Returning to school is an excellent option if you want to switch fields, get a promotion or explore a new passion. Earning a graduate degree can open up more opportunities that pay higher salaries.
It’s easier than ever to enroll in grad school, thanks to the rise of online degree programs. Applications to graduate schools significantly increased between 2011 and 2021, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, and 40% of graduate students are enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports.
Many colleges offer the same degrees both online and in person. As a distance learner, you can learn from experienced faculty and attend virtual classes with peers. And when you graduate from an online program, your diploma won’t say “online.”
Online degrees allow you to keep working while earning your degree, and distance learning can even save you money on housing and campus fees. With a variety of programs and flexible scheduling, online graduate school can be a game-changing career move.
5 Benefits of Attending Graduate School Online
Learning online can open up doors to students who are limited by time, money or location and may not otherwise have the opportunity to return to school. Here are some of the benefits of enrolling in an online grad program.
Larger Variety of School and Program Choices
Thanks to online education, going back to school doesn’t mean you have to uproot your life. If you have a passion, you can probably find an online degree for it.
For example, online master’s degrees offered through Purdue University include finance, criminal justice, education and psychology. Most programs also offer concentrations for students to specialize their studies further.
New York University offers various online and hybrid learning programs, including taxation, journalism, cybersecurity and health administration. Some programs are entirely online; others, like the quantitative management degree, include a few days of in-person instruction and networking.
You may be able to complete certain math and science degrees fully online, but keep in mind that STEM programs often require in-person lab experience.
When choosing a graduate program, research the curriculum and make sure the school is institutionally accredited. Accreditation means that a school meets the quality standard set forth by a third-party accrediting organization.
Colleges offer online degrees to make learning easier for their students with job and family responsibilities. Many online programs accept new students on a rolling basis throughout the year, so you don’t have to wait till the fall to get started.
Before choosing an online program, decide whether asynchronous or synchronous courses suit you. Synchronous classes are taught simultaneously for every student just as in-person classes would be. Asynchronous courses still have due dates, but students complete lessons and assignments on their own schedule.
Some programs offer a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous courses. Harvard’s online master’s in education, for example, involves five to seven hours of scheduled meetings and classes on weeknights. Outside that time, students complete asynchronous elements—like homework and discussion posts—at their own pace.
Master’s programs at Johns Hopkins University include options for online, hybrid and “Virtual Live” classes, which are fully synchronous. NYU’s MS in professional writing, on the other hand, is entirely on your own schedule.
You might be motivated by real-time interactions with your professors and peers. But asynchronous coursework could be a great fit if your schedule is unpredictable or hectic.
Work at Your Own Pace
One of the main benefits of earning a master’s degree online is being able to work full time and complete coursework when you’re free. Your program’s website should tell you what kind of workload to expect.
Most master’s degrees can be completed within two years, even if you’re working full time on top of school. The weekly time commitment varies depending on the intensity of each class and how many units you enroll in. Still, many programs advise students to allocate 15 to 20 hours per week.
As an example, the University of Washington provides a fully online master of infrastructure planning and management. Students can complete this part-time course in two years. The school estimates three hours of work per unit, with students taking two three-unit classes at a time. Depending on your study style, that’s about 18 hours per week.
If you’re unhappy with your field or feel stalled in your career, earning a graduate degree can help you move forward. Plus, professionals with advanced degrees often have more job opportunities with higher salaries.
In 2020, full-time young professionals with at least a master’s degree earned 17% more than those with only a bachelor’s, according to a study by the NCES. The study found that 25- to 34-year-old graduate degree holders earned a median wage of $69,700, while bachelor’s degree holders earned $59,600. High school graduates earned $36,600.
Jobs requiring a graduate degree are expected to see significant growth over the next 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. The BLS projects 13.6% growth in jobs that require a master’s degree from 2021 to 2031. This rate is much faster than the projected 5% growth for all jobs nationwide.
Workers with a master’s, professional or doctoral degree also see lower unemployment rates, according to the BLS.
Time Management Skill Development
Your professional success partly depends on how well you manage your time. Prioritizing your education means fitting classwork into your busy schedule—a challenging task for any student.
Even with a fully online program, students must carve out time each day to study. Successful students learn to balance their many responsibilities and overcome procrastination. This balance may not come easily at first, but you’ll eventually learn time management skills that can serve you outside of the classroom, too.
Should You Attend Graduate School Online?
As we’ve learned, there are many benefits to earning a graduate degree online. But only you can decide if it’s the right choice for you.
Do extensive research about degrees that interest you. Make sure you understand each program’s expectations, and reach out to advisors for clarification. Online graduate programs are often intensive and require a significant time commitment, and it’s up to you to complete your credits on time. Consider the following questions before making your decision.
What are my career goals?
Is the degree I want to earn available online?
Is the school I want to attend accredited?
Do I enjoy learning at my own pace or at structured times?
Is the program part-time or full-time?
Do I have enough time in my schedule to complete the coursework?
How much tuition can I pay, and what financial aid is available to me? (For more information on this, see our guide on how to pay for grad school.)
Does the program include professional networking opportunities?
Preparing to Attend an Online Graduate Program
Let’s say you applied to a graduate program that meets your goals—and you were accepted! Congratulations on taking a big step in your career. Here’s how to prepare before your first day of (online) school.
Set Up Your Workspace
You’ll spend a lot of time at your computer, so make your space as comfortable (and enjoyable) as possible. To set up a productive workspace, keep clutter to a minimum and remember the importance of ergonomic design. A tidy, quiet space helps you focus on your studies.
Organize Your Schedule
Scheduling is one of the hardest parts of going back to school. Adding 15 to 20 hours of coursework on top of job and family responsibilities won’t be easy, but remember that it’s only for a limited time.
Sticking to a schedule is key, so set a dedicated time to study each day. Every week, look at upcoming assignments and work ahead as much as possible.
And don’t forget to add fun to your routine—you can even schedule it! Block off some time in your calendar to relax, hang out with friends or pursue your hobbies.
Ensure You Have the Right Tech Equipment
For online classes, you need a computer and access to the internet. If your program includes interacting with professors and students, your laptop should have video and audio functionality.
If you’re working outside or in a busy environment, investing in noise-canceling headphones is a good idea. Helpful home office products like a standing desk, power strip or webcam can make your studying more enjoyable.
Check Your Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is possibly the most critical part of online learning. Make sure the Wi-Fi at your workspace is fast enough by running a speed check. Slow Wi-Fi causes your videos and virtual lessons to lag. If you don’t have access to fast Wi-Fi, consider studying at the library.
Familiarize Yourself With the Learning Platform
Many colleges use websites such as Canvas to facilitate online learning. Check which online learning platform your program uses, and make sure you’re familiar with it before classes begin. The last thing you want on your first day of school is the frustration of being unable to log in or find the right information.
Learn What Resources are Available to You
Reputable universities have resources for online learners, but they might look different than in-person services. Check your school’s website or speak with the admissions office if you have any questions. Many schools offer online counseling and academic resources like an online writing center. If you’re struggling or just need an extra boost, don’t hesitate to ask the program faculty what help is available.