Whether it’s for a job opportunity or an unplanned life event, pausing your graduate school education can be a game-changing decision.
Graduate school admissions experts say students considering long- or short-term leave from their studies should know their options for reentering or quitting.
“I think what you want to consider is what the priority is at the moment and how easy or difficult it might be to re-enter both your program and then the job market or job force after your program,” says Bari Norman, certified educational planner and co-founder of Expert Admissions, a consultancy that helps students get admitted to college and graduate school.
Here are several factors that experts think students should know before taking a pause in the pursuit of a graduate degree.
Find Out Requirements for Reentry
Most graduate school programs allow a yearlong period for reentry. After one year, a student has to reapply or can lose their spot.
“If they intend to come back or they’re still thinking about coming back, let the program know how they’re doing because that communication is vital,” says Janice Blum, dean of the Indiana University – Purdue University Graduate School Indianapolis and associate vice chancellor for graduate education.
Norman says before making a decision students should consider if it is worth leaving due to the investment of time and money, and if leaving would benefit their career.
“If you want to be a lawyer and suddenly you get this fantastic job doing something – you’re not going to be able to be a lawyer without going back and finishing,” she says.
Leaving a graduate school program might also lead to a student losing their pay and health insurance benefits through the university.
Similar to insurance plans, a students’ university scholarships and funding are at risk if they take a break. Blum says the funding may not be available when a recipient returns to school if it was allocated elsewhere.
Know That Some Graduate Programs Are Easier to Return to
Certain programs are easier to rejoin than others, experts say. For example, medical or dental schools put students in cohorts, and courses are sequenced over four years in a specific order.
“It’s hard to take a leave and get out of step with your cohort,” Blum says. “I think it is a little easier to leave a master’s program.”
Doctoral programs, on the other hand, can be tricky, as many schools make a financial commitment to their students. “You really need to talk about, ‘Is that commitment financially going to be there when you return?” she says. “Will they still pay you the same monthly stipend, give you the insurance and cover your tuition? Or are they now saying, ‘Well, sorry, that money is gone.’”
Oren Margolis, an admissions coach and strategist at California-based Pinetree & Palm Consulting, says sticking with your cohort is vital in MBA programs.
“Part of the reason you’re doing an MBA program is because of the network that you’re surrounded by,” Margolis says. “If you’re a full-time MBA student, you’re doing a program like that in order to hook into a very structured recruiting process. So you’re literally there for employers to reach you at a very specific time.”
However, other graduate schools that offer part-time or online degrees, such as the University of Maryland Global Campus’ online master’s degree program, can more easily accommodate a break.
The master’s in data science program at Northwestern University in Illinois gives the option of a part-time or accelerated online program for professionals.
“When it comes to issues relating to health and mental health, people figure it out, and schools have become increasingly open or at least familiar with dealing with that and helping students through,” Norman says.
A 2019 study by the JED Foundation and the Council of Graduate Schools on graduate student mental health and wellness recommended that grad schools revise student leave policies to be more flexible, and that faculty be transparent about the level of commitment needed for a program.
“It’s important for students to look into leave policies when considering graduate school,” Suzanne T. Ortega, Council of Graduate Schools president, wrote in an email. “Potential students should also consider what support systems the universities or graduate programs offer when considering graduate school, like peer mentoring, mental health and wellness programs, counseling, and childcare options.”
Consider Your Options Before Taking a Break
While some life events can’t be predicted, some students consider taking a break from graduate school programs for a dream job. But that doesn’t mean that they have to leave their degree unfinished.
Norman says depending on the school and program, students may be able to go part-time or have reduced hours.
“If you’re in an academic Ph.D. program, people can take anywhere from four to nine-plus years to finish that. So you can kind of take time off, so to speak, and return to it fully,” she says.
Blum says students could also ask for a reduction of effort or hours instead of taking a break from their grad program. Reducing hours can allow time for the student to create a transition plan if they are still considering a leave, she says.
“If your grades or your performance wasn’t A+ when you left the program, that doesn’t mean you won’t be accepted back,” Blum says. “We look at least at our institution very holistically, and if someone’s gone off to a job or has done some family care, and has relatively decent grades where we can see they’re making progress, we’ll definitely reconsider them.”
Reassess Your Career Goals
Before taking an extended leave from graduate school, students should assess their career goals and path, and the repercussions that taking a break could create.
Margolis says students should know what they want to get out of a program and its commitment before entering or reentering.
“People are only strong applicants to programs if they can articulate that up front and if they’re convinced themselves,” Margolis says.
Students should seek immediate counseling from their mentors and program advisers if they want to take a break from their program, says Tabitha Hardy, assistant vice chancellor for graduate education and assistant dean for student development and academic affairs at Indiana University – Purdue University Graduate School Indianapolis.
Norman says she encourages time off before or during a program if graduate school isn’t the right fit.
“Oftentimes, what you should do is just take some more time off,” she says. “Some people think sometimes there’s a real rush to say, ‘Oh, I need to go to graduate school after X amount of time. If you’re not sure what you want to do, then it’s probably not the right time to go to graduate school.”
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