Returning to the Classroom: Being a Graduate Student After Years in the Workforce (2/2) | McGrath, Leppert, Jacobs, Rodriguez, Mallory Jr., Nicklas

written by:

Ali McGrath
Clemson University

Abigail Leppert
Clemson University

Ashley Jacobs
Clemson University

Brandon E. Rodriguez
Clemson University

Jamel Mallory Jr.
Clemson University

Drew Nicklas
Clemson University

In the first article of this two-part series, we shared narratives of work-to-school graduate students who worked before their graduate programs. This deviates from the “traditional student affairs career path” where highly involved undergraduate students, motivated by their involvement in campus organizations, go directly to graduate school to continue their higher education experience. As mentioned in part one, this myth regarding the career path leaves out a significant portion of students who come to graduate programs after years in the workforce or other full-time experiences. These “work-to-school” individuals bring with them additional considerations, experiences, and skillsets when transitioning and studying in a graduate program.

The transition to graduate school as a full-time student is challenging for everyone, but it is unique for work-to-school students as they navigate income, priorities, responsibilities, relationships, and living situations. This article elaborates on our experiences impacted by our journeys, as introduced in part one (Developments, April 2021). Our voices are not intended to be a monolithic representation of all work-to-school students in all graduate programs. Instead, we are sharing our individual stories to provide insight to overlooked or absent experiences.

In this article, we focus on five transition and graduate program experiences common to each of us as work-to-school students: (a) Academics, (b) Assistantship Work and Supervision, (c) Finances, (d) Relationships and Social Connections, and (e) Job Search. We conclude with practical recommendations for supervisors, faculty, and aspiring work-to-school students with the intention of improving understanding and support of this student population.


Determining when to pursue graduate school was not easy, but Jamel decided it was a necessary step to achieve his student affairs career goals. While he had been anticipating challenges associated with his assistantship, Jamel was surprised by the difficulties in returning to the classroom. He struggled applying his time management skills to academics to meet course assignments and reading deadlines. After receiving constructive feedback on his first writing assignment of the semester, Jamel adjusted his priorities and developed new time management techniques to meet the expectations he set for himself to improve in the program.

Alternatively, Ashley’s transition back into the student role was easier than she expected after her five-year career as a teacher. She was ready for the academic requirements of the program and felt more prepared to handle the time pressures and workload than she did as an undergraduate. However, despite working as a high school English teacher, she was not used to graduate-level academic writing and had to refamiliarize herself with APA and the editing process. As a result, and despite her excitement for learning, writing assignments took longer than expected as she relearned how to navigate faculty expectations.

Abigail also struggled relearning the requirements for academic writing and classroom learning but for different reasons. Coming from the corporate world, she had perfected short and direct email writing and was skilled with her work software. In graduate school, she found it challenging to write lengthy papers and reports and had to learn newer applications like Canvas that other students directly from undergraduate institutions were already accustomed to. Like Ashley, Abigail also struggled with APA formatting; whether papers needed to be double-spaced, and when to include a professor’s name and cover page.

Abigail also struggled with assignment prompts that focused on undergraduate experience reflections. It was difficult to remember back to her freshman year since it was more than seven years prior. Additionally, she felt her post-graduation experiences were largely ignored or misaligned with the prompts and overlooked the significant development and growth she experienced while working full-time. These factors made Abigail feel as if she was misrepresenting herself in assignments that ignored her work-to-school experiences.

We also noticed a difference in the classroom between our experiences and those of our direct-from-undergrad classmates who viewed their graduate program as the final step before beginning their careers. Academic burnout seemed more prevalent among the individuals who came straight from undergraduate programs compared to those of us transitioning from the workforce. Since we had time away from schoolwork and academic deadlines, we were re-energized, committed to, and enthusiastic about our learning and coursework. We each made an intentional decision to leave the workforce in pursuit of further education. Some of our peers coming from undergraduate experiences were less inclined to read or prepare for class if assignments were not part of graded assignments. We, however, saw our program as professional development and practical application, which motivated us to learn as much as possible.

Assistantship Work and Supervision

Our unique experiences went beyond the classroom. Abigail anticipated a transition coming from the quota-driven, male-dominated field of Information Technology (IT) into the bureaucratic, learning-focused, female-dominated field of education. She prepared for almost two years—studying educational politics, reading professional organizations’ information, and aggressively saving during the last year of her IT sales salary. She also did intentional and thorough research in preparation for her transition to higher education and graduate school.

Abigail’s work background helped her transition to virtual engagement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She utilized her corporate administrative skills to learn new systems and used her expertise to assist fellow graduate students. Working 25 hours a week instead of the 40-50 hours she was accustomed to was more complicated than she expected. As a result, she worked over her paid hours when she began the program, but eventually realized she needed to prioritize her learning and development instead of operating as if she had a full-time job.

Additionally, Abigail’s professional development opportunities were reduced based on her full-time experience. For example, at times others assumed Abigail had educational work and supervisory experience. These assumptions resulted in a lack of training or reduced exposure to professional opportunities. It was not until Abigail advocated for herself and clarified her prior experiences and areas for growth that she received the support she needed.

Ali also struggled with changes in her new role. Coming from a full-time, collaborative, position grounded in trust, she quickly realized being a graduate assistant was temporary. She lacked the influence to make significant departmental or institutional changes. Her frustration with this was exacerbated because Ali had more full-time experience than the full-time staff with which she now worked. She found herself trying to prove herself during her first semester to gain more responsibilities and independence. After building trust by proving that she could handle additional responsibility, Ali discussed opportunities with her supervisor and was made a supervisor of her own staff. She worked successfully and asked for help when needed.

Ashley also advocated for more responsibilities in her graduate assistantship role as an academic advisor. Having managed a caseload of over 100 students as a high school teacher, Ashley wanted more challenge and experience in her graduate position. Ashley’s supervisor was open to her suggestions, and Ashley was given a larger workload, more advisees, and the opportunity to work with a statewide higher education conference. However, as with Abigail and Ali, Ashley struggled with the lack of influence and autonomy that her assistantship offered.

While none of these authors came from the same industry – Abigail from technology, Ali from nonprofit, and Ashley from education – all of them struggled to work fewer than 40 hours a week.  In their past experiences they had ownership of projects, initiatives, and long-term responsibilities. The shift to temporary graduate assistantship roles came with less autonomy and positional power. Given this tension, clear communication between work-to-school students and their supervisors is essential to ensure these students feel their skills are best utilized.


Like many work-to-school graduate students, Brandon’s decision to pursue a master’s degree was also a financial one. Before graduate school, Brandon worked full-time for a logistics company making a salary with benefits, owned his first home with his husband, went on vacations, and had financial stability. However, Brandon knew pursuing a graduate degree was necessary to build a career in higher education. To accomplish this, while in school Brandon and his husband lived several states apart with Brandon renting a separate one-bedroom apartment while he attended graduate school. Housing, cost of living, moving, and transportation had to be navigated strategically and intentionally to allow Brandon to focus his time and energy on networking and gaining necessary work experience in graduate school.

Like Brandon, Ashley considered her decision to attend graduate school from a financial standpoint. Different from Brandon and his husband, however, Ashley and her partner relocated together. It was important to that he secured a job in his field comparable to his previous role. This was necessary to maintain the household income as they prepared for her contribution to be significantly reduced. Ashley also knew she needed to select a program that offered tuition reimbursement. The cost of moving from Illinois to South Carolina ultimately drained much of their savings. Ashley took out student loans so they could cover all the expenses. Since Ashley had a full-time employed partner, they moved for her graduate program without significant lifestyle changes.

Alternatively, when Jamel graduated from Bowling Green State University, he considered a student affairs career but did not immediately enter a master’s program. To gain applicable skills and save money to cover graduate school expenses, Jamel worked at the University of Michigan in the First Year Experience office, earning a salary with benefits. It was important to him not to take out any student loans while in graduate school, and he pursued programs with tuition remission and competitive stipends. These financial assistance options allowed him to live comfortably, but he did have to make changes in his spending to ensure he could pay student fees, rent, and other expenses. Although his income dropped nearly 70% when he started graduate school, the temporary financial strain was worth advancing in his career. Jamel returned to school without additional loan debt.

The financial impact of pursuing a master’s degree affected Brandon, Ashley, and Jamel’s decisions about where and when to attend graduate school. They knew the financial cuts they would take leaving full-time jobs. That said, their planning for and individual financial situations varied. The financial change was more than comparing a salary to a stipend but included pieces of their lives which would have been less complex than if they had gone directly into a graduate program after their undergraduate experiences.

Relationships and Social Connections

Not only was financial strategizing important but navigating relationships during transitions into graduate school were challenging. Brandon had been in a relationship with his husband, Denis, for eight years and married for a little over two when they decided for Brandon to get his graduate degree. Coming to the program as an older graduate student with a spouse made Brandon feel “othered” beginning with the application process and intensified when he attended the assistantship placement weekend. He was the only married individual in his cohort which impacted the way that he connected socially to his younger, single counterparts. Additionally, he felt like he was late to start his career, took career path detours, and wished he had started a graduate program sooner.

While Brandon wished he had started graduate school earlier, he also recognized that the six years he worked helped him narrow his career focus and build a strong foundation for his marriage. Being secure in his relationship helped him overcome that feeling of “otherness” while developing strong friendships with classmates. Despite these friends being younger and at different stages of their lives, Brandon found meaningful, deep connections and shared experiences that would provide support during his transition in and out of graduate school.

Ali also navigated relationship changes and her ability to connect socially when she began her graduate program. Having lived and worked in Charlotte, North Carolina for four years after graduating from Framingham State in Massachusetts, it was challenging to manage out-of-state friendships and a long-distance relationship while attempting to engage with program peers. She often felt torn between time with friends and family in Massachusetts, visiting her partner and friends in Charlotte, and creating new relationships in Clemson. Due to her partner and strong network in Charlotte, Ali prioritized those relationships. However, to engage, Ali ran for a vice president position in the Student Personnel Association. Through this role, she developed better connections with her classmates and deeper bonds with the program by planning social and professional development programs.

Ali also faced imposter phenomenon. She worried she would not be able to create programming that engaged her cohort, but she polled her peers and created programs that aligned with their interests. She found her officer experience rewarding – especially when a fellow work-to-school student cited Ali and Brandon’s involvement on the executive board as an inspiration, proving that work-to-school students can be leaders in the program as well.

Drew came to graduate school after working full-time with the intention of building strong relationships away from campus. She was excited to get to know her co-workers, faculty, and cohort, but also eager to meet people beyond her program. As an undergraduate student, Drew built most friendships through on-campus involvement. After working professionally, she learned the value of building friendships beyond work.

To recreate a network of support and healthy boundaries outside of work, Drew sought a part-time job during the first semester of grad school.  The benefits of creating community off-campus while working full-time allowed Drew to focus on social connections in and beyond her program and campus department. By establishing friendships through recreation sports teams and her gym, it was refreshing to talk about things besides work.

Faced with a different challenge, Jamel transitioned from the workforce to a graduate program in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote offices and classes, delayed assistantship start dates, and restrictions on in-person gatherings created additional obstacles to building social connections and meaningful relationships. Jamel had an opportunity to connect with others during the assistantship interview weekend and was excited to get to know people and establish relationships. Instead, Jamel struggled to develop relationships virtually.

When Jamel’s office pushed back his start date due to the pandemic, his living situation was affected.  Instead of living with a fellow cohort member, Jamel had to adjust his housing and ended up living with roommates unaffiliated with the program. Although Jamel adapted, the change affected his ability to build relationships with his cohort as quickly as he had anticipated.

As work-to-school students, we naturally gravitated toward one another. We have made connections and friendships with direct-from-undergrad cohort members but having others who understand previous experiences and splitting time between work, academics, and partners or other obligations helped. Working before graduate school taught us to manage commitments, relationships, and to develop boundaries.

Job Search

With graduation approaching, Drew prepared for the job search by attending conferences, webinars, and workshops. She found resources on navigating her student affairs search, but most information focused on students doing their first job search. Drew needed to consult with mentors to craft her application materials to explain her graduate and full-time experience.

Additionally, Drew had to figure out how much experience she had according to job postings. Having worked one year between undergraduate and graduate education, Drew expected to be applying to entry-level positions, but found some positions required one to three years of experience. Drew has cultivated support from professors and professionals who also worked before returning to school, but it took additional effort and time.

Ali also found applying her work experience challenging. While she worked four years professionally supervising volunteers, position descriptions often discredited non-student affairs experience. Therefore, despite having years of professional experience, Ali was only qualified for the same entry-level positions as her direct-from-undergrad classmates. Ali was also discouraged from talking about her full-time professional experience during interviews because her previous industry was “not applicable to a student affairs job.”

Ali struggled with this given the highly transferable skills from her previous role which included supervision, relationship building, and critical thinking. The feedback and culture in student affairs job searches exacerbated Ali’s feelings of being behind her straight-from-undergraduate classmates since their searches looked similar despite her additional experience. In the spring semester classroom conversations and support seemed to focus on first-time job-seekers and she felt overlooked. Ali saw students were provided identical job postings, advice, and resources regardless of their professional and personal experiences.

In our experiences, the student affairs field assumes a common linear path from undergraduate education to grad school to full-time employment. Students approaching graduation were treated as a monogamous group and received generalized job search advice and best practices. Additionally, our field often undervalues experiences outside of student affairs. Work-to-school students need unique support in the job search process by practitioners, faculty, and mentors that understand their experiences and can help them best articulate their qualifications and find jobs that respect their previous experiences.


Each of us had a lot to consider in transitioning back to the classroom. We anticipated changes such as income, but other aspects surprised us, like differences in our workplace responsibilities. Though challenges presented themselves throughout this process, our time spent working helped ground us and fueled our success in the program. Having taken the time to work, we better understand our respective career non-negotiables and what drives us as individuals. We also can reflect on how we can continue to solidify transferable skills, identify areas of growth, and utilize reflective practice that we may not have had without our prior experiences.

We will take these experiences with us as supervisors and mentors in the future. To provide the field with some tools we have developed a resource for continuing the conversation and thinking on the experiences of work-to-school students. The prompts and recommendations for supervisors and faculty to consider and incorporate in their work. We have also included prompts and recommendations for students who are preparing to shift from work to a graduate program. In the end, we see our experiences not as less than, but simply different from those of our peers. We are excited to continue the work in the future and hope that these articles provide information that can be used to support all students in student affairs graduate programs.

Recommendations for Supervisors and Practitioners

  • Ask non-traditional students about their experiences before graduate school.
  • Challenge personal subconscious ageist and/or classist biases.
  • Consider these prompts when supervising graduate students with work experience:
    • How can you better understand your students’ past work experiences?
    • How might previous work experience affect onboarding processes?

Recommendations for Faculty & Instructors

  • Make sure intended learning outcomes and material apply to all students
  • Invite non-traditional students to speak on their experiences.
  • Consider these prompts when teaching graduate students with work experience:
  • How do classes include opportunities to bring in previous work experiences?
  • How can course activities highlight transferable skills from former positions?

Recommendations for Those Considering Making a Work-to-Graduate School Transition

  • Fill out the FAFSA each year as you may qualify for aid and not realize it.
  • Consider the full application process, including requirements of interview days.
  • Review application material with others who worked before graduate school.
  • Build your network in and out of the program.
  • Communicate your needs with your supervisor and faculty.
  • Find alternate sources of support and advice.
  • Do not forget to maintain your relationships during the transition.
  • Be confident in your experiences.
  • Consider these prompts when transitioning back to the classroom:
  • What transferable skills do you possess that will help class or your assistantship?
  • What support do you need from your supervisor?
  • Which offices or departments do you want to experience?

About the Authors

Ali McGrath graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University. She is currently an Area Coordinator at Wingate University.

Abigail Leppert is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022). She is a Graduate Community Director with Clemson Home.

Ashley Jacobs is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022). She is a graduate assistant for Student Services in the Department of Languages.

Brandon E. Rodriguez graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University. He currently works as the Transfer Outreach Coordinator at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Portland, Oregon.

Jamel Mallory Jr. is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022).  He is a graduate assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing in the Center for Career & Professional Development.

Drew Nicklas graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University.  She is currently searching for employment opportunities in orientation programs and student leadership but is open to learning more about possible opportunities.

We also wish to acknowledge previous contributions made to this series by Mallory Powers of Clemson University, as well as the editing efforts provided by Dr. Michelle Boettcher and Dr. Tony Cawthon of Clemson University.