I have a very full life right now. I am currently married with two kids, and am the primary breadwinner for the household. I want to pursue a graduate degree, so that I can really build a better life for me and my family. With my schedule, the only option I see is an online program, but there are so many out there and it’s almost impossible to tell which ones are legit and which ones are not.

--Online Programs: PhDo or PhDon’t?

Dear Online,

There are a few things you should consider before even thinking about which online programs will be best for you to get a graduate degree.

First, given your current lifestyle, can you really commit to a graduate program? If your days are full with work, your evenings full of time with the family, and your weekends full with soccer practice, chances are you will not have enough time available to fully commit to a graduate program. Just because it is online does not mean it’s going to be easy by any means. In fact, the opposite is often true: Many students find the coursework in online programs more challenging. Even if you decide that you are ready for the challenge, you will need to make sure that your family is ready. Will your partner be able to cover your household responsibilities that you will need to put aside to complete your online graduate degree? Will your children be able to respect that you need study time in quiet?

The next thing you will want to consider is how much a graduate degree will actually increase your chances of greater career possibilities and higher salaries. The importance of graduate degrees varies greatly from field to field, so I cannot tell you what doors a graduate degree will open for you. However, I can say that some people often find it shocking how little financial return they get from their graduate degrees, especially if they took out significant loans to get their degrees. You should do some research about your particular field before you place your bets on a graduate degree earning you a higher salary.

Now, that being said, if you are still interested in pursuing a graduate degree online, my highest recommendation would find a program through a credible, accredited university. Many professional schools (i.e., for-profit schools) are not accredited, which means that their degrees are really nothing more than paper. The cost of these programs also tends to be much higher compared to state and even private universities. The U.S. Department of Education tracks all the accreditation agencies and is working on a list of all the accredited higher education institutions. You should use these resources to narrow the focus of your search for legitimate online graduate programs.

--René Paulson, PhD

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