Should You Go to Grad School? 3 Questions to Ask First

The “should I go to grad school?” question is a lot different today than it was just a few years ago.

Between 2000 and 2012, graduate programs were the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, with the annual production of master’s degrees increasing 63% during that timeframe, according to federal data. In particular, enrollments spiked after the 2008 global financial crisis, when many people returned to school to bolster prospects in a depressed job market.

But over the past few years, the grad school trend has tempered for a number of reasons – jobs are easier to get, tuition is more expensive than ever, and a growing number of alternative education options are popping up to help workers expand their skills and increase career prospects without an expensive degree.

In other words, your answer to the “should I go to grad school” question may be different now than it would have been five years ago. However, that doesn’t mean that the answer will be “no.”

So what are the factors that should affect your decision, given the world we live in today? Here are three critical questions to ask.

  1. How will it affect your finances?

Grad school is expensive, but many justify the investment by assuming they’ll make more money in the long run. While it’s true that higher education can often lead to a higher salary, potential earnings vary greatly by type of graduate degree – and in fact can also be affected by your undergrad major. The calculation is further complicated if you have to pay back graduate student loans, which often come with above-market interest rates.

In order to help prospective grad students understand the return on education, or ROEd, of various graduate degrees, SoFi recently analyzed over 200,000 applications to assess how degree combination and education costs affect earning potential. While we found that grad school generally pays off in the form of higher lifetime earnings, the type of undergrad and graduate degrees earned made a big impact.

For example, with an undergrad degree in Humanities, you may expect a lifetime income of about $2,656,912. Getting a master’s degree in Humanities would likely increase that by 4.9%, but getting an MBA could increase it by 88.9% – and that’s after you pay back your student loans. You can view the full ROEd report here to see how your prospective degree combo adds up.

  1. Is it necessary to progress in your career?

Grad school admissions may be on the decline, but there are still plenty of jobs that you simply can’t do without one – doctors, dentists, nurses and lawyers, to name a few. There are even companies that require an MBA or other graduate degree in order to rise above a certain level. If your career objectives lie on the other side of that degree, you may not have a choice.

Another factor to consider is the network you’ll gain in graduate school, which many alum count as one of the top benefits. You can get a feel for how important that might be by checking out the LinkedIn profiles of people who have the job you covet or who work at companies you admire – if you start to see a pattern of grad school affiliation, having a graduate degree could help your cause.

But in some cases, an advanced degree isn’t necessary in order to get ahead in your job or switch careers. The question is whether the career you want actually requires a special degree or simply a mastery of new skills. If the latter, consider less expensive educational options like Skillshare, General Assembly or MOOCs (massive open online courses), or certifications related to your industry. If you can achieve your goals without the high price tag of grad school, it can make a big difference in your financial situation.

  1. Will the outcome increase your job satisfaction?

Most people attend grad school with some kind of desired outcome in mind, whether it’s to make more money, score a promotion, change industries or all of the above. Given the significant time and money investment required, it’s important to understand whether your desired outcome is really going to make you happy at work.

For example, a recent Glassdoor study found that higher salaries don’t make people as happy as other perks and intangible aspects at work, such as culture and values, senior leadership and work-life balance. Of course, a company with these qualities may require an advanced degree to get in the door.

Bottom line: if you know what you want to accomplish, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about whether grad school is worth it to you.


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