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?