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What It’s Like To Get Your Master’s Degree Online

I’m a couple months away from graduating with a Master’s of Science degree, which would be hard to believe if you were simply observing me over the last year.

You see, although I’ve worked extremely hard and have learned a lot, I haven’t been inside a classroom at all. I haven’t sat face-to-face with a professor, nor have I rolled out of bed for an early morning lecture.

Instead, I spent significant time at home with old episodes of Friends playing on the TV while I sat on my computer. From the outside, it would look like I’ve done nothing with my year.

In actuality, I have learned more technical skills over the past year than I did while earning my bachelor’s degree. That’s because I’m in a one-year online professional MS program.

I would recommend this type of program to anyone who is interested in furthering their education, but not without a few caveats.

Things to know before you get your master’s degree online:

1. For one, being an online student means you receive fewer perks.

This is the least important drawback in the grand scheme of things, but it’s worth mentioning. As an undergraduate, I became accustomed to receiving a bus pass for getting around town, free access to a gym where I could sweat out all my stress, and a student ID for student discounts.

You can’t count on any of these in an online master’s program. Of course, that means you aren’t paying for them either! I personally would rather pay a bit extra and receive the perks, but not everyone will feel the same.

On to some of the more meaningful challenges, though.

2. The stigma.

An “online master’s” doesn’t exactly scream rigorous to most people, because there’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to online programs (although this is quickly changing). Some of the stigma comes from the fact that many online degrees are offered by for-profit universities. These universities come with a stigma of their own.

Often, universities with both brick-and-mortar and online degrees are rated the same by employers.

I’d say the bang-for-your-buck factor depends mostly on the subject matter and the university’s reputation in that area. A computer science online master’s at Stanford will hold more weight than an online master’s in business from the University of Phoenix. That’s due partially to the name recognition of the school, but also the fact that Stanford has an established reputation in the computer science field.

What’s more, a computer is an appropriate place to learn computer science. If you want to break into the business realm, real-world experience running a business might be more valuable than an online degree.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is a degree doesn’t mean much to an employer if you don’t have the skills to perform the job. When you’re researching an online master’s, find out what you’ll be able to do at the end of the journey rather than what your resume will say. No one will be concerned with how rigorous your program was or wasn’t if you can blow them away with your skills.

3. Another challenge? You have to be self-motivated.

Even though I’ve always considered myself a motivated person, this part was tough for me.

Without a physical place to go daily, I was free to stay in bed as long as I wanted. I was allowed to do homework anytime, from anywhere. This made it easy to let my classes slip to the back of my mind when more exciting opportunities came up.

In short, I continuously felt like I had more time on my hands than I really did. I’d say yes to things like travel, parties, and concerts, and then I’d have to play catch-up on Monday morning.

4. In an online master’s program, you also have to work harder to network.

Sure, communicating with professors, TAs, and other students is as easy as typing a question on a message board or scheduling a video meeting from your kitchen table.

However, it’s tough to secure a strong, personal bond that way. I’ve mostly followed my own networking philosophy, but not every part of that translates to a remote relationship. Even at the end of my master’s degree, I’m still figuring out how to network in this program.

5. Lastly, there are fewer resources to lessen the burden of tuition in an online master’s program.

There are fewer scholarships for online programs than for in-person ones. Also, there is no possibility of a fellowship or TA-ship with the university if you aren’t there in person to take advantage.

Of course, this will depend on the program, but do your research before enrolling to make sure you understand the full financial commitment. It might be a doozy.

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But you know what? I have loved my program, so let’s end on some more cheerful notes:

1. In an online degree program, you have ample time to absorb the information.

No more frantically writing notes down while being afraid of missing something important! In an online class, you can rewind, pause, and Google word definitions to your heart’s content. This means “attending lecture” (i.e., watching a video or reading the material) is a pretty stress-free experience.

2. As long as you hit all the deadlines, you’re allowed to make your own schedule.

No one is concerned with when you do your work. This is especially helpful if you need to continue working while earning your degree. I continued to work part-time while attending class full-time while others in the same program took classes part-time and worked 40 hours.

3. The best part? You can work from anywhere.

While earning my MS, I went to Texas, took a trip to Connecticut and New York, and frolicked around Washington, D.C. and Colorado. Being able to work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection was absolutely amazing — actually, I probably should have gone more places! It was sometimes tough to focus, but I wouldn’t trade it for an in-person program.

I would highly recommend an online master’s program to you if none of the drawbacks I mentioned are deal breakers. As long as you do your research into the program and know you’ll have in-demand skills come graduation, you’ll have an awesome time earning your degree from the comfort of your couch (or from an Airbnb in Phuket or at a friend’s house in California… you get my point.)

About the Author

Natalee Desotell

Natalee graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a triple major in Political Science, International Politics & Economics, Languages & Cultures of Asia, and a minor in Global Public Health. After a couple years in the working world, she recently returned to her alma mater to study Cartography and Geographical Information Systems. A self-proclaimed public health nerd, her dream job is to communicate epidemiological information visually through beautiful interactive maps and graphics. She enjoys iced black coffee, punk rock music, and surprising people.