To Grad School or to Not to Grad School?
October 3, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

I can't afford to go to graduate school. I also can't afford not to go to graduate school. tl;dr galore inside.

I have a lot of debt that is slowly getting paid down. I have two small children and am married. I've been at my current higher education office monkey job since I graduated college 10 years ago. I attempted to pursue a Masters degree, but kept getting waylaid by baby-having. My kids are finally at an age where grad school is possible time-wise, but not money wise.

I have no hope that I will advance where I am at this point, and I no longer want to pursue my graduate degree in my previous field. And even if I did, because I've been absent so long, I'd have to completely start over so when I found that out, I really evaluated my situation.

I want to pursue communications disorders/speech pathology. I want to work with children in a public school or clinic setting. All the programs in my area (there are 4 nearby and one more a bit away, but I could swing it) require full-time attendance for two years. There is no way to do this part-time. And I can't move. Geographically I need to stay where I am. There is exactly ONE online program in this field, and it's looking like it'll be the best fit for my life if I can get in, but there are some problems with it in terms of finding internships where I live for the second year of study.

If I went to graduate school, I'd come out making at least what I'm making now with an opportunity to earn more over time while right now I've pretty much reached my maximum earning potential in this job.

I'm also bored all the time. The thought of doing this job for thirty more years has me in tears. I do my job incredibly efficiently that I end up working for only half a day and trying to fill the other half of the day with....something. I am also at the point where accepting new responsibilities without an appropriate promotion would be taking an advantage of my skill set. Everyone thinks I'm nice and efficient and really good at what I do and capable of doing more, but they don't want to pay me to do it. And I won't work for free. I am a team player, but there have to be limits, and after taking on added responsibilities consistently and proving myself over and over, I refuse to take on any more. My immediate supervisors would love to pay me more, but it doesn't rely with them to do so. They have to make an argument to our dean, who has to make an argument to HR, and HR is going to pooh-pooh the thought because of how positions are structured. If I get it, so does everyone else at my level, even though we're not unionized.

I don't know what more I could do to possibly prove myself to the people above my supervisors. And HR is a far removed office here --- they make no hiring or firing decisions, so there's nothing that they can do for me.

And I really just want to go back to school, but it'd be $60k for a two year program if I did it full-time here. The online program would be $30k. And I already have $45k in student loan debt I'm paying off diligently. I know Metafilter is going to say there's no way I should go to grad school since I can't possibly pay for it outright, but I don't know what else to do, either. I can't stay here forever. I apply for positions left and right, and I've only had a handful of interviews, and I never get hired --- even though I get incredibly personalized "You are amazing!" rejection letters instead of the standard, "Thank you, we've found someone who suits our needs" rejection letters.

I'm just so weighed down that I may never get anywhere professionally, but I'm also realistic about my financial situation. So, do I stagnate here forever? Do I screw the usual advice and apply to grad school and see what happens? Or do I move from one office monkey job to another and stagnate there instead?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the communications disorders/speech pathology field, but why not look for a program with full funding? In addition to online only programs there are also programs that are minimal residency - would it be feasible for you to spend a week to three weeks a year at school, and do the rest virtually? You might see if there are any programs like that out there.

Have you explored whether work might help you with financing? Even if they can't offer you a tangible raise, any chance that the school you work for would let you go to school for free there (if there is a program that would work for you)? If they can't offer you help financing school, can they offer you the ability to flex your time or work virtually so you could consider an in-person program or some other thoughts?

Have you explored whether there might be financial aid you could apply for, as a non-traditional student, parent, returning to school as an adult?

Before you commit limited resources (time and money) to this online program, please do some informational interviews in your desired field - there are online programs that are well accepted in the professional fields and online programs that really will limit your ability to succeed in your chosen field.
posted by arnicae at 10:47 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Asking my mother, who is a retired professor in this field. BRB.
posted by mrfuga0 at 10:47 AM on October 3, 2013

I know Metafilter is going to say there's no way I should go to grad school since I can't possibly pay for it outright...

Is this for an SLP degree? Generally that advice applies to things that aren't, effectively, vocational degrees like SLP (and OT and so on.)

With an SLP degree, you just have to start crunching the numbers. What are your chances for employment? How much money does your state/county throw at disabled kids? There's places where an SLP degree is a nearly-assured job after graduation -- densely-populated areas where people raise families -- there's places where the degree won't mean a thing until you find someone willing to hire you. With your issue re: finding internships, it sounds like you seem to be in the latter, which is a very, very good reason to re-think your strategy especially if you wouldn't be receiving any financial support for this degree and already have $45K worth of debt.

If it is not an SLP degree, please ignore my advice. I know a bunch of SLP folks, but pretty ignorant of the field otherwise.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

OK let's start with the "You are amazing!" rejection letters. What in the world is that all about?
posted by Dansaman at 10:55 AM on October 3, 2013

If I get it, so does everyone else at my level, even though we're not unionized.

This is a fundamentally broken organization if your performance is not tied to your pay and you are not unionized. You have all the costs of unionization without any of the benefits. That said, you can always suggest compensation in other ways. For instance, higher education reimbursement is a very common professional benefit. To you, this is effectively the same thing. However, it costs less to the employer because fewer people will take advantage of the benefit.

I know Metafilter is going to say there's no way I should go to grad school since I can't possibly pay for it outright

This advice is fundamentally true. I've never seen a case where getting into debt for a master's degree makes sense. You should either be paid to get a master's degree or have your employer pay for the bulk of the degree or be able to pay for the degree without debt. Unlike a bachelor's degree or PhD degrees, masters' degrees rarely provide a salary increase commensurate with their price, making them fundamentally bad investments. That said, I'm unfamiliar with your field to say that definitively.

I apply for positions left and right, and I've only had a handful of interviews, and I never get hired

There are two problems with this statement that I think you should resolve before pursuing an unfunded masters' degree:
  1. Would a masters' degree actually cause you to be hired? It could very well be the case potential employers are either looking for someone less qualified (costing less money) or that they simply don't have any money to hire anyone at any cost. You need to describe your local market to justify the cost of a $30K-$60K investment.
  2. How long is "never"? It's quite common these days for a job search to take a year these days.

posted by saeculorum at 10:55 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just for reference, most people I know doing SLP went into it specifically for the job security and the money, because around here the city and state funnel good amounts of money to therapy centers, there's a lot of kids, and a really established infrastructure. Getting an internship in the general sense wasn't an issue for anyone because there are many, many places doing SLP.

Would a masters' degree actually cause you to be hired?

If the OP is talking about a speech-language pathology degree, it's required to practice as as speech therapist. There's other certifications required as well, but like any other sort of therapist, you can't practice without the Master's.
posted by griphus at 10:58 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

SLP is a vocational degree. It isn't like getting a master's in history or something. The employment outlook is very, very good. Last time I checked there was less than 1% unemployment for ASHA certified SLPs. The pay isn't amazing, exactly, especially if you work in public schools, but it isn't terrible either.

SLP programs are not going to be funded, generally. However, if you're competitive, there's a chance you can get a TA of RA position in the program which will help reduce your costs. You won't really know that though until you apply and are accepted somewhere.

I know the online degree is cheaper, but really, if you're going to go for your SLP, the residential programs are worth it and will probably help you secure a better position in the long term. Being able to have consistent, supervised clinic hours is critical both to becoming just a good SLP and to getting that ASHA cert.

The other thing is - do you have a BS in communication science? Master's in SLP programs require a number of pre-reqs, which you'll have to complete before you start a grad program. Usually courses in A&P, speech and language disorders, normal language development, stats and phonetics. ASHA cert requires you also to have physics or chemistry and biology, which you could do in the grad program, but it's much easier to do it before.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:59 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you may be overlooking opportunities to move out of your current organization and take your skills to another company and make more money.

I'm in that place right now where I work. Luckily, I have 3 different jobs I'm in the interview process with and I'm hoping to increase my salary by about 25% once I'm offered a new position.

I say keep at it, tailor your resume to each job. Add to your skillset. Learn an ERP, or a CRM, or other new software. You can usually do this on line, with some cursory tutorials, enough that you can claim familiarity with the system. Each system is going to be customized anyway, so no matter where you land, you'll have to learn their version of it.

If you're getting into something like SLP for the money and the security, I'd really hesitate and suggest you re-think. I think you need to have a passion for the work, or else you'll be bored and restless and looking again in another few years.

Also, welcome to the working week. All jobs get boring after awhile. That's the nature of the beast.

I say give it a good faith effort to get a new job with better pay and more challenge BEFORE falling into the trap of "Oh! More School Is The Answer!"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:03 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also wanted to add that I work full-time for a university, and recently completed a post-bacc in speech and hearing science, with about a hundred other post-bacc students who needed to do the pre-reqs to become SLPs. All were at very different stages of their lives. It's definitely doable if you are willing to put in the work. But yes, you do truly have to want to do the work of speech language pathology.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:06 AM on October 3, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
1. I live in a major metropolitan Eastern US area. There is tons of money thrown at schools and special needs children and laws regarding insurance benefits for special needs children and a pretty solid market for SLPs, PTs, OTs, etc.

2. The rejection letters I've gotten have been for other office monkey jobs that are primarily closer to home within the higher education field. I apply for them in part because they'd cut my commute drastically. I interview well. The rejection letters are more personalized (I write rejection letters as part of my job, so I am very familiar with different tiers of rejection letters) and specifically reference my very specific experience. "You were an impressive candidate, and your [very particular special projects listed on my resume] included exactly what we were seeking in a candidate. However, we selected another candidate [generic reason here]." One person who interviewed me told me she'd do her best to get me fast tracked for an interview at that organization if another position opened, which hasn't happened.

3. My current employer only offers tuition reimbursement for programs done here at this school. My current employer does not have a graduate degree I am interested in pursuing. There is no exchange offered to employees, though if my kids were college aged, they would benefit from tuition exchange (which can also only be used at the undergraduate level.)

4. I want to do an SLP degree because I want to work with little kids, but I don't want to be a teacher, and because having a special needs child myself, I have seen the amazing work SLPs do firsthand. I decided on an SLP degree because it is flexible in the organizations that can be worked for (clinics, schools, hospitals, Early Intervention) and across the lifespan (helping little babies eat or helping an elderly stroke victim get his voice back). I have a language background and a counseling background that could be applied to this profession as well.

5. I can't move because my husband has a job, too. My son is receiving services that are protected very specifically by laws in our state that are not nearly as comprehensively protected in other states (which is also why there's a huge market for this profession in this area! And OTs and PTs and autism workers and recreational activities for people with special needs, etc.). I've done really hardcore research on that, and it's not a risk I'm willing to take. Moving to another state would be disastrous. And our life is here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:26 AM on October 3, 2013

Look into other kinds of therapy or similar fields. Keep in mind that limited grad school options have a positive effect on salaries and job opportunities.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:27 AM on October 3, 2013

Get together with an firmly established SLP person in your area, and ask them about their career trajectory, past and current salary, current events in SLP (especially regarding funding trends; check out what's going on with Early Intervention in NY, for instance) etc. Then figure out if taking on the debt will even out with your projected salary, counting the two years of missed (or halved) income, the needs of your family as your kids get older, and so on.

If the projection for employment is good enough for you to take the risk, then the question becomes is this the right set of circumstances for you personally, and that will depend almost entirely on your finances. If you have a very good chance at a future salary that will make $105K of debt less of a load to bear than $45K of debt at your current salary, then it might be a good idea.

My mom got a master's in Rehab Therapy in her 40s (when I was in high school) but that was funded by the state, who was her employer. She started in a rehab-related position where only certification was required, and eventually got to the point where they wanted her to become an actual therapist, and offered to pay for her way. If you can land a job working with SLPs, a similar thing may open up as an option.
posted by griphus at 11:55 AM on October 3, 2013

Graduate and professional degrees are good for advancing in your current career, but are a very bad investment for changing careers. Other than school, what could you do now to put you on that career path? Could you get a job in a hospital which would pay for schooling and certification.

Also, considering your geographic needs I would not look at an online program that did not have excellent local ties and internship opportunities.
posted by 26.2 at 12:02 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in a post-bac program for communication disorders now, with the intention of going on for my master's in speech language pathology. If you need to do a post-bac to get pre-reqs for a master's, which is likely unless you majored in COMD as an undergrad, it can be done part-time on-line; this is what I'm doing now (I have three kids, two of whom I homeschool). There are more than one on-line SLP programs, many of which are part-time. Some require residencies of some period of weeks once or twice during the program. One of the students in my program put together this list of on-line programs recently.

I plan to borrow money for my degree. We are living on my partner's salary now, so unlike you I won't have to take a cut in pay myself to do the degree, but we won't be able to pay cash for tuition. But I expect my total indebtedness to be quite a bit less than the average starting salary, and has been said up-thread, there is pretty much full employment for SLPs--every program near where I live has 100% in-field job placement for graduates. So it doesn't feel like the kind of mistake that borrowing money to go to school in 18th Century Andalusian Puppetry might be. But, as griphus said, that may not be true in your area. Hopefully the schools you're interested in also publish their Praxis exam pass rates and employment statistics.
posted by not that girl at 12:07 PM on October 3, 2013

Sounds like you might be in PA. If you are by any chance in Pittsburgh, shoot me a MeFiMail and let me see if I can hook you up with a former colleague of mine. She is an SLP with both clinical and research experience at one of the universities here, and also knows a lot about the autism services available here if you're specifically interested in that as a specialty.

She always seems to be thrilled to talk to people thinking about going down the SLP road, I bet she could give you some good insider information on the local programs, internship possibilities, etc.
posted by Stacey at 12:14 PM on October 3, 2013

Universities are ordinarily big places. There's no chance for you to move to another department where you might be able to advance above your current level?

Also, if you're getting rejection letters like those you described, you're absolutely on the cusp of getting hired. Those kinds of letters make me think they may have already had someone in mind, and you'd have gotten the job had that not been the case.

This whole thing on some level is a math problem. Presumably, you're going to have to leave your full time gig for two years, leading to drastically lower pay during that period.

You'll be $100,000 in debt, with the student loan payments that go along with that. You're going to need to find local work and you're competing with many (most?) of the people who graduate from each of the four programs in the next two years. This might be fine, or it might be a big problem. Local competition at the entry level might be the biggest issue, since you can't move.

Can you afford to get by on less for the next two years?
Can you *really* find entry level work in two years that pays decently?
Can you afford the increased student loan payments on the salary you'll get?

@gryphus is right. Interview one or more existing SLPs before you start.
posted by cnc at 12:29 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you get an office job at one of the local universities that has the master's program you want to do, and take the classes using the tuition benefit? I know you're having trouble finding a new job, but from what you've said it sounds like you are very close and it's just a question of time.

Also, please be aware that deciding your husband's job means you absolutely can't move is a typical way that women lower the priority of their own happiness and hurt themselves economically. Is he working locked in a dungeon where he can literally never get out? I get that there are huge advantages to staying in your state, but allowing yourself to consider an in-state move could open up some possibilities.
posted by medusa at 1:09 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

"This advice is fundamentally true. I've never seen a case where getting into debt for a master's degree makes sense. You should either be paid to get a master's degree or have your employer pay for the bulk of the degree or be able to pay for the degree without debt. Unlike a bachelor's degree or PhD degrees, masters' degrees rarely provide a salary increase commensurate with their price, making them fundamentally bad investments. That said, I'm unfamiliar with your field to say that definitively."

I am not familiar with your field and I am not suggesting that you should or should not take a Master's. I paid for my Master's degree myself, and it did eventually pay off in terms of opportunity ir not necessarily money. (I'd probably be unemployed now because of the corporate world's war of attrition against my technical skills, so it's possible that it did pay off financially but I guess I'll never know.)

Also, it sounds like you're very close to being hired. You are getting interviews, many people don't get any. And employers don't give out good feedback just to be nice, believe me.
posted by tel3path at 5:29 PM on October 3, 2013

Graduate and professional degrees are good for advancing in your current career, but are a very bad investment for changing careers

This is 100% absolutely, positively untrue for masters-level allied health professional programs. Often licensure is linked directly linked to completing a didactic/clinical degree, and there is literally no other avenue into the profession. Very occasionally non-degreed practitioners will be grandfathered in, but the overall direction is away from training on the job and toward formal, graduate-level education followed by certification.
posted by pullayup at 6:37 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not exactly. Yes, people need to meet the license requirements which may include a graduate degree. But having a license doesn't mean you'll find work particularly if you have narrow geographic constraints.

Case in point, hospitals - including the hospital system I work for - need nurses. Still fresh graduate nurses struggle to get jobs. Given the choice between a fresh out of school nurse and one who's worked as an EMT or in the hospital system gives a strong leg up. I dread June because I'm going to hear from tons of freshly graduated people who thought a degree or an advanced degree=an instant job.

So yeah, go to school. But get your career moving into that career path so you have a differentiator when you graduate.
posted by 26.2 at 8:08 PM on October 3, 2013

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