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 Post subject: How to choose a grad school when already under debt?
PostPosted: Mon Apr 05, 2010 1:24 pm 

Joined: Mon Apr 05, 2010 1:18 pm
Posts: 1
Do I go to grad school, and if so, where? Struggling with the best approach to the decision-making process.

In 2008, I applied to grad school for programs in public health. I didn't have any work experience in the field at the time, but got into every program to which I applied. In 2009, I selected 3 of the schools, accepted the offer but deferred enrollment for 1 year. I also visited each of these 3 schools. Around the same time, I got a job working directly in the field (public health communications firm). I currently make ~$40k (as a writer/editor for a health communications firm) and am headed in the health communication/health marketing track. It's entirely possible (though hopefully unlikely) that I could come out of an MPH program and make less than I do now.

At this time, everything has come down to the wire and I'm really struggling with how to move forward and make a decision. I'm also balancing my boyfriend's hopes and goals, as he's about to complete his undergrad degree and is eager to move to a place where he can pursue his new career (public relations - he's had internships with a large hospital and federal agency, and has a tentative job offer in our current location to work at this agency once he graduates this spring). He's 29 and I'm 28.

I'm gun-shy about signing myself up for more debt, as I already have about $30K in loans from undergrad. I went to an expensive liberal arts college for the first 2 years before transferring to a state school (largely for financial reasons). I'm really loving the job I have now, which I only started last September, and feel I have an opportunity here to learn a lot more about the field and build up some additional work experience before I go off to get my MPH (or MHS, depending on the school/program). However, my boyfriend and I have been planning and saving for the move to what seemed like the top choice school last summer. It's a school with a top-notch reputation in the field, and we both loved the city when we visited last summer. However, it's also very, very expensive, and as of now I have not been able to find any funding from this program, so the total cost of attendance would be all loans - totalling about $70-80K additional on top of my undergrad loans. I've gone back to both the financial aid office and the specific department to ask about additional funding. The finaid office offered me a Perkins loan (nice, but still doesn't change the total loan burden), and the department is still considering funding - which makes me think at this late date that it is going to be nil. I've (politely) contacted everyone I know in the department, both faculty and admin folks, about this, and am getting a sinking feeling now that we're into April and still no word.

I'm starting to reconsider the other 2 schools to which I gave my tentative acceptance, as they are also expensive but did offer me some partial funding. But, I wonder if rather than go to a second-choice program, I should just hold off and work another year or two, then go through the whole re-application process again, hoping that with additional experience and understanding of the field I would have a better shot at funding at my top-choice school. I'm also questioning my reasons for ranking these 3 schools the way I did - I may be dazzled by the reputation of the "first" school, and overlooking some valuable aspects of the others, as they are less prestigious but still have appealing programs.

Lastly, my boyfriend has been really supportive of me through this whole process, but has also been honest about what he hopes to do after he graduates. He liked the "first" school I choose, because it's in a region with many federal agencies and large hospitals where he hopes he would have a good shot at getting a public relations job, based on his extensive internship experiences. He's said he would feel disappointed if we decided to stay in the area another year (it's also the area he grew up in, so he's understandably eager to get out now that he'll have gotten his college degree). Lastly, he's also shared the feeling that he'd rather stay here than move to either of the other 2 schools' cities, as the job market there seems less strong. We've been together for over 5 years and are very strongly committed to staying together.

My 'dream' job would be coordinating a nation-wide health communication program through a federal agency like the CDC, ideally one that uses mobile technologies and the web in concert with on-the-ground community outreach (I could even be more specific, but I'll hold off on further details for the purposes of this question). The private company I work for already does similar federal contracting work, so it seems like I'm already in a good position, but I know I can't advance too far here without a Masters. I'm sure that I'll need the Masters at some point, whether I stay in the private sector or move to a government track. The question is really whether I need it now, or put it off for another year or few.

The "top" program has a 6-month full-time field placement, and this often happens with top agencies like the National Cancer Institute - so that's certainly valuable. The program that offered me the most funding has a strong community-based program requirement, but is more focused on local community agencies rather than federal / national programs.

I visited all 3 schools this past summer, and met with faculty and current students at 2 of them (the 3rd was out-of-session at the time). I'm currently wondering whether I should dip into my savings to pay for a visit to the 3rd, now that they are in session, to get a stronger sense of whether that one would be right for me (that's the one that offered me the most funding, but has a less well respected reputation and a more local/community focus).

So, here are the questions:
Is it crazy to get an MPH, if that means I'll end up with over 6 figures in student loans?
Is it crazy to do that, if I'm going to a top-notch school which hopefully would help me make connections and get a strong start to my career, where that much debt could reasonably be paid off?
Is it crazy for me to leave a job I love, that pays me well, in my chosen field, in this economy?
How do I make the decision in a way that respects both my and my boyfriend's hopes and goals?


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 Post subject: Re: How to choose a grad school when already under debt?
PostPosted: Mon Apr 05, 2010 2:08 pm 
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pomtown wrote:
So, here are the questions:
Is it crazy to get an MPH, if that means I'll end up with over 6 figures in student loans?


Yes. There is nothing wrong with an MPH but it does not sound like it qualifies you for anything you cannot already do. And it is very difficult to justify having that kind of debt for an education. You shoudl be thinking of having total debt that is a fraction of your annual salary rather than a multiple of it!

pomtown wrote:
Is it crazy to do that, if I'm going to a top-notch school which hopefully would help me make connections and get a strong start to my career, where that much debt could reasonably be paid off?


You have to determine whether the likelihood that the top notch school will give you a significant leg up over the other choices. In my experience that is almost never the case. You get your first job by your education. All your other jobs you get from your work experience and performance. Now that you have your first job I think the value of a top notch graduate program over an average one is minimal. But I am not familiar with the public health field so I could be wrong.

pomtown wrote:
Is it crazy for me to leave a job I love, that pays me well, in my chosen field, in this economy?


Yes. Absolutely. You might look into part-time graduate programs in public health so that you can keep your job.

pomtown wrote:
How do I make the decision in a way that respects both my and my boyfriend's hopes and goals?


I don't think I gave you the answers you want to hear. But from reading your post it does sound like you have thought this through thoroughly and I think you will make a good decision. Don't think of this as a case of there being a right choice and a wrong choice. You need to make what feels like the best choice for you and then work hard to make it a successful choice. Once you decide what to do you should move forward with all your energy and not second guess your decision. No matter what you decide I don't think it will be wrong. I think it is crazy to give up a good job you love to get an MPH from an expensive school that leaves you $100000+ in debt. But doing something crazy might prepare you to lead the CDC someday or be secertary of HHS!


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 Post subject: Re: How to choose a grad school when already under debt?
PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2010 1:29 pm 

Joined: Wed Apr 21, 2010 9:59 am
Posts: 1
I graduated with an MPH from Columbia in 2007. I saw your question and wanted to offer some suggestions based on my experience.

Is it crazy to get an MPH, if that means I'll end up with over 6 figures in student loans?

Financially speaking it is a little crazy to take on 6 figures worth of debt for an MPH. I currently work for a federal agency. With their lock and step salary schedule, I earn $52,000 a year based on education and experience. This is not much more than what you are making with a bachelor’s degree. Based on money and mathematics alone, incurring $70,000 to $80,000 worth of debt to boost your salary by $10,000 to $15,000 is a horrible return on investment.

That said if you are absolutely sure that health communications is the career you want to pursue, an MPH will be a valuable credential to have. Those three letters after your name will give you an air of expertise and help you further your career. The benefits from having a solid educational background in biostatistics, epidemiology, health policy, socio-medical sciences, and environmental health will help you craft better communication initiatives.

The way my husband (back then he was just my boyfriend) and I handled my student loans was to not borrow money for anything other than tuition. Living expenses, books, and food were paid for out of pocket. I graduated with $46,000 in loans, which have been paid off. We did this by living only off of his income. All of my take home pay was thrown at the loans till they were gone. A residual bonus to this strategy is that we got used to this lifestyle and still save all of my income.

To make this work the two of you will have to be ridiculously dedicated to getting out of debt. If you two want to go on vacation, or get married, or buy a car, or buy a house, it will have to be with what you can save from his income. You can’t touch yours until the student loans are paid off.

Is it crazy to do that, if I'm going to a top-notch school which hopefully would help me make connections and get a strong start to my career, where that much debt could reasonably be paid off?

The connections you make with faculty and peers will be good for your career, but not necessarily your salary. You mentioned that you would like to work for a federal agency. The salaries of government employees are based on education and experience with no room for negotiations. With a master’s degree you would qualify for a GS-9 position. I am not sure how they will account for the experience you are earning with your current job. You can find federal wages here based on location. http://opm.gov/oca/10tables/indexGS.asp

The University of Michigan conducts employment surveys on recent graduates. You can see the results for different specialties here. http://www.sph.umich.edu/careers/job_search/surveys.html

Is it crazy for me to leave a job I love, that pays me well, in my chosen field, in this economy?
Honestly it sounds like you will have to leave this job eventually. Whether it will be to go to grad school or follow your boyfriend is the only uncertainty.

How do I make the decision in a way that respects both my and my boyfriend's hopes and goals?

It sounds like the other two schools are not a good fit for you. If you want to work on national programs, schools that focus on local communities won’t give you the skills you need or the connections. Additionally, it sounds like the other two cities are not a good fit for your boyfriend. If he can’t find a job or has to take one he dislikes so you two can be together while you can go to a school that you dislike, what the heck is all the sacrificing and compromising for? The money saved by going to an ill-fitting school and city will not be worth it if it costs you two your relationship.

I think the best course of action is to have your boyfriend try to find a better job offer in DC or Baltimore. I am assuming your top school is John Hopkins based on your description. If he finds a job, you should jump at the opportunity to go to school and he should accept the job offer.

Plan B: If he can’t find a better job than the one currently offered in your town, you two should stay put, build your resumes, pay down your undergrad loans, save up for grad school and reapply a couple of years down the line. He might be grumpy having to stay a little longer in his hometown, but you have both proven that you can be reasonably content here.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions regarding schools or programs, I would be more than happy to answer. Good luck!


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 Post subject: Re: How to choose a grad school when already under debt?
PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2010 1:02 pm 

Joined: Thu Mar 25, 2010 12:02 pm
Posts: 10
Location: Charlotte, NC
If you do the math on how much the extra education will bring you in income versus paying back the debt over many years, I think you'll find that it is a lousy "investment". I'm very much for spending money on education, but it all breaks down to the value proposition. If you're going to take this kind of risk you need much greater returns! Additionally, these small returns are far from guaranteed.

I know we get personally attached to these decisions, but the only fair way to analyze it is by the numbers.

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 Post subject: Re: How to choose a grad school when already under debt?
PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2011 9:35 pm 

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 7:35 am
Posts: 1
Let me first apologize for posting in such an older topic. Secondly, I just want to say that I totally feel your pain, pomtown. I've been under a lot of stress to find work after obtaining my bachelor's degree and I'm sinking under a pile of student loan and credit card debt. To make things worse, I still owe taxes because of several freelance projects I've taken after graduation. I'm going to need some sort of http://www.taxmatterssolutions.com/. Unfortunately, I'm finding that it's hard to move on with your life (financially and professionally) when you just have your bachelor's. It seems like one needs to have a Masters or a PhD to get anywhere nowadays. . . but it's SO expensive just to get that education. I am considering getting a masters in public administration, but I just gotta find the time and get the money up.

Anyway, I just wanted to get that off my chest. That and I wanted to thank you folks for all your wonderful advice. Hopefully I'll be able to go back to school one day. In the meantime, I'll keep my chin up. Take care, everyone!


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