Grad school after 30: An honest account from someone who just did it all online

Self-reflection has become an unexpected side effect of social distancing. As we work alone at home, if we’re lucky enough to be able to, or adjust to working less or being unemployed, the big questions hit us: What work would bring me joy? What work would make me proud? And why am I not doing it?

I understand. All too well. My self-reckoning predated the pandemic by a few years, however, arriving shortly after I turned 30. It wasn’t a dramatic moment but a gradual realization: I was on the wrong path. My job was a good one—I worked for a professional sports organization—but it wasn’t the right career for me.

My undergrad degree in film didn’t offer many options, but ten years of work experience did offer clarity. I knew what I was good at—organizational psychology, leadership, personal coaching—but I didn’t know how to translate those into a career. My research introduced me to the role of a Chief People Officer, which maximizes a company’s best investment, its people, through talent development and a positive culture. It would tick off all my boxes and offer professional growth for decades.

But what do you want to do when you’re in your thirties and want a new career that you’re not qualified for? Grad school.
When I first considered grad school, the idea seemed overwhelming: the time, the money, the complete upheaval to my routine. Would it be worth it?
Now, just over a year later, I have that M Ed after my name, and I’m qualified for my dream career. I can promise you this: every dollar, every hour was worth it.

The best kind of hard work

Through my research, I learned that a master’s degree in positive coaching, which focuses on guiding and leading groups of people, would be helpful for pivoting down this new career path. When I searched for positive coaching programs, one of the first to appear was an online program at a school I already loved: University of Missouri – or Mizzou, as it’s affectionately known. I live in Florida but grew up in the Midwest, so I knew of Mizzou’s solid academic reputation—and understood that its reputation comes with a lower price tag than many other programs. I could return to my roots without leaving home.

I admit, though, I worried about an online program. Would it be a real graduate program? Would the education fully prepare me?

The concerns seem quaint now, as most higher education has become online education in 2020—and people realize that yes, online programs are real programs. Small group projects introduced me to classmates from around the country who became my friends. Professors gave us their numbers to call or text them with questions, and one professor even recorded personalized videos for each student with his feedback. Yet the program was flexible enough that I could continue working while being a full-time student.

It wasn’t easy. The 30-credit program, which I completed in three semesters, was rigorous, and professors had high expectations. Each Sunday night, I’d wrap up my work for the week, and I’d feel exhausted. But I’d also feel proud, and as cheesy as it sounds, I’d feel so happy. Those small moments were big deals, ones that showed me I’d found the right path.

Creating my brighter tomorrow, today

What work would bring you joy? What work would make you proud? And why aren’t you doing it?

Those questions compelled me to go back to school for the degree that was right for me—one I didn’t even know existed during undergrad. They inspired me to get a degree from a top school with a great reputation. They reminded me that I deserved a career that challenged me, and that it’s never too late to pursue fulfillment.

My future role as a Chief People Officer will help me empower employees to embrace what makes them unique and to maximize their strengths at work. During my very non-traditional graduation—as I stood in my driveway in my cap and gown last May, diploma in one hand and champagne in the other, waving at my well-wishers driving by—I realized that I had just become my very first client.