Is Pursuing a Graduate Degree a Smart Choice?

When Chris finished his undergrad degree in math, he hadn’t decided whether he would continue on to grad school. Like three-quarters of his classmates, when he was a freshman he planned to continue on, but now that the time was getting close mental burnout and concerns over mounting debt were weighing heavy on his mind. Before he started filling out the applications and getting letters of recommendation, he decided to put his education to work and weigh the pros and cons.

The first thing to consider is that graduate tuition and fees at public institutions cost an average of $30,000 per year, and and extra $10,000 should be added for private institutions according to Petersons. That is not even considering degrees from elite institutions such as Harvard where you can expect to pay closer to $120,000 for the full course, according to estimates from TIME.

Without significant financial support from fellowships, scholarships, or tuition reimbursement from an employer, Chris wasn’t sure if these extra costs would be offset by potential increase in earnings.
The US economy no longer offers the opportunities it once did for college graduates. The National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences, reported that In 2015, 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college — 23% increase over 2000.

When Grad School Makes Sense

While you may hear stories about someone who gets all their schooling paid for and then land a job with a high salary as soon as they graduate, these scenarios are the exception. For most people, consecutive degrees mean racking up debt and spending time in a classroom that could be used to develop a resume. For people in this situation, graduate school isn’t the solution — it is the problem.

But there are times when it is advantageous to get a higher degree, beyond the prestige, knowledge, and the extra letters at the end of your name. In the end, grad school is an investment, so it is worthwhile to calculate the tangible return. Here are a few instances when attending graduate school can be the smart choice.

1. It is expected in your field

If you are in law or medicine, it is absolutely required to have an advanced degree. For fields like social work, psychology or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields an advanced degree may also be required to advance at all within your career field.

2. The Higher Degree Heavily Influences Salary Prospects

According to Peterson’s individuals with master’s degrees out earn bachelor degree holders by an average of $400,000 over their lifetime. A graduate degree guarantee extra money, but in some fields it can make a significant difference.

One example, is that the American Physical Society says that a physicist holding a master’s degree could expect to earn 33% more than a physicist with a bachelor’s degree. Teacher also have higher salary standards for teachers who hold master’s degrees in education.

3. It Improves Job Placement Prospects

Every grad school is different. Check the placement rate at the schools you are thinking of attending and be very skeptical of self reported placement rates. The “100% placement rate” that you see on the University website might reflect self reported placement and not include all the unemployed graduates who are too embarrassed to say that they can’t find work in their field. Ask for access to the institutions alumni network and do some person-to-person research about how their degrees helped them.

4. Someone else pays for it

If you are not paying for your education, because of fellowships, scholarships, or you work for a company that will pay your tuition, it will make a lot more sense to invest the time in a higher degree. Business Insider reported that the following companies offered partial or total reimbursement of education costs:

  • Apple
  • Best Buy
  • Bank of America
  • Boeing
  • Chevron
  • Disney
  • Ford
  • Gap
  • Home Depot
  • Intel
  • Procter & Gamble
  • UPS
  • Verizon Wireless
  • Wells Fargo

When Graduate School Don’t Make Sense

Don’t expect grad school to be a way to extend your weekend parties. Grad school requires more time, money, and mental energy than an undergrad degree so take the following into account when deciding if entering the workforce is the best choice for now.

1. You Don’t Have Any Work Experience

“There is rarely a reason to go to grad school immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree,” says professor and author Andrew Roberts. There is no substitute for full-time work including letters and internships.

Take some time to for trial and error, lateral moves, and some constructive failure to see if your field really is a good fit for you. Nothing is worse that spending 7 years climbing to the top of a ladder and realizing it is against the wrong wall.

2. You Can’t Invest the Time Required To Complete It

Most graduate programs require at least two years for full-time students, and three or four years for part-time students.

Full-Time. Even though this lets you finish your degree faster, when your peers enter the workforce they may end up with a leg up. It also means that they are cashing paychecks while you are acquiring debt.

Part-Time. Many professionals keep their day jobs and complete a part-time program during the evenings and weekends. Not only do they keep their paychecks, some may be entitled to tuition reimbursement. Keep in mind the massive time commitment required to work, attend classes and complete the homework involved.

3. Your Field Doesn’t Require Higher Degrees

Many fields don’t require advanced degrees. Trying to enter your field without work experience could make you overqualified for entry level positions and fear that it carries a sense of entitlement with it.

4. Higher Job Placement Rates and Salaries Aren’t Guaranteed

Higher average lifetime earnings for those who hold master’s degrees don’t tell the whole story. Since they are averages, for every person who got a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and ended up working for NASA with a hefty paycheck, there is another person with a degree working at a coffee shop trying to manage their crippling debt.

In the end, you need to do the research on the school and field you plan to enter and well as decide if you can handle the stress at the moment. Not every field values graduate education, and letters may not open more doors.

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