During a college graduation ceremony, it might feel as though obtaining a bachelor's degree is akin to reaching a finish line, and, in some regards, it is.
But it's also another step toward new decisions, directions and options.
One of these options is whether to go to graduate school.
Graduate schools -- and graduate students -- are all different, but they often have at least one thing in common: They have changed significantly over the last decade or so.
Many schools are reshaping the way they approach students' needs, often by creating more flexibility through online courses, work-friendly schedules and other options.
Demand for a master's education is up. Nationwide, about 650,000 graduates a year earn a master's degree, double that of 20 years ago, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.
"I think students have realized that jobs are actually requiring master's degrees now. Some jobs you could get with a bachelor's degree 20 years ago now actually require a master's degree," said Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools.
"We live in a much more technical world, so I think the amount of knowledge you have to have for some careers has increased," he said.
Roughly half of graduate students attend part-time, fueling the need for colleges to add flexibility to their programs.
"Students are demanding it. Employers are demanding it. And universities are responding by coming up with new programs or new delivery methods, providing that flexibility that students want to get their degrees," Mr. Bell said.
Kellie Laurenzi, dean of admissions at Robert Morris University, said, "I definitely think a big recurring theme is that schools are really adjusting to the way they approach graduate education."
At Robert Morris, nearly all of the graduate students also are working professionals, so programs are designed to meet their schedules. For most of the Robert Morris graduate programs, courses run in eight-week terms instead of typical semesters. Students can choose evening or weekend classes. Online degree programs also are available.
While the main Robert Morris campus is in Moon, it offers some graduate programs at the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry. And it is experimenting with using video conferencing for classes.
"Adults have higher interest in not only getting a quality program, but also convenience," Ms. Laurenzi said.
Chatham University is experiencing similar changes.
It offers programs that are all online, all face-to-face and hybrid programs which blend both. While its undergraduate programs are for women, its graduate programs are co-ed.
"It's interesting to see the needs of students and how they're changing and the fact that students like the flexibility, in some cases, depending on the discipline," said Wendy Beckemeyer, vice president of enrollment management.
By the time students reach graduate school, they may have many other commitments, including job and family. Some are fresh from undergraduate school.
"It's pretty hard in today's environment to just focus on school," Ms. Beckemeyer said.
But despite the competition for their time, Ms. Beckemeyer doesn't think busy graduate students are too distracted.
"They're very focused because they have this window of opportunity to be in this program, so they want to make the most of it," she said.
A focused attitude is key, she said, no matter what the situation.
"Sometimes there are students who just want to dip their toe in," Ms. Beckemeyer said. "I think those students struggle to commit in the way they need to in order to get the most out of the program."
Another change in the culture of graduate studies is the influence and role of parents.
Maybe it's just another facet of the evolution of the digital age with cell phones, texting and the advent of parents on Facebook, but the level of communication between students and parents has increased.
"We've seen more parents attend open houses with their students so there is this kind of continuation of a family decision about higher education," Ms. Beckemeyer said.
Parents might encourage their new college grads to look into graduate school as a productive step in a difficult job market.
"It's the student who maybe hasn't found the career path for them and wants to come back and live at home and find their path that way. Parents see being in grad school as a very constructive step if the job market is intense," Ms. Beckemeyer said.
Even if parents haven't already turned their college student's room into a home office, they might not have the means to help their unemployed graduates pay their student loans.
Ms. Beckemeyer said some students go to graduate school right after earning their bachelor's degree so they can get their loan payments deferred.
"If you're able to obtain a master's degree and go out into the job market, your salary will likely be higher. You have the ability to begin embracing those student loans at a higher economic level than what had been true at the undergraduate level," she said.
Molly Pawlikowski, 22, of Mount Pleasant, is hoping that's the case because she plans to go for further education after she graduates in the spring from Robert Morris with a major in nuclear medicine technology.
She hopes to enter a two-year program to become a physician assistant, but she chose that path too late to apply for next fall. So, she plans to apply for fall 2012 and work for a year in the meantime.
"I wish I would have looked into it sooner," she said. "The prerequisites are all different, and I feel like I could have taken more classes."
On top of the potential for a better job after graduating and a better means to repay loans, Ms. Pawlikowski said she would rather be a physician assistant anyway.
"I have a ton of money to pay back already. It's a lot more versatile than my degree now, and I'll hopefully make a better living," she said.
Emily Gibb: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 10, 2011 5:00 AM