Should You Go to Graduate School?

Three women with graduation gowns holding their caps in the air

Consider Your Options After Your Undergraduate Degree

Earning an advanced degree has become synonymous with success in America. So it’s no wonder why the number of people over age 25 with a master’s degree has doubled since 2000, and those earning doctoral degrees has more than doubled. Unfortunately all these degrees come at a hefty price tag. Although people with a master’s can earn, on average,  about $40,000 more annually than someone with a bachelor’s, they could also leave school with student loans amounting to anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 for every year they attended.  Financial commitments aside, graduate school takes a lot of work

Some people think, ‘Hey, if I get a graduate degree, I’ll make more money or get to do what I want,’ but it’s important to think hard before applying to graduate school: It’s a lot of work and it’s very intense, and if you’re just lukewarm, or not really sure it’s what you want to be doing, than it’s going to seem even more difficult.

Dr. Marsha D. Brown, a mental health expert who specializes in stress management and avoiding career fatigue

If you’re on the path to graduate school — or think you might be one day — take a moment to answer the following questions. Doing so can help you determine if grad school is really the best option for your future. 

Why do I want to go to graduate school?

Your answer here should be more than just “to get a graduate degree,” said Dr. Brown. “If you know that you want to get a certain job or be in a certain career, and there is no way to get there without graduate school, then consider a program.” On the flip side, if you’re not sure what you want to do, but you figure having a graduate degree can only help, you should probably wait to apply before you have more clarity.  

Can I have the career I want without graduate school?

Working backwards when it comes to considering your career path. “Figure out your endpoint — or career goals — and then figure out your path,” Dr. Brown said. “There might be other ways to get to where you want to go that don’t require paying for graduate school.” For example, consider internships, work/life experience or individual classes before diving headfirst into a full graduate program. 

Will a graduate degree increase my earning power?

“In a competitive labor market, a graduate degree can be the deciding factor in whether someone is chosen for a job over other applications,” said Sian Leah Beilock, Ph.D., president of Barnard College at Columbia University. “But in some industries, a post-baccalaureate education isn’t considered necessary and doesn’t impact salary much, if at all.” An aspiring teacher, for example, may be able to earn a significantly higher salary with a graduate degree, said Dr. Beilock. “Someone interested in becoming an airline pilot, on the other hand, wouldn’t necessarily benefit financially from obtaining a master’s degree, as this field requires a specific amount of experience to work your way up.” 

How will I pay for graduate school?

With the hefty price tag associated with most graduate school programs, it’s important to figure out if you can actually afford to attend. “Even though loans may seem like easy money, remember that those loans can stay with you for a long time after you graduate,” said Dr. Brown. If you do opt for grad school, look for resources to help you lessen the financial burden. Some Ph.D. programs will cover tuition and living expenses if you are a research or teaching assistant, said Dr. Beilock. Also, think about costs when deciding if a specific school or program is right for you. People often think they have to go to a certain school with a certain program, but if you look into your options, you may realize that you can get an excellent and comparable education in another school, at a lower cost.  

Do I have the time to commit to graduate school?

Prospective students should also ask themselves if they’re able to commit the time needed to succeed in graduate school. “Being honest with yourself upfront is vital for those who plan to work and take classes at the same time,” said Dr. Beilock. Grad school requires you to be self-motivated and committed to keeping yourself on track. A program geared towards working professionals may help you strike a better work-life balance than a program for full-time students.   

Whichever way you’re learning, be sure that you’re going to graduate school for all the right reasons — and that you have a solid plan for paying for it afterwards — so that you can make the most of the experience.

– Cheryl Lock