Graduate school can be a rewarding learning experience that helps you grow, expand your mind, and prepare for a successful career. However, it can also be extremely demanding, stressful, and expensive, and still might not qualify you for many jobs depending on the field. As with everything, there are pros and cons that must be weighed and questions that should be asked before beginning an advanced degree to ensure that you know what you’re getting into and that it’s the right path for you.
Here are four critical questions to consider when deciding.
1. Why do I want to go to grad school?
Before racking up thousands in debt, do some soul searching and determine exactly why you want to go to graduate school. There are some really great reasons to go, but there are also some not-so-great reasons that could lead to regret down the road.
Here are some of those not-so-great reasons that should not be significant factors in deciding to continue your education:
- You don’t like what you’re doing now
- You don’t know what else to do
- You’re avoiding family, financial, or personal obligations
- Dissatisfaction with your current job
- To put off paying college loans
- Parents or teachers expect you to go
- To delay getting a real job
On the other hand, here are some of the best reasons to go:
- Your occupation of choice requires an advanced degree even for “entry-level positions” (check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupation Finder to see the minimum education required in your field)
- Your ultimate goal is to become a university professor
- A graduate degree will enable you to advance in your career and/or increase your earning potential
- For your love of learning, passion for your field, or desire to do research and write a thesis/dissertation
- To stand out from your peers in the midst of the academic inflation that resulted from an excess of people with a college education
Make sure you know why you’re going to grad school and that your reasons are good. It is expensive and challenging to earn an advanced degree, so you don’t want to do it for poor reasons that won’t matter in the long-run.
2. Do I need this advanced degree to accomplish my career goals?
Once you know why you want to go to grad school and what your goals are, be sure to evaluate whether or not this degree is necessary to accomplishing your career goals. If you have a specific position in mind, check what is required for the job. How is graduate education viewed in your field? Take a little time and look at LinkedIn profiles of professionals in your field that you aspire to be like, and see what they did to get to where they are now. Talk to connections you have in the industry and get advice from those with more experience as to whether or not a graduate degree would be worth it in the long run. Perhaps you should pursue more education, or perhaps it would be just as beneficial to get more work experience.
3. How much will grad school cost, how will I pay for it, and is it worth the time and money?
It’s no secret that grad school costs a lot of money, so before you move forward, determine exactly what the costs will be and how you will pay for them. Unfortunately, while tuition is usually the largest chunk of money, it isn’t the only cost you need to consider. Look into all of these expenses when figuring out the total cost of going back to school:
- Test fees for GRE, GMAT, etc.
- Application fees for applying to programs
- Travel expenses for interviews
- Total cost of tuition
- School supplies (possibly including a computer) and books
- Groceries/eating out
Try out this grad school budget sheet from TheMuse to help you calculate all potential expenses. Then, look into what options you have to stay afloat through these years of education. Find out what financial aid is available, what loan options you have and how and when you could pay them back, if you could work for your school teaching or doing research during your degree, etc.
Consider a few years down the road too—what is your expected salary after you earn the degree? Determine your return on investment. Will you earn enough afterwards to repay your loans? Is it worth it? The answer could easily be yes. It might also be no. Be realistic and look at the big picture to make the smartest decision.
4. How is the job market in that field?
Employment prospects vary depending on the field you choose to enter. Some industries are over-saturated with educated people looking for work, making it more difficult to have a really successful career. Others are booming and need more qualified job seekers to fill positions. Before putting time and money into a degree, be sure to research the job market in your field of interest.
Now, if the market is tough, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to grad school and pursue your field of interest, but you should be aware that the job hunt might be challenging, know what you want out of your career, and be realistic. Look at employment trends and look at job placement rates for the schools you’re interested in. The last thing you want is to spend time and money on school just to graduate with no job prospects.