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Is an Online Master’s Degree Right for Me? A Guide for Working Professionals

Attending graduate school while maintaining a career is no small feat. If you’re unsure whether this path is right for you, use this guide to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of earning an online master’s degree while working full time.

Author: Angela Myers

Editor: Staff Editor

Two women, one black and one caucasian, smiling and discussing a document in a modern office setting with colleagues in the background.

For Eva Keller, getting a master’s degree was the next viable step for her career in hospitality and tourism. But stepping away from her full-time job — even to attend graduate school — would have eliminated consistent income for tuition payments. As a compromise, Keller balanced her full-time job and graduate school. While it wasn’t easy, she was able to build a career in the travel and tourism industry that made earning her online master’s degree worthwhile.

Keller isn’t alone in this balancing act. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce, a quarter of employees are getting their degrees while working. If you’re reading this article, you most likely are considering the pros and cons of becoming part of that 25%.

Knowing which option to choose — quitting your job and attending graduate school full-time, balancing both, or forgoing the graduate degree — isn’t easy. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each choice before making a decision.

To help, this guide covers the professional, financial, and personal pros and cons of getting a master’s degree while working full time. After reading, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether you think it’s worthwhile to balance both. Should you decide to attend graduate school and work full time, we’ve also included free resources and Keller’s first-hand advice to make the balancing act easier.

Academic Pros and Cons for Working Master’s Students

You may be wondering whether online master’s degree programs provide the same quality education as traditional, on-campus options. After all, you don’t want to spread yourself thin maintaining school and work for a low-quality education. Fortunately, today’s technology has allowed prestigious universities (hello, Harvard) to offer online curricula rivaling their on-campus counterparts. Also, you do not need to disclose whether your degree was earned online to potential employers.

To add to this, many of the academic advantages offered by online master’s degree programs are particularly helpful for busy working professionals who cannot relocate or attend school full time. Thanks to these benefits, 17.2% of all master’s degrees were earned by online students in 2021.

Despite these advantages, however, balancing an education and career can also come with academic drawbacks. Review the table below to better weigh the academic pros and cons of earning an online master’s degree while working, along with some helpful strategies.

Pros

  • Better program choices. Earning a master’s degree online allows you to choose from a wide variety of schools and programs, rather than being limited by your location.
  • Fewer admission requirements. Many online degree programs waive traditional requirements like the GRE and the GMAT.
  • Learn from anywhere. Virtual programs allow you to study anywhere, anytime — a crucial benefit for busy working professionals.
  • Self-paced learning. Whether you want to earn your degree quickly or take your time, online master’s programs allow you to balance your career and obligations.

Cons

  • Potential burnout. Balancing an education and career is intellectually demanding and can result in burnout if not carefully managed.
  • Fewer opportunities to connect. While you can virtually connect with professors and peers, online learning does not allow you to socialize or network as well as on-campus programs.
  • Less time to dedicate to your studies. Working full-time means you will not be able to fully dedicate yourself to your education.
  • Suffering performance. If you are spreading yourself too thin, your performance may suffer at school, work, or both.

Strategies

  • Consider your workload. Map out your work schedule and choose an online master’s program with a workload and timeline that fit into your career/obligations, so you don’t spread yourself too thin.
  • Create a schedule. Plan out when you will study, work, relax, and so on to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
  • Draw upon academic resources. Whether it’s virtual study groups or office hours, online programs offer many tools to help connect and gain support.

Financial Pros and Cons for Working Master’s Students

With the average master’s degree in the United States costing $65,135, graduate school isn’t an investment to be made lightly. Fortunately, many students find that applying for financial aid opportunities can bring down the cost.

Working college students have at least two more financial aid options that are unique to their situation. The first and most obvious is that they receive consistent paychecks, which can ease the financial burden of an online master’s degree. The other resource designed exclusively for working professionals is employer tuition assistance. About 56% of employers offer this perk, which can greatly offset the cost of your degree.

However, working full time and attending school comes at a cost. Your income can impact your eligibility for need-based financial aid, and you might have to reduce your hours to make time for your degree. Below, find a handy list of more pros and cons of earning a master’s degree while working, along with some helpful strategies.

Pros

  • Earn income while learning. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that you earn a consistent salary while attending school, which can help pay tuition.
  • Save money. Often, online programs have lower tuition prices. Even if you attend a program with the same in-person and online tuition rates, you’ll reduce transportation costs and eliminate some campus fees.
  • Graduate with little to no debt. If a no-debt experience is important, funding your online master’s degree with income from your job is one of the best strategies to make that goal a reality.

Cons

  • Education may negatively impact financial aid eligibility. When it comes to need-based aid, such as federal aid determined by the FAFSA, full-time workers are less attractive candidates because aid is determined by a student’s income.
  • Education may negatively impact income. Graduate school takes a significant chunk of time and brain power, making it difficult to balance with a full-time job. To compensate, you may have to work fewer hours, resulting in smaller paychecks.
  • Ineligible for many graduate assistantships. Graduate programs often offer research and teaching assistantships, and these awards often come with tuition waivers and/or a stipend. However, a common stipulation is that a student can’t work full time somewhere else while completing an assistantship.

Strategies

  • Ask your employer about tuition assistance. Many employers will reimburse part or all of your tuition. To discover if your company offers this benefit, consult with HR.
  • Research federal work-study programs. The federal government coordinates a work-study program that supplies part-time jobs for students. Because these jobs are intended for student workers, they’re often easy to balance with coursework.
  • Consider programs with relevant work experience requirements. Often, graduate programs have an experiential component, such as clinical hours or an internship. In some programs, your job counts as your experiential component. In others, you’ll have to complete this on top of school and your job. To make your degree easier, find a program with the former.

Professional Pros and Cons for Working Master’s Students

For many working professionals, the main benefit of an online graduate degree is that it boosts your resume and opens up new challenges and opportunities. In fact, 84% of employees said that getting a degree while working better prepared them for future career moves, such as applying for a promotion or a new job.

Yet for some, balancing a graduate degree with their full-time work can negatively impact their career, especially if their degree trains them to enter a different field.

To better understand how a graduate degree will impact your current and future career, consider the pros, cons, and strategies in the table below.

Pros

  • Learn skills to further your current career. There’s only so much you can learn on the job. A degree can provide additional knowledge that could be useful, such as leadership strategies or new technologies in your field.
  • Gain immediate, real-world experience. If you work while getting your degree, you have immediate real-world experience, which can make you a more attractive candidate when applying to new roles.
  • Network as you learn. Many schools offer networking programs for their online graduate students. For more, check out our guide to networking in graduate school.

Cons

  • Employers may not be supportive if your degree and career don’t align. If you’re currently a digital marketing manager but want to go back to school to become a nurse, your current employer may not be supportive of your decision. This could lead to professional strain or hiding the academic part of your life from your employer and coworkers.
  • Work may suffer if school is too demanding. If your work begins to suffer thanks to a few too many late-night study sessions, your employer probably won’t be happy.
  • Work FOMO. Getting your graduate degree may mean missing out on work events. While skipping the company Christmas party to study may not impact your career, passing an important project off to a coworker may win them a promotion over you.

Strategies

  • Consider your career goals. Before attending graduate school, write down what you hope to achieve through your graduate degree. You could freehand journal about this or make a bulleted list.
  • Speak with your employer. To learn how an online master’s degree could impact your current role and future opportunities, talk with your boss or a trusted mentor at work. To avoid any surprises, put time on their calendar in advance to discuss graduate school.
  • Earn a degree in your current field. If you want an easier degree to complete, choose one that builds off your experience. This creates resume alignment between your education and experience.

Personal Pros and Cons for Working Master’s Students

Graduate school can be full of new challenges and personal growth. However, it also eats up a large chunk of your free time, especially if you add 40+ hours of weekly work on top of completing your degree. And unfortunately, that lack of free time can lead to increased stress and less time for self-care.

A 2014 study looked at burnout and depression rates among graduate students, finding that those juggling 20 hours of work or more a week on top of graduate school were more susceptible to both.

To better understand how graduate school and working full time may impact your personal life, explore the insights below.

Pros

  • Flexible schedule to accommodate other responsibilities. An online degree is often more flexible than an in-person one. This is especially true of asynchronous degrees.
  • Earn your degree at your preferred pace. Many online programs include asynchronous video modules that can be taken at your own pace. This makes your coursework easier to balance with a full-time job.
  • New and exciting challenges. Research suggests we are mentally healthier when taking on new challenges and learning new things. A graduate degree is a structured, effective way to do this.

Cons

  • Less time for relationships/hobbies. As a working graduate student, your weekly book club meeting might be swapped with an evening lecture, or your Saturdays running in the park might have to be cut short to study. For many, graduate school and working full time leaves little room for hobbies.
  • Potential isolation. Working graduate students hover between two worlds — academia and work — and are never fully a part of either. This can be an isolating experience, considering few people in either world understand the struggle.
  • Chance of burning out. Research indicates students who work full time have a higher risk of burnout and depression.

Strategies

  • Consider your current obligations. Write down a list of all your obligations and social events outside of work. Rank each of them in terms of happiness, the time they take up, and your willingness to let them go if needed. This will help you figure out how to balance personal hobbies and obligations with work and school.
  • Incorporate time for self-care. Self-care doesn’t have to take hours, but it should be on your calendar. For self-care ideas, check out our guide to managing stress in graduate school.
  • Reach out to your support system. While balancing graduate school and working full time can feel isolating, you’re not alone. Check-in with friends and family frequently while balancing both.

Resources to Help Obtain Your Master’s While Working Full-Time

Now that you’ve weighed the pros and cons of getting your master’s degree while working full-time, you’re in a better position to make a decision. Should your choice include applying to online master’s programs, you’ll have resources at your disposal to help you balance work and school. We’ve compiled 15 of the most useful below.

If you need more time to decide, bookmark this page and return to these resources if you choose to get your master’s while working full time.

In Your Shoes: Interview with a Working Master’s Degree Student

EvaKeller

Eva Keller is a travel and tourism professional with over 10 years in the industry. She completed her master’s in hospitality and tourism from the University of Central Florida online while working both a full-time and part-time job. Currently, she shares travel tips on a blog she writes with her partner called Discovering Hidden Gems. Read on to discover her advice about balancing work with graduate school.

Can you please introduce yourself and briefly discuss your experience with online education and its impact on your career?

I attended grad school online from 2017-2019 to get my master’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from the University of Central Florida while working the front desk full time at a Hilton hotel. Six months in, I also started a part-time job at Disneyland.

Why did you decide to do an online master’s degree while working full time?

I started my first semester partially on campus and partially online. I had just come off of an internship at Disneyland and moved back to Orlando to do another internship at Disney World while starting grad school. But I desperately wanted to go back to California to be with the person who is now my husband. I found that my entire degree program could be completed online, so I made it happen.

Did earning an online degree benefit your career in any unforeseen ways?

Because I got my degree online, I was able to give full availability to my jobs because I didn’t have a set time I needed to be in a classroom. This worked favorably for me as I was considered reliable and the go-to person to call up whenever they needed a shift covered. Also, being in a different time zone didn’t make a difference since nothing was live in the courses. I was also able to travel to visit family in Ohio and Florida for fun and a funeral throughout the semester without missing class.

What was your go-to time management strategy while in graduate school?

Having a planner where I filled in my work schedule and blocked out time for school was just easy. I also fit school around my hobbies and free time. I remember being in hotels or driving to national parks, and I’d be taking a quiz on my laptop before whatever activity we had planned for the day.

How do successful online students strike a harmonious balance between their career, personal life, and academic pursuits, and what common pitfalls should they watch out for?

I think the best way to have a good work/life/school balance is to not overcommit yourself in any area. If you’re already strapped for time before starting grad school, go slowly. Only take one or two classes at a time and do the summer semesters if they’re offered, so it doesn’t take you five-plus years for a degree that’s usually a two- to three-year commitment.

What strategies or lesser-known tactics have you seen working professionals use effectively to manage their time and responsibilities while enrolled in online master's programs?

Research the classes being offered and who’s teaching them. I remember there was a class that a couple of different professors taught. All the reviews said to go with one professor over the other because their version of the class was way easier, they graded easier, and the workload was smaller. Most programs require you to maintain a B average or higher to stay in the program, which will be much easier with certain classes and supportive professors.

What advice would you give to others who are trying to decide if they want to attend graduate school while working full time?

You have to decide what’s most important to you as well. If working up the corporate ladder is the goal, take your time through grad school. If getting the degree done as soon as possible is the most important, take the full course load each semester, and find a way to live on less money in the meantime. If you have children or just a busy personal life and you don’t want to stop spending time with friends and family, take a smaller course load. Make graduate school work for your life, not the other way around.