Earning a “first degree” and going back for a second?

As we come up on another graduation season, countless soon-to-be alumni are asking: what now?

It’s no different at theological schools. My own seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, will hold its graduation ceremony next month. Most of the graduates will be looking ahead to working full-time, mainly as clergy or professors.

But some of our so-called “first-degree students” will have decided that more education is right for them. They’ve obtained a Master of Divinity or a Master of Arts and want to keep studying theology.

It can be tough to decide whether to go straight into work or continue on to complete further study. Like entering a theology program in the first place, furthering your studies is a big decision. How do you know if signing up for more schooling is a good decision?

Ultimately, it’s up to you—each person’s situation is going to be different. As an M.Div. student who has given the idea some thought, however, I have a few reflections to share.

A good question to ask right away is: why are you thinking about going back for an advanced degree? It can be a good idea if you’ve been drawn to a somewhat different vocational path while pursuing your first degree. I’ve known quite a few seminarians who began their Masters’ intending to work immediately after graduation but were drawn to the Ph.D. track over time.

I’ve also met people who work full-time with “first” Masters’ degrees who are working toward a secondary, more academically focused degree. The reason? They found the material interesting and helpful in their careers. Getting another degree doesn’t have to require a career switch—sometimes it can enhance the one you have.

If you work and want to eventually get another degree in theology for this reason, I would suggest seeking one out that allows you to study slowly enough so you can balance work and school. It’s even better if the program allows flexible scheduling (and if your employer reimburses you for further education)!

Pursuing another theological degree may not always be a good option, though. As many of us well know, you can absolutely earn a degree for the wrong reasons. The biggest one to stay away from is using the degree as a time-killer. An advanced degree, especially a Ph.D., takes perseverance, and if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, you risk running out of motivation.

Getting an additional degree when you’re not sure what you’re doing to do with it isn’t a great choice. Graduate school is, honestly, expensive and time-consuming. If you’re feeling aimless, that feeling probably isn’t going to go away two (or more) years later at your next graduation ceremony.

If, however, you feel positive about going for an advanced degree and you’ve got a plan for what comes after it, you’ve got another question to answer as you move ahead. Where will you earn it?

The obvious two initial choices are either (1) stay at your current school, and (2) go somewhere else. This is a good time to do an honest assessment of what you like about your current institution and what it can offer you going forward.

What would be your career options there as opposed to another school? What is your scholarship/grant situation? Do you hope to specialize in a particular topic or emphasis that not every school may provide?

It’s a helpful opportunity to carefully consider what you liked and what you didn’t like about the school where you got your first degree. And it’s a chance to think deeply about where you’re going. Whatever the final choice, it’s an exciting time.