Getting a graduate degree is key to getting ahead, at least according to undergraduate students. When researchers at UCLA surveyed more than 150,000 first-year college students in the fall of 2014, roughly three-quarters said they planned to eventually go to graduate school.
“[M]any entry-level positions increasingly require a college degree; therefore, students may be recognizing that, in order to advance further, a graduate credential is necessary,” the authors of the report wrote.
But is going to grad school really a smart idea? While there are plenty of good reasons to earn an advanced degree, from the possibility of increased earnings to the chance to pursue a long-held passion, grad school isn’t right for everyone. Even if a master’s or Ph.D. program is in your future, now may not be the time to pursue it. If you’re on the fence about whether you should head back to class, here are three key questions to help you decide.
1. Why do I want to go back to school?
People with graduate degrees generally earn more than those with just a bachelor’s (they’re also less likely to be unemployed). But don’t apply to master’s or doctoral programs solely because you think it’s a guaranteed ticket to a bigger paycheck. Getting an advanced degree should be part of your long-term career and life goals, not something you do because you’ve decided it’s time for a salary boost or you’re stuck in a rut.
Graduate school makes sense if you want to work in a field where an advanced degree is required, like law, medicine, or social work. But in some fields, like software development, hands-on experience is probably more valuable than a piece of sheepskin. Do some research to find out whether an advanced degree will really give you an edge in your chosen field before you sink time and money into more schooling.
Whether you’re considering an MBA or MFA, don’t fall into the trap of going to graduate school because you don’t know what else to do, are bored with your life or career, or hate your job and are desperate to get out. Spending money on more schooling is an expensive, time-consuming way to figure out what you want from life. Devote a little time to soul searching before you return to campus and you may find there’s another path to get what you want in life.
2. Can I gain the same skills in another way?
Advanced education is a hard requirement for some careers – no one’s going to hire a self-taught doctor. But if gaining new skills is your primary motive for considering grad school, rather than earning a specific career-advancing degree, consider alternative ways to educate yourself. Certificate programs can help you shore up your knowledge in a particular area, like project management, marketing, or IT. These programs take less time to complete and are more narrowly focused than a traditional degree, so you’ll be in and out faster.
“I love to see achievement of certificates and industry certifications,” Maureen Crawford Hentz, director of talent management for A.W. Chesterton Co., a global manufacturing corporation, told U.S. News & World Report. “As a recruiter, these are things I know to look for.”
Online courses like those offered through Coursera and Lynda.com are another way to learn without returning to a college campus, as are professional development classes and conferences. Volunteering for stretch projects at work – assignments outside your normal responsibilities – can also be a good way to learn new skills, strengthen your resume, and show your boss you might be a good candidate for a promotion.
3. How am I going to pay for it?
Heading back to school can wreak havoc on your finances. Graduate students represent just 14% of all people pursuing higher education, but they account for 40% of all student borrowing, The Wall Street Journal reported. Six-figure debt totals aren’t unusual, and some people find repaying their loans is difficult, even if they do land a high-paying job. Before signing on for any student loans, run some numbers. This calculator from LearnVest estimates how much more money you might be able to earn over your career by going to graduate school.
Some employers will cover all or part of the cost of a graduate degree if it’s relevant to your work. However, you might be required to stay at your job for a certain number of years after finishing school or repay the money spent on your education. Fellowships, grants, and scholarships can also ease the cost, as can seeking out more affordable programs in your field of study, like those at a smaller state university rather than a prestigious private school. If you must borrow, look for lower-interest loans and pay attention to forgiveness programs, like those that cancel your remaining debt if you make 120 on-time payments and work in public service.