Should I Go to Graduate School?

Six Things to Consider First

Note:  This article does not necessarily apply to someone thinking about “Going back to school to get/finish a bachelor’s degree” because you had not previously. In most cases, though not all, the answer is “Yes”, but see “Alternatives to the 4-year Degree”.

I frequently have college interns, recent grads and young professionals asking my advice about “going back to school” (or staying in school, if they are still finishing up a Bachelor’s degree) for a Master’s Degree.

Again, you know what’s best for you, so this is a decision for no one but you (and your family if applicable). With that said, here are 6 things to consider before you make a graduate school decision.

1. Is a Graduate Degree required for your Career?

If your desired career REQUIRES a graduate degree, then yes, of course. For example, if you know you want to be a veterinarian, or a dentist, or a social worker, you know you are going to need a Master’s Degree. 

Otherwise, typically it is not required. But whether it is or isn’t, you might consider taking a school break between undergraduate and graduate school for a year or two to work in your chosen field and get some real experience that you might not get in an internship.

2. If not required, explore WHY you want a Graduate Degree.

And I don’t mean that someone told you “You can’t get a job without an MBA anymore,” or “Pretty much all companies require an MBA these days,” because that is decidedly NOT true.

I highly recommend you take a deep breath and spend some time thinking seriously about WHY you would do it.  

Are you sure you are not just choosing graduate school because you don’t know what else to do?

Because you don’t like first or second job out of college?

Because you think you can earn a ton more money (keeping in mind the debt you will incur)?

Are you so fascinated by the field that you don’t want to stop learning about it?  I’m guessing probably not. Most people, at the end of four years (or, your whole life, assuming you went straight from high school into college), are ready for a breather.

And, if you had to finance all or some of your bachelor’s degree, I suggest pausing to pay that off instead of piling more on.  (See point #4.)

Some people choose to go straight from undergrad to grad school because “the economy sucks and it’s going to be impossible to get a job anyway.” Hmmm…  If you have reviewed all these other questions and you would otherwise work for a while before grad school, I would go for the work and don’t use the economy as an excuse. There are almost always career-related jobs out there for people who are hungry.  

If you REALLY want to know if the “economy sucks”, in YOUR field, do some research on www.onetonline.org (Browse “Bright Outlook Occupations” before you use the economy as an excuse.)  Direct Link: https://www.onetonline.org/find/bright?b=1&g=Go

3. WILL YOU GO BACK later, if you don’t go straight from undergrad?


You know yourself.  Can you make the commitment? If you are afraid that you’ll really never go back if you don’t just do it now, then maybe you should go straight to grad school if you’ve considered all these other things. 

Of course: Life gets in the way.  You get a job you love and there’s no time or money to go back.  You get married, have kids, there’s not time to go back… 

On the other hand, working for a few years might reinforce, focus or spark your desire to go back later! If the answer to this question, “Should I go to graduate school”, after doing all your research, is not clear to you IN YOUR GUT, I suggest the answer to the “Should I go to grad school” question is, “Right now, no.”

Story: I had ZERO interest in going to grad school after I earned my Bachelor’s Degree. After I worked for four or five years at a small agency, I realized the work I was doing was repetitive there was no real opportunity for growth in the market I was working in. I just knew in my GUT that I was capable of more.  My mentor was really pushing me to get my MBA, but that didnt excite me. (Accounting, Finance, Management – barf!)

I spent some time researching graduate programs and talking to people, and found one that felt designed JUST FOR ME! I was ecstatic! (Furthermore, while IN grad school, I discovered the very specific career that I fell in love with – one that I didn’t even know existed.)

4. How will you pay for it?

If you thought undergraduate school was expensive, wait until you see the cost of a graduate school credit hour! What will your earning potential be with a Master’s degree? 

If you think your current employer will suddenly give you a big fat raise once you’ve earned a master’s degree, you better check on that first! Most times, you’ll get NO raise (and I know many people who will attest to this)! It’s highly possible you will have to switch jobs to see a salary increase.)

If you’re earning $40,000 year and going to grad school will increase your salary to $80,000/year, that sounds like a great investment.  But is that the case?  Or, are you simply piling this debt on top of other school debt?

Will an employer pay for it?  If you are currently employed, that is a great question to pursue.  (If you’re not currently employed, or the answer to the previous question is “no”, consider finding a job at a company that DOES offer education reimbursement program.) Many do, with limitations:  They might pay a certain percentage, if you get an A or B. They might only pay for classes (or a degree) highly-related to your job, etc. Regardless, this is an incredible opportunity to take advantage of. If you think graduate school might be in your future, when you are applying for a full-time job after college, be sure to ask your employer if they offer tuition reimbursement!

5. Are there other options, besides a graduate degree?

What about formal training or certifications that will better forward your career at a fraction of the cost? In fact, there are some certifications available for free, or at nominal cost, online. Your employer might pay for these as well, if they are related to your job responsibilities.

You owe yourself the time and effort of some research on this before you make a graduate school decision.

6. Talk to people with Master’s degrees (ideally, in your desired field).

Have you been serious about your research? Are you SURE this is the field you want to be in for 20+ years, before you make this commitment?  You owe yourself the effort of talking to a few people who have graduate degrees in your field of interest. Ask them how they decided. Ask them about the cost vs. the benefits. Ask them about the program – how it worked, the quality, the cost, the time committment. Ask them how it has helped them, specifically? Did their salary level change?

You can ask people you know, or ask friends of friends. (This is where your network comes in handy, and is a great opportunity to spark a conversation at a networking event.) Send out a call to your network on social media. Most people will be happy to tell you their opinions.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Here’s my best advice about going to graduate school: Unless a graduate degree is required for your chosen field, or you KNOW you want a graduate degree BUT believe you will never go back if you don’t do it right now:

You will get more out of graduate school
if you work for a few years before you go.”

-Kim Bailiff (yes, this is my own quote.)

Why? Because learning is about context. 

Life is about applying the CONCEPTS that you learn in school to life experiences. 

Otherwise, they are just floating around in your head as ambiguous, theoretical ideas.  When I graduated from college and someone asked, “What did you learn?” I was like… “Uhhhh….”

I knew I got a good education… but I couldn’t tell you what I was going to be able to actually DO. Because I hadn’t really done it yet (other than some cool internships that had me doing more minor, tactical stuff.)

Ever wonder why “case studies” are so helpful when you are learning concepts? It’s APPLYING the concepts. 
If you work for a few years before grad school, you will have your own experiences to apply concepts to.

The benefits of working a few years before grad school cannot be underestimated:

  • You will be better able to internalize what you learn by thinking of how it would apply in a real life work situation. It will feel more tangible.  It will stick in your brain better. You will get so much more out of what you learn!
  • You will be able to contribute more. You’ll ask better questions. Your classmates and professors will appreciate your ability to share relevant experiences. 

    Story: When I started grad school, I had roughly 5 years of work experience, which gave me plenty of context.  My classmates who came straight from undergrad had little to share and, I fear, had a harder time absorbing the concepts. 

    I distinctly remember feeling a little sorry for one classmate who seemed to often have a blank look on her face when the professor was explaining concepts… Unless she always looked like that... (Resting Confused Face?)

Again, as always, the decision is yours to make but, given the investment (time and money), it should not be taken lightly. 

I hope this helps give you some direction, or at least, food for thought.

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