Words On Wednesday

2017-01-11 Pursuing a Master’s Degree

If everything goes as planned, I should begin classes for a master’s degree in August 2017. I don’t know where I’ll be going yet, or even for what course of study, but I should begin classes of some sort with the fall 2017 semester.

Why now?

The reason I’m pursuing a degree now, as opposed to going immediately after finishing my bachelor’s degree, is because my 5 year employment anniversary with QS/1 gives me access to 50% tuition reimbursement. Having started my internship in July 23, 2012, my 5 years are up in July 2017.

Many people I graduated from Upstate with went directly for a master’s degree. For me, that just didn’t make sense. I was already working as an intern at QS/1, a position that would become full time upon graduating. Why go to grad school, deal with 2 more years of stress, build up student debt that I had thus far avoided, and search frantically for a job later? I had an essentially guaranteed job, making competitive pay, immediately out of school. In my mind, it would be a dumb decision to throw all that away to pursue a master’s degree, especially with a kid on the way.

For a while, I was perfectly content with my education level and situation. Eventually, however, I began to notice a deficit. Any programming positions that opened up with other companies seemed to heavily favor a higher degree. I had some years of experience, sure, but my only paper was a bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t looking for the next train out of QS/1 by any means, but I did want to ensure my employability should we have to move, I get laid off, or any number of unforeseeable circumstances.

Plus, I love school and I’ve had my eyes on a master’s since before I finished my undergrad work. I wanted to go back, I just figured it would be some years down the road before I got the opportunity to. I was perfectly alright with the wait, though.

I looked several times into tuition reimbursement through work, just to make sure I had a solid idea of what the company offered and when I would be eligible to take advantage of that benefit. The biggest threshold that I had to wait for was the seniority requirement. Employees have to be with the company for 5 years before they are able to request tuition reimbursement for a master’s degree.

Coming up on my 5 year employment anniversary, I began looking through the details again. After being with the company for 5 years, I could begin looking into schools and programs. The only problem is that I didn’t know which employment date the company would use.

I technically have 3 start dates with QS/1. I started as an intern on 23 July 2012. After graduation, I went full time on 27 May 2013. They gave me a third date, 1 December 2012, to give me access to PTO days immediately after I went full time, something to do with how they calculate days accrued.

Thinking through the options, I figured my part time start date was the least likely. I didn’t have any insurance or benefits as an intern, so why would it count toward my eligibility for tuition reimbursement? The middle date was much more likely. Since they based PTO on that date, I could reasonably see them using it for other benefits based on seniority as well. My full time start date was also a possibility, though not as likely as the middle date in my mind. They based by company stock purchase eligibility on my full time start date, I believe, but nothing else. In either case, that would make me able to receive tuition reimbursement in December 2017 or May 2018, and both of those would have me starting school in August 2018. I still had a solid year and a half to plan.

I emailed our HR department, asking about which of my 3 start dates would be used, as well as a few questions on the application and approval process. Apparently it was not easy to determine, as my email was forwarded around the department to a few people before I received an answer.

Lo and behold, I was informed that the company would use my internship start date as the date on which they would base my tuition reimbursement eligibility. Well alright… Not what I expected, but we can work with that. Instead of having a comfortable year and a half, I had roughly half a year to do my research, choose a school to attend, submit the paperwork to be reimbursed by work at 50%, and begin classes. That was a scary prospect, and not what I was prepared to hear in early December 2016.

What am I going for, and where?

I was put in contact with a new member of HR, and agreed to meet with him the following morning to discuss my options and what my next steps would be. Walking into his office, I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted. I hadn’t done any research on schools, or programs, or what would work best for me. I brought a notepad and an open mind, but that’s about all I had.

As we talked, I explained how I figured an MBA would be my best option. Not necessarily my preferred degree, but it seemed the most likely that I could have work pay for half of. Though I didn’t know much about grad school, I had at least learned that Clemson University offered an MBA at their nearby Greenville ONE location, with a focus in Business Analytics. It seemed like the most reasonable compromise between the degree that I wanted and the one that I was most likely to have covered by work. MBA degrees are a dime a dozen these days, but a focus in Business Analytics would probably help me out on the technical side of things.

After I gave all I knew about the Clemson MBA, he asked if I had considered a Computer Science degree. (Well, duh, but there’s no way work is paying for that, right?) I mentioned that I would’ve loved to go for a MS CS degree, but I figured that would be hard to justify if it didn’t make me more useful to the company. He then reasoned that a CS degree should logically make me better at programming, which should in turn make me more useful. Almost in disbelief, I asked if he really thought that the company would pay for me to pursue a MS CS degree. He seemed quite confident that they would, given its direct connection to my current position.

With these new doors opening up, discussion moved more toward schools that I could get a master’s in Computer Science, or some related field from. He recommended several schools with vast online catalogs that I could look into. Obviously, it was up to me to gauge the best fit for my needs and abilities, but he definitely gave me a starting point. We talked about facets that would be important to my decision: price (obviously), distance (if I went for traditional classes rather than online), GRE requirements, completion terms, and a variety of other points. My best course of action, he explained, would be to make a spreadsheet of all the schools and programs that I was interested in, in order to compare apples to apples in a very organized and fair fashion.

There was still the problem of my *pending* 5 year employment anniversary. Though I wanted to hit the ground running with grad school, I still technically haven’t been with the company for 5 years until July. He explained that with many schools placing their application deadline several weeks or months ahead of term start dates, I may not have enough time between my employment anniversary and classes to actually get everything done. To give myself as much of a window as possible, he suggested going to my director (the first line of approval for tuition reimbursement) and the head of HR (second line of approval) and explain my situation. If they agreed with my decision to begin grad school, I may be able to get early approval, contingent upon reaching my 5 years of employment.

Getting Approved

With plenty of information to digest, and assurance that I would be able to pursue the degree I actually wanted, I began planning to contact those who stood between me and tuition reimbursement. An email would probably be more clear, and there would be written record of the conversation, but it might not make the same impression to just blindside my superiors with an unexpected request for a few grand in tuition. Stopping by in person could make a better impression, but I would be going in unarmed and unable to make a case for myself without more information.

I spoke with my supervisor, 2 steps below our mutual director, about how to butter him up. She suggested that he would probably be in full favor of me attending grad school, so there would probably be no need to butter him up. Even if he was initially opposed to approving a tuition reimbursement request, she suggested that our manager may be able to step in on my behalf and sway his opinion.

With that backing, I decided to just stop by my director’s office and give him the news of my decision. I knocked on his office door, introduced myself, and explained that my 5 year employment anniversary would be coming up in a few months. Before I could say anything more than, “grad school,” he interrupted me with, “Yes, it’s already been approved.”

Uhh… what? “I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s the same paperwork. I haven’t even submitted the request yet.” I hadn’t heard of anyone else planning on getting a degree, but it certainly wasn’t me. I wanted to get his verbal approval before I actually submitted the official request.

“Oh, I know. [Head of HR] has contacted me about your meeting, she approved it, I approved it, all you have to do is put the paperwork in and you’re cleared.” Well, alright then. Not the response I was expecting, but I’ll take it.

At this point, all I have left on the work side is to submit the formal paperwork and I’m cleared for takeoff. I’ll have to grab documentation on the program and coursework for whatever school and degree I eventually decide on, but I’m almost definitely going to be approved. Anything on the table is close enough to Computer Science that I should have no problem convincing anyone of its relevance to my current position.

Deciding on a School

On the school side, I still have quite a bit of research to do. I have my spreadsheet of schools and programs on Google Drive, and I update it any time I get new information or rule something out. Even though the Clemson MBA is pretty much written off, I’m still going to an info session next week just to get a feel for the school, maybe get some information that could apply to other schools and programs as well. I’ve emailed several local schools, but I really don’t know if anything nearby is right for me.

Of the different types of programs, I think fully online is my best bet. Traditional classes, albeit those offered during evening or weekend time frames, seem like more trouble than they’re worth. I like the idea of face time with a professor, but no local schools meet that sweet spot of price, offerings, and flexibility. Hybrid programs are slightly more adaptable than traditional, but that still puts me away from home for a solid weekend every few weeks. With a family, I’m not so keen on spending weekends away from home just for school. Online classes, while they do have downsides, seem like the best option available to me.

Looking at tuition costs for in-state vs out-of-state students, it is amazing how much tuition is hiked up for those who reside in a different state. Several schools in South Carolina would be super cheap for me to attend, but they either don’t offer online classes, or they don’t have a program that I’m interested in. Several schools in other states, even those as close as North Carolina, have programs that I like and online classes available, but the tuition rate is crazy high because I’m not a local.

Online availability and tuition cost are pretty much the biggest facets in my decision, but there are a few other metrics that I’m keeping track of as well. Prestige is something to consider, since not all degrees are viewed equally. All things equal, I would prefer a degree from a more prestigious school, whose name might turn some heads. Location, even online, does have a place in my research. If I do have to go to the physical location of the campus for whatever reason, is it a quick hour drive, or a several hour plane ride? Obviously, I also want an accredited school, since anything else is like throwing money in the wind.

So what are my options at the moment? The biggest contender right now is a MS degree in Information Technology with a focus in Software Application Development from Southern New Hampshire University. It’s a fully online course load, without a GRE or GMAT requirement, relatively inexpensive tuition, and flexible terms. I haven’t yet pulled the trigger on SNHU, but I have been in contact, submitted my formal application, and generally moved toward that program as my main option. University of Maryland University College has the exact same degree option with a focus in Software Engineering, with many similarities according to my metrics. One thing that UMUC has on SNHU is that they offer interest-free repayment options. Both of these schools seem like great options, but I want to be certain before I fully commit to one or the other.

Concerns

I know for a fact that going back to school will be difficult. I was single and unemployed when going for my bachelor’s degree. Now I have a family and a full time job, in addition to my upcoming class work. Plus, I imagine a master’s degree will be more difficult than an undergrad degree in its own right. The silver lining is that I’ll be taking fewer classes at a time, and the terms will be much shorter than the full semesters that I experienced with my undergrad degree. If I can make it through 10 week chunks at a time (at least with SNHU), I can take a week break and move onto the next classes.

Class work will be very time consuming, without a doubt. Any spare time I have, I’ll be catching up on any assignments. Lunch breaks at work, evenings after the kids are in bed, and any time I’m not doing something necessary. It’s going to be taxing, but I really do think it’s worth the time and effort.

This may sound idiotic, but I’m going to try to continue blogging through the entire process. Sure, it’s extra work, but not without its benefits. First and foremost, it serves as an escape. When I’m completely spent from working on assignments, blogging gives me a chance to just talk about whatever I want to talk about. There are no length requirements, I don’t have a certain topic I have to cover, and I’m not going to be graded by any sort of rubric.

My blog posts don’t have to be good. I can throw out 400 words of complete crap, and isn’t going to reflect negatively against me. I’m allowed to be sloppy in my own space, and nobody can hold that against me. It can be therapeutic to be carelessly loose, when my assignments will be calculated and extremely meticulous.

Perhaps the most useful purpose that my blog can serve during school is a space for me to explore my classes and try to understand the material better. Very much like rubber duck debugging, I may use this as a platform to explain my current studies from the ground up to an audience with no previous experience. This gives me a chance to explore my own understanding, and make sure I comprehend the material. Even if nobody reads the posts, I’ve put the material into my own words, and hopefully absorbed it a bit more through that process. At best, maybe I can teach my audience a thing or two about information technology.

I’m excited, a little scared, a little anxious, and a mishmash of other emotions about going back to school. It was an eventual goal to get my master’s degree, but to have hard dates and real information on the table is a little daunting. In less than a year, I should be actually in classes again. I think it’s a good move, and there really doesn’t seem like a better time to start anywhere in the near future. Still, this is a lot for me to just plunge headlong into. Hopefully, I’ll look back in a few years and know with certainty that getting a degree was a good idea.

Meta:

Words: 2890 | Characters: 16284 | Sentences: 138

Paragraphs: 38 | Reading Level: 11-12th Grade

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