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A Program for Testing Options and Firming Up What’s Next

Why graduate school at-large programs are the ideal educational choice for so many today.

Written by Philip Baker
Man sitting at a desk with his hand on his chin thinking with question marks on the board behind him.

Today’s professional landscape changes continuously. New technologies and new fields displace jobs while reshaping how work gets done and the skills needed to do it.

For higher education, this presents a new set of challenges in that many traditional degree programs now struggle to keep pace with the faster-moving areas of today’s highly specialized economies. Not finding what they need, many leading-edge professionals seek out unconventional ways to learn new skills and develop their expertise.

But universities have pivoted quickly and developed a new suite of options that provide professionals with the flexible, targeted, and cost-effective programs of practical study they need. From certificates and bootcamps to massive open online courses (MOOCs), these newly emerging branches of higher education are already offering optimal paths for professionals aiming to orient themselves in today’s complex professional environment.

It’s time to add at-large programs to that list as well. These programs, which are among the longest-standing adult learning options, give students and professionals the opportunity to select the classes of their choice from across a university’s departments without any degree requirement.

While many professionals require just a few tweaks or minor upgrades to keep their professional repertoires current, others—sometimes just starting out in their careers—seek new beginnings and more foundational shifts. Enrolling in an at-large program is a way to test out options and deeply explore what that next step could be.

It’s an approach to learning that has perhaps never been so relevant and useful as today.

Clarify Your Next Step

Along with the broader world of work and higher education, at-large programs have evolved in recent years. No longer just a way for nontraditional learners to dabble in a subject while sitting on the outskirts of a classroom, they now offer a fuller experience that integrates students not just into the classroom but into the university as a whole. Many who take advantage of at-large programs arrive with long-term plans or career goals they’re looking to fine-tune or clarify.

In fact, used strategically, at-large programs provide the insight and experience necessary to make career decisions and embark on new paths with conviction. With the assistance of career counselors and other university services, students map out highly personalized learning paths that support their specific aspirations and interests in ways typically not possible in more structured, discipline-specific programs.

Finally, not only do at-large programs give students and professionals the freedom to choose courses from a wide range of disciplines and departments, these programs also bring together individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. The result is a rich environment for networking that can lead to collaborations and connections that extend into professional life.

Who Is a Graduate Student-at-Large?

The sole prerequisite to be a graduate student-at-large is a four-year college degree. With that, anyone and everyone can enroll. With the full panoply of university classes and departments open to exploration, these programs can provide enormous value for the road regularly taken as well as the road very irregularly taken.

Here are three broad-based examples of potential at-large students, each at different points in their careers and each with different needs:

Desire to switch: Feeling overtaxed in their current career, they seek a change.

You could be a nurse, or doctor, burned out from long stressful hours of work and now you’d like to embark on something new. You’re interested in the business side of things, or maybe it’s even a business idea that you have, but nothing in your life has prepared you with the knowledge to embark on such a venture. Business school seems like a good path to consider, but for that you’ll need to relearn (or perhaps even learn for the first time) some essential statistics and economics lessons. At-large programs not only give you the ability to take the classes you’ll need to gain acceptance to an MBA program, they’re also a great way to test the waters of business school and take actual business classes that will give you the certainty that you really want to embark on the path.

Desire to explore: Having discovered a passion, it’s time to take it to the next level.

Suddenly you find yourself in a professional world after four years of undergraduate study that lacked a clear direction or passionate focus. Two years after graduating, however, a chance encounter puts you in touch with a field you truly love and want to study at a graduate level. Maybe it’s art history, or maybe it’s psychology, or it could be data analytics. Whatever it is, lacking prior coursework or recommendation letter writers to speak to your strength and passion for the area, it seems unlikely you’d be able to make a strong enough case to gain acceptance into a graduate program to pursue these new passions further. Here again at-large programs come to the rescue. Not only will they offer courses that will deepen your knowledge and appreciation of the area, the professors who teach the courses can now speak to your ability and dedication by writing you a letter of recommendation.

Desire to upskill: Unsure about the career risk posed by a new technology, it’s time to learn more.

You entered the workforce fully fluent in the leading technologies. Whether working in finance, marketing, healthcare, or another field, your solid foundation let you rise through the ranks and incorporate the latest skill sets as they became relevant to your role. Now in your thirties or forties, a new and unfamiliar generation of technologies has appeared—machine learning, large language models, advances in cybersecurity, and more. While no one expects you to be an expert, understanding how these techniques work and what they can do—even if just the essential features—will keep you in the conversation. As an at-large student, you’ll have a broad range of courses from which to choose , tailored to your level and often your area of expertise. 

Desire to delve deeper: By testing out a couple potential paths, the right one is found.

Always fascinated by human behavior, you majored in psychology as an undergrad with a sub-focus in neuroscience. Eager to pursue a PhD after graduating, you’re certain that it’s the brain you want to study but whether to do that in a neuroscience department or a neighboring one you can’t decide. Finally, you narrow it down to two different fields—neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The fields are similar but also importantly different and all the reading online you do about them isn’t giving you the clarity you need. By enrolling in an at-large program, you’ll be able to take courses in each of these fields and get to know their differences firsthand as you come to your decision. You’ll also be able to speak with faculty and fellow students about exactly what they understand the critical difference between the fields to be and why they pursued the path they did.

Build a Foundation

At-large programs are essential educational options for students and professionals looking to explore different areas of study as they settle on their next step. Offering a wide and flexible array of courses and plenty of networking opportunities, the clarity and conviction gained through taking advantage of what these programs have to offer—from academic workshops to career services and more—can expand one’s career options while enabling the broad-ranging insight so valuable today for success.

GSAL at UChicago

Ahead of its time when deemed a key part of founding president William Rainey Harper’s vision for the University of Chicago, the Graduate Student-at-Large (GSAL) program has evolved to meet the latest demands in higher education ever since. Today GSAL at UChicago stands out for the extensive suite of programs it offers, supporting students who take classes across the university, at the Chicago Booth School of Business through the GSALB program, and through the Returning Scholars program. More than just access to the University of Chicago’s world-class classrooms, however, GSAL also gives students a full university experience, combining weekly community gatherings with career counseling, access to academic workshops, gymnasium membership, and more. It’s a pathway to growth that might hardly have seemed possible. To learn more, visit the Graduate Student-at-Large program page.

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