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October 15th, 2014

“Should I Go to Graduate School?”

If you’re an undergrad or recent college graduate, you’re probably asking yourself this question: “should I go to grad school?”

The idea is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying. Along with the promise of prestige and expanded career opportunity comes the risk of added debt, a delayed start to your career, or wasted time.

Here are five questions you should ask – and answer – before deciding whether or not graduate school is right for you. 

Should you go to grad school?

  1. Will it be worth your time and money?

Graduate school can be expensive. A report (pdf) by the New America Foundation shows that the median debt of a graduate degree holder is about $57,600, while the 75th percentile of borrowers owed over $99,000.

The tuition for professional master’s degrees in top programs at private universities can be well over $40,000 a year and there is often little non-repayable financial aid available.

What are the median salaries in the field you want to enter with your degree? How much money can you expect to make after graduating? And are you going to be able to comfortably repay the debt you incur?

Even if you enter a fully funded PhD program, you will be out of the workforce for at least five years – and increasingly, six to ten years. Outside grad school, that’s time you could spend accumulating work experience and moving up the ladder (in addition to earning more money and saving for retirement). Six years is enough to make you mid-career in many fields, where you’ll be earning a great deal more than a grad student stipend.

Ask yourself: Is it personally worth it to incur the expense or forgo those opportunities in order to earn your graduate degree?

  1. Do you need a grad degree to do what you want to do?

Ultimately, a graduate degree is designed as a training program for some kind of career field. The end goal is for you to get a job in the field and build a career based on your newly acquired skills. But if you can already do that without a graduate degree, why spend the time and effort?

I like the way Alison Green puts it:

“Grad school makes sense when you’re going into a field that requires or significantly rewards a graduate degree.”

Do the people who are currently doing what you want to do have graduate degrees? Is there a ceiling to your progression in that career if you don’t have an advanced degree? If so, where is it?

The corollary to this question is to ensure that the degree you plan to obtain is actually going to lead you to the career field you want.

Do some research: what kinds of graduate degrees, if any, do the people in your desired career field have?

  1. Do you know what you want to study – for the next 2-7 years?

Graduate programs – particularly PhD programs – are designed to be intense, immersive experiences. Unlike college, graduate school is not the time to explore new interests; instead, you’ll be hyper-focused on the area you choose to study.

But remember that the graduate treatment of a subject can be quite different than what you were exposed to as an undergrad. As a master’s student, you will dive into the ‘nitty gritty’ in addition to spending a great deal of time mastering research methods and other analytical tools. If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, the passion you felt for a subject as an undergrad can quickly wear off.

On the other hand, if you know why you’re there you may find yourself instilled with new-found drive and motivation: many of these students find that they enjoy their graduate experience more than undergrad.

If you’re not entirely sure of what you want to study and why you want to study it, remember that you don’t have to attend grad school to continue your intellectual growth. You can attend lectures at nearby universities, take classes as a non-degree student, or simply go to your local library.

  1. Are you thinking about grad school because you don’t know what else to do?

If this question makes you think, stop now! There are so many things you can do after college that don’t involve getting a graduate degree.

According to the Census Bureau, only about 11.5% of the U.S. population over the age of 24 has a graduate degree. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those with only a bachelor’s degree is a mere 4%.

It’s a myth that you can’t find a job without a graduate degree. The vast majority of the American workforce has never attended grad school and never will.

  1. Are you mentally and emotionally prepared for graduate school?

Graduate studies can be a wonderful experience – intellectually stimulating, challenging, eye-opening – but the environment can also be intense. Given the pool of students around you, graduate school can take on a pressure-cooker atmosphere, and while the rewards are (usually) high, the demands of your program (and accompanying stress) will be significant.

The demands of grad school will also limit, at least to some extent, your ability to do other things. If there is something that you really wanted to do after undergrad – say, travel the world, teach abroad, move to a new city – with few exceptions, you should do that first so that you can feel settled once your start your program. The last thing you want to do is find yourself totally overwhelmed by other interests in your first year of grad school.

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