during this period of study as it will be significant.

Re-establishing academic momentum.

When you attend graduate school immediately after college, you maintain the continuity of being in an academic environment where you are accustomed to being a student and course topics are still fresh in your mind. Returning to the classroom after an extended absence and, for example, attempting to solve partial differential equations is like trying to run a marathon when you are out of shape. The first semester of graduate school can feel much like boot camp, but with proper focus, organization, and tenacity, the duration of such discomfort can be minimized.

Overcoming the “80/20” mindset.

Most engineers are familiar with the Pareto Principle, which states that approximately 80% of the benefit is derived from 20% of the effort. While the 80/20 rule is useful for maximizing efficiency in an industrial setting where the primary focus is profitability, graduate school demands a different type of rigor for maximizing knowledge gain and examining problems at a deeper fundamental level. A Ph.D., in particular, requires patience and a love of research since the objective of your dissertation is to become the leading subject matter expert in your area of specialization. Although your niche is narrow, you need to learn how to dig as deep as possible to contribute new knowledge that advances the field beyond the current state-of-the-art.

While you will likely face the above hurdles, there are several advantages to you to entering graduate school after full-time work experience. I will discuss these advantages in my next article, which will appear in the June 30 YP newsletter.