How to choose a grad school while balancing loans, career paths, and a serious relationship?
April 5, 2010 5:25 AM   Subscribe

Do I go to grad school, and if so, where? Struggling with the best approach to the decision-making process.

In 2008, I applied to grad school for programs in public health. I didn't have any work experience in the field at the time, but got into every program to which I applied. In 2009, I selected 3 of the schools, accepted the offer but deferred enrollment for 1 year. I also visited each of these 3 schools. Around the same time, I got a job working directly in the field (public health communications firm).

At this time, everything has come down to the wire and I'm really struggling with how to move forward and make a decision. I'm also balancing my boyfriend's hopes and goals, as he's about to complete his undergrad degree and is eager to move to a place where he can pursue his new career (public relations - he's had internships with a large hospital and federal agency, and has a tentative job offer in our current location to work at this agency once he graduates this spring). He's 29 and I'm 28.

I'm gun-shy about signing myself up for more debt, as I already have about $30K in loans from undergrad. I went to an expensive liberal arts college for the first 2 years before transferring to a state school (largely for financial reasons). I'm really loving the job I have now, which I only started last September, and feel I have an opportunity here to learn a lot more about the field and build up some additional work experience before I go off to get my MPH (or MHS, depending on the school/program). However, my boyfriend and I have been planning and saving for the move to what seemed like the top choice school last summer. It's a school with a top-notch reputation in the field, and we both loved the city when we visited last summer. However, it's also very, very expensive, and as of now I have not been able to find any funding from this program, so the total cost of attendance would be all loans - totalling about $70-80K additional on top of my undergrad loans.

I'm starting to reconsider the other 2 schools to which I gave my tentative acceptance, as they are also expensive but did offer me some partial funding. But, I wonder if rather than go to a second-choice program, I should just hold off and work another year or two, then go through the whole re-application process again, hoping that with additional experience and understanding of the field I would have a better shot at funding at my top-choice school. I'm also questioning my reasons for ranking these 3 schools the way I did - I may be dazzled by the reputation of the "first" school, and overlooking some valuable aspects of the others, as they are less prestigious but still have appealing programs.

Lastly, my boyfriend has been really supportive of me through this whole process, but has also been honest about what he hopes to do after he graduates. He liked the "first" school I choose, because it's in a region with many federal agencies and large hospitals where he hopes he would have a good shot at getting a public relations job, based on his extensive internship experiences. He's said he would feel disappointed if we decided to stay in the area another year (it's also the area he grew up in, so he's understandably eager to get out now that he'll have gotten his college degree). Lastly, he's also shared the feeling that he'd rather stay here than move to either of the other 2 schools' cities, as the job market there seems less strong. We've been together for over 5 years and are very strongly committed to staying together.

So, tl;dr. Here are the questions:
Is it crazy to get an MPH, if that means I'll end up with over 6 figures in student loans?
Is it crazy to do that, if I'm going to a top-notch school which hopefully would help me make connections and get a strong start to my career, where that much debt could reasonably be paid off?
Is it crazy for me to leave a job I love, that pays me well, in my chosen field, in this economy?
How do I make the decision in a way that respects both my and my boyfriend's hopes and goals?

Let me know if I can share any more details.
posted by pants to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is it crazy to get an MPH, if that means I'll end up with over 6 figures in student loans?

The answer to this is a function of your expected future income. Do you know what people with MPHs earn in the area you'd want to live? I don't know anything about the industry, so I can't help with specifics. But the ability to finance debt is a function of your future post-tax income.

Is it crazy to do that, if I'm going to a top-notch school which hopefully would help me make connections and get a strong start to my career, where that much debt could reasonably be paid off?

More connections are always better than fewer connections.

Is it crazy for me to leave a job I love, that pays me well, in my chosen field, in this economy?

Personally, I would say yes. But I am also suspicious about education in general and people's willingness to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt specifically.

How do I make the decision in a way that respects both my and my boyfriend's hopes and goals?

Not to be pithy, but that's what relationships are about. Communication and compromise.
posted by dfriedman at 5:47 AM on April 5, 2010


It's almost impossible to give good advice about the future of jobs in the health care field these days. Almost half of national spending on health care comes from the federal government in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. In the short term, hospitals and other health-related employers are starting to put the brakes on new hiring until they figure out what the impact of the recent health care legislation will be. In the long term, federal health care spending seems likely to either experience drastic cuts--the recent bill would impose double-digit cuts--or cause a serious fiscal crisis in the next decade or so. It's entirely possible that both could happen. This means that predicting the state of the health care market in even a few years is a really dicey proposition.

For your purposes, this means that getting an MPH, which was already a riskier move than getting an MD or RN, is even less secure, especially since you'll be going deep into debt to finance it. $100k in school loans is about $1000 a month in debt service for ten years. Which means that you'd need to ear about $15k more a year than your current salary to just break even financially.

Seems to me like given the facts that you've presented, staying put makes a lot of sense. You like your job, it's in your chosen field, you're getting good experience, and it's possible that your boyfriend isn't going anywhere for a while. School will be there any time you want it to be, and who knows, after another three or four years of experience you might get even better offers than you are now. It's not impossible that you could actually find someone to pay for grad school if you play your cards right.*

Getting an MPH seems like a huge risk for only moderate gain which creates a number of other difficulties for you to deal with. Waiting sounds good.

*Not entirely sure about public health, but I know for a fact this happens in other fields.
posted by valkyryn at 5:51 AM on April 5, 2010


Depending on what piece of the public health field you're interested in, you can get an MPH while working full time. My wife's program (University of Michigan) was one 3- or 4- day weekend per month and took two years. A lot of students were from out of state and just came in for the weekend. They do a lot with distance learning these days, too.

It's not the only program of its type in the country, but it's what I'm familiar with (and I have 4 UM-SPH people in the immediate family so I'm biased). See: http://www.sph.umich.edu/hmp/programs/exec-masters/

It doesn't really address the money side of things, except that you'd still have real income while working on the degree, but you'd be able to stay in the same job.
posted by paanta at 5:53 AM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey. Fellow public health nut and erstwhile MPH applicant (starting MD/MPH in August) here. You didn't say where your schools were, but I'm going to take a big giant guess and assume that your prospects are either in Boston, Research Triangle, or NYC. Congratulations-- those are great schools!

I don't think it's overly crazy to rack up ~$100,000, as long as you know exactly what you want from the program and are entirely sure that it can deliver on those desires. If you're going into it with vague notions of networking but are unsure of your ultimate endpoint, use caution. You'll get plenty of networking in any MPH program, especially if you take some time with NIH RePORTER and find some potential preceptors with big fat grants in your area of interest.

Ultimate job prospects, however, will depend on your MPH track. I'd strongly urge you to concentrate on biostatistics, epidemiology, and research design. Learn SAS, R, and GIS. If you're anything like me, you 'd prefer something a bit sexier-- global health or something like that. Save these interests for your practicum-- employers are going to look more kindly on somone who can run their stats analysis, prepare their IRB application, and make their tables & figures pretty. An MPH or MSPH in biostats/epi will teach you to do all that and put you on track to earn $50-70k as a major contributor to a research team; one in health promotions will probably land you a study coordinator position at ~$35k.

Anyway, congratulations on your acceptances & best of luck in making your decisions. You've chosen a great field full of kind and caring folks.
posted by The White Hat at 6:06 AM on April 5, 2010


And, re: valkyryn's comment...

Just a few thoughts:
-Public health is way broader than the traditional thing we call "health care".

-Healthcare may change drastically, but it's not going to become a significantly smaller segment of the economy. We're hoping to slow its growth, but reversing the trend ain't happening this time.

-Public health types are not necessarily working for traditional hospitals that will be suffering from changes in medic(are|aid). I'd be much more concerned about HHS/NIH funding, which it seems are often unpredictable.

-Public health programs offer great bang-for-the-buck, and in fact the field is quite interested on ROI from very limited funding. That may make it more competitive with medicine.

-An MPH qualifies you for research, administrative and policy work rather than as a caregiver or support. Admin, policy and research could benefit quite a bit from the shake up in the field.

-If you want to wait for things to settle down before getting a degree, you're going to be waiting until your mid-30's at the very least. FWIW, having kids precludes doing the work+degree thing. Factor that in.
posted by paanta at 6:13 AM on April 5, 2010


Can you apply as a PhD student instead, for the free tuition? (Quitting after a master's is considered a slightly jerky thing to do ... but people do it all the time.)
posted by miyabo at 6:21 AM on April 5, 2010


An MPH or MSPH in biostats/epi will teach you to do all that and put you on track to earn $50-70k as a major contributor to a research team; one in health promotions will probably land you a study coordinator position at ~$35k.
This is helpful info. I currently make ~$40k (as a writer/editor for a health communications firm) and am headed in the health communication/health marketing track (ha, that probably counts as 'sexy'). It's easy to imagine that I could come out of an MPH program and make less than I do now, making my debt load unrealistic.

Can you apply as a PhD student instead, for the free tuition?
Most (if not all) doctoral programs in public health require a Master's degree - I don't think I've come across a PhD public health program that I would qualify for given that I only have a BA.

...as long as you know exactly what you want from the program and are entirely sure that it can deliver on those desires.
Yes. This. What concrete steps (informational interviews??) can I take to find answers to these questions? What steps have other people taken to confirm that a particular graduate program is right for them?

Not to be pithy, but that's what relationships are about. Communication and compromise.
I would love to hear from other people who made a decision about moving to a new city to attend grad school, while balancing a partner's career goals.
posted by pants at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2010


Can you speak to the top-choice school about the funding? Sometimes if you speak to admissions/financial aid about how you really want to go but the funding is an issue, they magically find wiggle room.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:02 AM on April 5, 2010


pants: "What concrete steps (informational interviews??) can I take to find answers to these questions? What steps have other people taken to confirm that a particular graduate program is right for them?"

Know what job you want and in what sector. Academic? Nonprofit? Private? Government? Federal or state/local? CDC or PHS? Find someone with the job you want and ask about their colleagues' backgrounds. Take your list of potential preceptors and see if you can get copies of their CVs or NIH biosketches. Have they worked where you want to work? Stalk recent alumni on facebook. What are they up to?
posted by The White Hat at 7:23 AM on April 5, 2010


When I decided to start back to grad school at 30 I looked into a few different types of degree/school options. One of the first things I did was make a list of the types of jobs I'd like to have and then search for postings for those jobs to see what the educational requirements for them were. I found that for what I wanted to do the overwhelming majority of job postings were asking for an MSW/LCSW and most of them would not take experience as a substitute so that helped me to make the choice. You might want to do something similar to find out how necessary the degree is to what you want as career options for your future.

I also got a full listing of the curriculum and available classes from all the programs to which I applied. Although I'm paying quite a bit for the private university I selected, they had far more options than any other program. For example, my program had 5 options for concentrations, most other programs had 2.

It also looks like public health requires an intership/field practicum component, so available placements are another factor to take into consideration. As you saw with you BF sometimes a good internship can open huge doors, and it has been my experience that some intership locations have exclusive contracts with certain university programs. The school should be able to provide you with a list of places where they have had intership contracts in the past to give you an idea.

For what it's worth, I would not trust the admissions people to give you a full answer to all your questions. I found that I got some information that was not exactly true from them, as it is their job to make their program seem like the most appealing option. See if there are some faculty who are available to email directly you might get more of the information you're looking for from them.

I wish I had something to offer about moving, but since moving out of the area was not an option for me I had to find something local. Good luck!
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 7:39 AM on April 5, 2010


Can you speak to the top-choice school about the funding?
I've gone back to both the financial aid office and the specific department to ask about additional funding. The finaid office offered me a Perkins loan (nice, but still doesn't change the total loan burden), and the department is still considering funding - which makes me think at this late date that it is going to be nil. I've (politely) contacted everyone I know in the department, both faculty and admin folks, about this, and am getting a sinking feeling now that we're into April and still no word.

Know what job you want and in what sector.
My 'dream' job would be coordinating a nation-wide health communication program through a federal agency like the CDC, ideally one that uses mobile technologies and the web in concert with on-the-ground community outreach (I could even be more specific, but I'll hold off on further details for the purposes of this question). The private company I work for already does similar federal contracting work, so it seems like I'm already in a good position, but I know I can't advance too far here without a Masters. I'm sure that I'll need the Masters at some point, whether I stay in the private sector or move to a government track. The question is really whether I need it now, or put it off for another year or few.

The "top" program has a 6-month full-time field placement, and this often happens with top agencies like the National Cancer Institute - so that's certainly valuable. The program that offered me the most funding has a strong community-based program requirement, but is more focused on local community agencies rather than federal / national programs.

I visited all 3 schools this past summer, and met with faculty and current students at 2 of them (the 3rd was out-of-session at the time). I'm currently wondering whether I should dip into my savings to pay for a visit to the 3rd, now that they are in session, to get a stronger sense of whether that one would be right for me (that's the one that offered me the most funding, but has a less well respected reputation and a more local/community focus).
posted by pants at 8:24 AM on April 5, 2010


$70k for a Master's Degree sounds insane to me.
While an MPH is more useful than an MA, it (IMHO) isn't $70k more useful.

Boyfriend issues aside, I'd keep your job and see if there are less fancy pants MPH programs in your area or online that your company can reimburse you for.

Also there are non public health ways to study what you're talking about. My Communication PhD program has a ton of people studying self-efficacy and health, social marketing, food literacy. Many are planning to work at the CDC, NiH, etc.

In my limited exposure to MPHs (n = 6?) (but from UCLA, Berkeley, Columbia, Emory) I felt that their methods, research, design and stats skills were MUCH lower than even 2nd years in my PhD program. YMMV!

I'd look at the income for the positions you'd like and make a pretend budget with student loan payments. I'd guess that you wouldn't be able to make ends meet any better than you are now and maybe worse.
posted by k8t at 9:43 AM on April 5, 2010


pants,

In your current company after a substantial amount of time there I think they would reimburse you if you chose to do a master's and stay with them for a few years.

Maybe you should consider talking to your company about it? Some professions have that, some don't have that. It is worth checking out.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:11 PM on April 5, 2010


As possible balancing thought help, given that you're considering public sector:

Public Employee Loan Forgiveness Program
posted by eleanna at 6:38 PM on April 9, 2010


er. Hit post too soon. It's not the be all/end all, but consider it as a balancing factor, given where you want to work.
posted by eleanna at 6:42 PM on April 9, 2010


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