Back to School: 10 Questions to Ask When Searching for an Online Grad School Program

October 31, 2016

[david mcg]
[david mcg]

I had my first serious thoughts about going to graduate school in 1990. My sense was that I might like to work in a college classroom someday sharing my professional experiences with PR students, and I knew I would need an advanced degree to do that.

Fast forward a quarter of a century later, and I have finally reached my goal. After enrolling in an online program in 2014, I graduated with a Master of Science in Communication degree from Purdue University in May 2016 — a mere 34 years after earning my bachelor’s.

Now that I have finished, I realize I have some insight into the processes of applying to and succeeding in an online environment that I didn’t have before. So to help you determine whether an online master’s degree program is right for you, here’s a list of 10 questions you might want to ask in your graduate school search:

1. When should I go back to school?

The best answer is whenever you have the time to do the work and the drive to succeed. We had a good mix of recent graduates, mid-level professionals and even a few senior practitioners. For me, updating my professional knowledge and skills even three decades after receiving my bachelor’s degree was a great way to re-energize myself about public relations.

2. Do I have to take an admissions test?

Unofficially, I’ll say “no.” At the time I applied to my program, it was a requirement — although I’ve seen that some programs now advertise it isn’t necessary. I asked for and received a waiver, and if you’ve been out of school for a while you may be able to receive one, too. It can’t hurt to ask.

3. Will I have time to do anything else but work all day and study all night?

In my experience, not really. If you schedule your time well, then you’ll still have time for a few outings and social engagements a month. But you’re going to be busy several evenings a week and on most weekends. The university told me the program would take 15 to 20 hours per week, and that was pretty accurate.

4. What’s the schedule for a typical week?

Find out whether every class in the program follows the same weekly routine. Throughout our whole program, for example, we had work due each Wednesday night. So I was busy during the first half of each week reading for several hours nightly, and then writing for a couple of hours more by Wednesday at midnight. That left Thursday or Friday night free before I worked on the big projects on the weekends. Other students told me they studied on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, which left Tuesday and Thursday nights open for other activities.

5. What does the academic calendar look like?

Find out if you get any breaks during the year. The program I was in provided a terrific four-week break from mid-December to mid-January. During the other 48 weeks of the year, though, we were busy studying. For me, that became challenging near the end of that long stretch in the fall semester.

6. When do I have to attend class?

We didn’t have any set times to be online or in class. We had weekly reading to do, assignments to complete and deadlines to meet. But we never had to be online at any specific time. That provided us with great flexibility, but also required self-discipline.

7. What are the qualifications of the faculty?

The majority of my instructors were Ph.D.s who were very qualified and taught full time. We did have a couple of non-Ph.D.s on the faculty, and they were knowledgeable, senior practitioners who knew their stuff and had experience teaching in the classroom or virtual classroom.

8. How much interaction should I expect from the online faculty?

It’s harder to get to know people online than it is in person, of course. Yet the best professors interacted with and were quite engaged with their students anyway. They participated actively in weekly discussions, prepared lessons and videos for the students and created a positive learning environment. Not all of them were that active all the time, but the best ones were.

9. What is the grading system like?

Understandably, it’s tougher in grad school than it is in undergrad. They expect you to do “A” work and will accept “B” work. “C” work is a no-go. If you can’t keep a 3.0 GPA, then you’re not going to make it.

10. What’s the secret to getting good grades?

It seems simple, but it’s not always that easy. Follow the directions, meet your deadlines and remember what class you’re in. I found if I read the directions for each assignment carefully and then followed them precisely, I had no problems. I also made sure I had the right focus in each class. While the projects were similar in some courses, the focus had to change depending on the specific course I was in.

Finally, when you’re doing your due diligence on any program you’re interested in, consider asking the admissions adviser if you can speak with a couple of current students. They’ll likely have some terrific insights that can help your decision-making.

John Hoffmann

John Hoffmann is marketing and communication leader for Payix, Inc., a fintech firm in Fort Worth, Texas. He has held PR leadership positions and has been a PRSA member since 1993. Email: LinkedIn: Twitter: @jhhoffmann2.


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