How To Really Know if Grad School Is the Right Decision
Whether you’re almost done with undergrad, you’re looking to advance in your career, or you’re contemplating a career change, graduate school may be on your mind.
You know that graduate school is costly and time-consuming, but it’s potentially a great investment in your future. So, how do you know if graduate school is right for you?
Consider the questions below to help you make an informed decision.
Does your career require an advanced degree?
If your chosen career requires an advanced degree, answering the grad school question is easy. You’ll need to go to graduate school to land the job of your dreams.
Careers that require advanced degrees include:
- Financial manager
- Most CEO and upper management positions
The degree you’ll need varies. For some of these careers, a master’s degree will suffice. For others, you’ll need a doctorate and up to seven additional years of school.
What if the career you’re interested in doesn’t require an advanced degree? Then the question gets a bit more complicated. Let’s look at a few more considerations.
Will you have more opportunities with a graduate degree?
The next question to consider is whether you’ll have more opportunities with a graduate degree. Will climbing the career ladder in your field require an advanced degree?
If you’ve already started your career, you may know the answer already. If not, research the requirements of several higher-level positions in your field.
Keep in mind that you may not want to stay in the same job forever. If several other jobs in your career field do require more education, grad school may be a wise decision. It will allow you to keep your options open, advance in your field, and potentially earn more money.
Will you earn a higher salary with a graduate degree?
Speaking of more money, a graduate degree isn’t guaranteed to come with a higher salary. But in many cases, it does.
According to a 2015 study by Georgetown University, college grads with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $61,000 over the course of their careers. Meanwhile, those with a grad degree bring home closer to $78,000 annually. That’s a difference of $17,000.
However, the increase in salary (if there is one) varies by field. Do your research to determine how much a graduate degree will affect your earning potential in your field. Sites like PayScale and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are good sources for this information.
Will graduate school make you a more competitive job candidate?
Next, consider whether employers in your field prefer candidates with advanced degrees or candidates with more work experience.
Remember that while you’re in grad school pursuing your degree, your competitors may be out in the field working. By the time you complete your degree, they could have several more years of career experience than you do.
If your degree will make you more competitive, that’s great. But if employers in your field are more interested in candidates with job experience, this could put you at a disadvantage.
Again, you’ll need to do your research. Searching online is helpful, but it’s even more helpful to talk to employees and/or employers in your field. If an advanced degree won’t necessarily make you a more appealing candidate, it may not be worthwhile.
Can you handle the workload and pressure of grad school?
Graduate school is more intense in terms of difficulty level and workload than undergrad. If you managed to cruise by in undergrad, you’ll have to take a new approach in graduate school.
Courses build on the content you’ve already learned and take a much deeper dive into your area of expertise. Class sizes are smaller, and students are expected to come prepared to participate in thoughtful discussions.
You’ll do much more reading and writing, and in most cases, you’ll be expected to conduct scholarly research. You’ll make discoveries and present your findings, sometimes to faculty members and sometimes at professional conferences.
Undergraduate professors may have sent email reminders of upcoming tests, granted extensions, and looked the other way when you missed a few classes. Graduate professors won’t. You’ll be held to a higher standard as a graduate student, and your social life won’t be as eventful as it was in undergrad.
Of course, this isn’t to discourage you from pursuing graduate school. It’s simply to prepare you for the realities of earning an advanced degree. Consider whether you’re up to the challenge before making the investment.
What’s your ROI?
Ultimately, these questions are designed to help you determine your Return on Investment. Think about what graduate school will cost you (money, time, effort) and what you’ll get in return (higher salary, expertise, more opportunities). Is it worth it?
In terms of money, a general rule of thumb is to limit your student debt to the average salary of a master’s degree holder in your field.
Let’s say you want to pursue a master’s in social work, which will cost you $70,000. You already have $30,000 in debt from undergrad, and the average salary for a social worker with a master’s degree is $46,000. If you’d have to borrow the full cost of grad school, the return on your investment would be negative. It may be wiser to skip grad school and go into the field in this case.
Depending on your circumstances, perhaps you won’t have to take on debt to attend graduate school. Either way, consider how much grad school will cost you in comparison to how much your advanced degree will benefit you in the future. Imagine weighing the costs and benefits on a scale.
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
Finally, ask yourself why you want to go to graduate school. In addition to the potential benefits described above, it can be interesting and exciting to develop specialized knowledge in a field you’re passionate about.
You’ll also have access to laboratories, technology, equipment, and close interactions with professors that you may not have had in undergrad. You’ll build important relationships with current and future leaders in your field, and you may even earn awards and recognition before you graduate.
If these benefits appeal to you, grad school may be worth it to you personally regardless of earning potential and opportunities.
On the other hand, are you considering grad school simply because you aren’t sure what to do next? Or because you don’t feel ready to move from college to the workforce? These aren’t solid reasons to commit the time, money, and effort that grad school requires. Take some time to re-evaluate your reasoning and your next steps.
Final Thoughts: How to Determine if Grad School Is Right for You
Graduate school may be right for you if:
- Your future job requires it
- You’ll earn more money and more opportunities as a result
- You’ll be a more competitive job candidate
- You can handle the workload and pressure
- You’ll have a positive ROI
- You’re clear on your reasons for attending
On the other hand, you may want to skip grad school if:
- It’s not required for your job
- It won’t open the door to more opportunities or a much higher salary
- Work experience is valued over advanced education in your field
- Successfully finishing undergrad was a struggle, too stressful, etc.
- Your ROI will be negative
- You’re simply unsure what to do next
Do your research, plan out your testing dates, write out your ideas, and talk to people who are already in the field you’re considering. The choice to attend grad school isn’t a decision to take lightly. Contemplating the questions above will help you ensure that you’re making the right decision for you.
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