A Guide for Positive Grad Students: Should you Attend a Graduate School?
A Guide for Positive Grad Students: Should you go to graduate school right after college? Or should you take the time to get work experience and travel before you go? You’ll need to consider your goals carefully, and then work methodically toward achieving them. I will give a full guide and also highlight the good and bad side of attending a Grad school.
First, I will like you to note what I will be discussing with you
- What Is Grad School?
- Should I Go to Grad School? (5 Factors to Consider)
- Reasons to Go to Grad School
- Reasons You Should NOT Go to Grad School
- What Should I Go to Graduate School For?
- How to Get Into Grad School?
- How Many Grad Schools Should I Apply To?
- Grad School Can Be Worth It (But Don’t Take It Lightly)
- 10 Tips for Balancing Work, Family, Studies
There are many moving parts to take into consideration when planning your education. If you decide to pursue your education beyond a bachelor’s degree, planning becomes even more complex. From determining what graduate degree to pursue find the money to pay for it all, preparing for graduate school requires focus and diligence.
What Is Grad School?
Traditionally, “graduate school” refers to degree-granting academic programs beyond the undergraduate level (i.e., “college”).
In recent years, some people have expanded the definition of grad school to include any advanced program after graduating from college, including academic degree-granting graduate programs (e.g., Master’s, Ph.D.), professional degree-granting programs (e.g., M.D., J.D., M.B.A.), and graduate school preparatory programs (e.g., post-baccalaureate programs before medical school).
In this guide, we’ll use the expanded definition because the advice applies regardless of the field(s) you’re considering.
Should I Go to Grad School? (5 Factors to Consider)
I’ll answer this complex question by exploring the following five factors:
- Career prospects
- Cost to attend
- Career earnings
- Opportunity cost
Evaluate Your Career Prospects
The first question you should ask yourself is, “Does my dream career require a graduate degree?”
If the answer is yes (e.g., becoming a physician requires a medical degree), a graduate school may be right for you. If the answer is no (e.g., starting a business doesn’t require an M.B.A.), you can be successful in your chosen field by skipping the additional schooling.
(Note: I’m not saying you shouldn’t attend grad school if your chosen field doesn’t require it. For instance, receiving an M.B.A. can increase your odds of business success, open your eyes to new career opportunities, and build a powerful network. That said, you don’t need to attend business school to start a successful business.)
Analyze the Cost to Attend
Depending on the program, enrolling in grad school can be an affordable option or a heavy financial burden for decades to come.
For example, a fully-funded Ph.D. program may offer free tuition and a living stipend so you can graduate with little or no debt, whereas law school tuition alone can exceed $40,000/year.
According to Credible, the average grad school debt among recent graduates in various fields is as follows:
- Average M.B.A. debt: $66,300
- Average M.A. debt: $72,800
- Average research Ph.D. debt: $108,400
- Average law school debt: $145,500
- Average medical school debt: $246,000
As you can see, graduate school isn’t cheap. When you factor in multi-year or multi-decade interest, attending grad school becomes even more expensive over time and can influence lifestyle decisions (e.g., where to live, what job to take).
There are, of course, exceptions to these numbers. You may receive a full ride to med school or significant grants for your M.B.A. Your employer may even reimburse you for a portion of the tuition as an educational benefit. However, it’s important to know the costs associated with any educational choice you make.
Consider Potential Career Earnings
People with graduate degrees tend to make more money than people without graduate degrees.
That said, like graduate school debt, prospective earnings vary widely depending on your chosen field and degree. In other words, some degrees are associated with much higher pay than others.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings by degree type are as follows:
- Professional degree: $1,836 (annual: $95,472)
- Doctoral degree: $1,743 (annual: $90,636)
- Master’s degree: $1,401 (annual: $72,852)
- Bachelor’s degree: $1,173 (annual: $60,996)
A person with a Master’s degree earns 19% more per year than someone with a Bachelor’s degree. Doctoral degree and professional degree holders earn 49% and 57% more than Bachelor’s degree holders, respectively.
There is a significant variance within these degree categories as well. For instance, the average physician earns a much higher salary than the average pharmacist, despite both having a professional degree.
Although the cost to attend grad school can be high and you may have to take on significant loans, the higher prospective career earnings may be worth it.
Know how Long It Will Take
Whereas some graduate programs require one or two years of time commitment, others require much more.
It took me only 5 years to earn my Ph.D. (I emphasize “only” as a joke, but most of my program peers took 6 or 7 years to graduate). My brother earned his medical degree in 4 years, but that was before 3 years of residency and 2 years of fellowship to become a pediatric emergency physician, during which he earned a relatively meager salary.
Many prospective graduate students brush off the time commitment by thinking that it will all be “worth it” in the end. That may be the case for you, but it may not be.
I certainly don’t regret my education, but I also believe that your 20’s and 30’s — the youthful decades during which you’re most likely to attend grad school — have special value. Do you want to spend 3 years toward a graduate degree? How about 7? How about 9 to complete grad school and specialty training?
Only you can answer this personal question. But as you’re making the decision, here are some numbers you should know:
- How long does it take to get a Master’s degree? Two years
- How long does it take to get a Ph.D.? Five to seven years
- How long does it take to get an M.B.A.? Two years
- How long does it take to get a law degree? Three years
- How long does it take to get a medical degree? Four years
Note: These numbers correspond to the years of required schooling for most programs that follow a full-time, traditional format. With non-traditional programs — such as online degrees — the time to graduation can be shorter (e.g., if your program offers an accelerated option) or longer (e.g., if you attend part-time).
Moreover, coursework may only comprise a fraction of the time spent earning your degree. For example, many Ph.D. students spend the first two years of their program completing coursework, whereas the remaining time is spent working on a dissertation.
Weigh the Opportunity Cost
If you go hiking between 8 AM and 10 AM on a Saturday, you can’t surf during that same time.
This is an example of an opportunity cost, which is technically defined as the value of the next-highest-valued alternative.
If you attend graduate school, you’ll have to give up certain opportunities. For example, if you enroll in a 6-year Ph.D. program, you can’t also gain 6 years of full-time consulting experience during that same period.
During those 6 years, you can earn income as a consultant, save and invest money, not take on educational loans, and move up the career ladder.
While a graduate degree can help you earn a higher salary in the long run, you’ll have years of catching up to do with regards to finances and experience.
Reasons to Go to Grad School
Invest in your Future
Although it’s not strictly necessary to have a firm view of your future career before applying to graduate school, it certainly helps. This is because grad school often acts as the academic version of professional training, enabling students to graduate with all the right knowledge in all the right places, ready to jump straight into their desired careers.
Either way, students applying to graduate school should do so with their eyes on the future, seeing further study as an investment in their potential and not simply as a way to postpone the end of student life.
Get Noticed in Today’s Job Market
More people than ever are attending graduate school today, and because of this, an undergraduate degree alone can sometimes fail to get you noticed alongside equally or more highly qualified candidates.
With university education in a contemporary society increasingly viewed as more of a rite of passage than a luxury, and 11% of the workforce (in the UK) now holding a graduate degree, bachelor degree holders are struggling to appeal to employers even at entry-level in certain industries – especially when up against candidates with PhDs.
Get more than a Qualification
Whereas much of the worth of an undergraduate degree is in the qualification itself, the most important reasons to go to grad school may be more for the professional skills you’ll gain, the personal development you’ll undergo and the valuable connections you’ll make with fellow graduate students, academics and industry experts.
It’s frequently said that grad school is about much more than obtaining a few letters behind your name and a fancy piece of paper; it’s about developing yourself professionally so that you’re ready to enter the world of work.
If you act smart in grad school, by the time you graduate you’ll have built yourself a professional landing mat of contacts and relationships, which will serve to keep you in the field and, ultimately, employed.
Pursue your Interest in more Depth
Although most undergraduate degrees allow students the opportunity to study modules and classes of personal interest, a graduate degree does this to a much greater extent. To get the most out of your graduate degree, you will be expected to conduct personal research alongside set study topics, to develop your thoughts and ideas regarding something that deeply interests you.
Attending extracurricular activities and meetings, hearing from guest speakers and lecturers as well as full-time faculty members you find interesting, is what makes grad school so diverse and multidisciplinary. For students with passionate academic interests then, the answer to the question “why go to graduate school?” is obvious!
Contribute to the World’s Knowledge
If you’re someone who wants to contribute to the world within any field, professionally or academically, you’re going to have to know your subject inside-out. For STEM subjects or other highly specialized fields, grad school helps to make that happen.
Kylie Rochford, a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University, explains that this was one of her main reasons to go to grad school: “Undergraduate study allowed me to understand existing knowledge in my field. Graduate school allows me to contribute to that knowledge.”
Reasons You Should NOT Go to Grad School
- You Can’t Find a Job
More often than not, employers want to see practical experience on your résumé, not another degree or credential. So except fields that might demand additional training (e.g., medicine, law, etc.), a graduate degree isn’t a guaranteed résumé booster or employment insurance.
You may find you have just as much trouble—if not more—finding a job with a graduate degree. Only this time around, you’re deeper in debt and you spent years holed up in a classroom when your job search competitors were gaining real-world experience.
“Some college students believe that graduate school will look really good on their résumé,” says Tamara Hill, M.S., a therapist. “What college students fail to realize is that employers are not looking for years of school experience; they are looking for common sense, the ability to use critical-thinking skills, and some experience.”
Before jumping into grad school to jump-start your job search, reach out to people in the positions you want. (Informational interviews are a beautiful thing, and you can find connections through your undergraduate institution’s alumni office, professional organizations, social media, or your network by asking around.)
See if they have any thoughts about the future of their industry. Ask them what their educational background is like. Talk to them about your grad school ambitions. You may be surprised by what they say.
“The key is doing your homework,” Goad says. If your ideal post-grad positions call for five years of work experience or more, “it may be better to jump into the workforce and gain that experience before adding a graduate degree. Some graduate degrees offer valuable work or research experience, but others don’t.”
P.S. Employers aren’t the only ones who want to see real-world experience on your résumé; grad schools value it too! And it can boost your graduate application if and when it’s time for you to go back to school.
What to do instead
- Visit your undergrad career services office
- Go to networking events (like Meetups)
- Join a service program or volunteer
- Get an internship
- Seek out informational interviews
- Start your own consulting business
- Do freelance work
You Need to Hit the Reset Button on Life
Suffering a bit of an existential crisis, unsure of what you want to do with your life? You’re hardly alone. But grad school isn’t the place to figure it out. Nor is it a place to steady yourself if you’re reeling from a life-changing event, like a big breakup. Grad school is incredibly demanding, and if you’re already stressed, it’s only going to make things worse.
“Some college graduates feel overwhelmed by decision paralysis. They don’t know what they want to be when they ‘grow up’ and are afraid they’ll make the wrong decision,” says Dr. Luz Claudio, a med school professor, and academic advisor. “I advise students who are experiencing this decision paralysis to work and/or volunteer while they think through their options before committing to a graduate program.
Students must take time to think through different options with their end goal in mind. I tell them to please look at graduate school as an educated consumer and ask yourself: ‘Is the training and degree that I am buying the right one that I need to reach my goal?’”
In short, there are much better ways to get your life back on track.
What to do instead
- Talk to a counselor or therapist
- Spend time with friends and family
- Try meditation, yoga, or exercise
- Start a new hobby
You Want to Make More Money
Okay, who doesn’t want to earn more money with their graduate degree? And, yes, grad school may increase your earning potential, says financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz, author of Filing the FAFSA. But it may not be enough of a salary jump to make the expense of grad school worth it.
Before even thinking about going back to school, you need to figure out the likely return on investment via projected job prospects and salaries in your field. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can help find this info, as well as salary sites like PayScale.) Your expected increase in earnings needs to be worth the cost of your graduate education.
And keep in mind that you’re not just looking at tuition and fees but also lost wages while you’re in school and interest payments from any debt incurred—and incurring grad school debt is very likely.
If you have a mountain of undergraduate student debt (again, who doesn’t?), you might see a master’s degree as your ticket out. But be forewarned: “If a college graduate is having trouble repaying his or her student loans, the last thing he or she needs is to pile on more debt,” says Kantrowitz.
“The rule of thumb concerning affordable debt—total student loan debt at graduation should be less than the borrower’s annual starting salary—still applies to graduate school but should include both undergraduate and graduate school debt as part of the total.”
So, before hunkering down with those grad school applications—and selling your soul for another student loan—ask yourself: Are there other ways to grow your income? Can you ask for a raise? Redo your budget? Start a side hustle in consulting? Find a more lucrative position in or outside your current company?
What to do instead
- Talk to a financial advisor
- Talk to your boss or HR rep
- Reassess living situation and finances
You Hate Your Job
Hating your job is a serious problem, but grad school is an expensive solution. And in all likelihood, it’s not your only option. Maybe there are ways to improve your current situation.
What is it about the job that you dislike? Can you talk to your supervisors or HR to change what you work on, who you work with, etc.? If that’s not doable, can you look for new positions elsewhere (see tip #1!)?
If you want to completely switch careers, a graduate degree can be a great means to that end, but you should be pretty darn certain it’s the right move before you commit to anything.
Ask yourself a few more questions: How much do you know about the field? What kind of experience do you have in it? What degrees do most people in your ideal position hold? Is graduate school truly necessary? Getting a position—even as an unpaid volunteer or intern—in the field can give you clarity about your decision.
“It’s hard to hit a job target when you don’t have one,” says Beth Probst, founder of higher education advising firm At the Core. “A common misguided reason we hear for pursuing grad school is that the student lacks a defined career path and first job target.
Without these, the student cannot know if the job they’ll ultimately pursue even requires or benefits from a graduate degree. We recommend that students work to identify potential careers and the education/skills required to do them much earlier and then frequently validate their choice via shadowing and course work experiences.”
Remember there are also certificates and other professional development programs that might give your career a leg-up. Of course, these programs come with their prices and pressures, so you should still make sure it’s the right choice for your career goals, it’s a financially responsible decision, and it fits into your overall life plan.
If you’re in a job you’ve considered a stepping-stone to bigger and better things all along—and grad school is truly necessary to achieving your goals—then, by all means, get your master’s. You have our blessing. But if you’re just looking for an escape from your current position, grad school probably isn’t it.
What to do instead
- Talk to your boss or HR rep
- Take continuing classes education classes
- Find a mentor
You Just Love Learning
It seems like a great reason to continue your education, right? But being particularly interested in a subject isn’t necessarily grounds for pursuing a graduate degree. Grad school means committing yourself to a distinct path and possessing a desire to contribute to the knowledge base in that field.
You should be able to picture yourself conducting lots of research, growing your field, and helping others do the same, perhaps as a college professor. But even if that sounds like you, keep in mind that it takes more than an advanced degree and a snazzy tweed jacket to enter academia.
Michael Li, founder of The Data Incubator and a math Ph.D. from Princeton, breaks down some of the obstacles facing doctoral candidates and would-be academics: “The job market is tough. The funding environment is really tough,” he says. “If you don’t get a tenure-track position, career prospects may not be very good.”
Being an academic can be an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s also a long, often frustrating uphill climb in a competitive atmosphere, with uncertain outcomes at the end of it.
Keep in mind there are plenty of ways to indulge your curiosity and quench your thirst for knowledge, from joining professional organizations to continuing education classes to reading every book and article on the subject you can get your hands on.
What to do instead
- Audit free courses online (through organs like Coursera, edX, and YouTube EDU)
- Volunteer with an organization related to your field (like giving tours for a historical society)
- Tutor others
- Start a blog or newsletter
What Should I Go to Graduate School For?
Given the various costs, you probably shouldn’t attend grad school for the sake of attending grad school.
As we discussed in the previous section, you’ll want to first consider whether your dream career or desired pay requires you to attend a specific graduate program.
Therefore, I think that “What should I go to grad school for?” is the wrong question. The better question is, “What do I want to do professionally?”
You may have a clear idea of what you want to do professionally and are wrestling with the decision of whether to attend grad school. Or, you may be unfulfilled with your current prospects and believe that going to grad school — for anything — will lead to a better option.
If you fall into the latter camp, I encourage you to pump the brakes because grad school isn’t the remedy for your confusion.
Instead, I encourage you to do more research on what your work in various fields will look like. That may involve taking a job in a field you’re considering or treating a professional in your area to coffee so you can learn about their work, work satisfaction, career path, whether they recommend attending grad school in their field, and advice on how to get there.
Asking advice from people you look up to — whether they have your ideal job or ideal marriage — is a great way to learn how to achieve your goals. You can avoid making unnecessary errors along the way and discover strategies to accelerate your success.
How to Get Into Grad School?
Regardless of the field, successful graduate school admissions boil down to the following: academic achievement and extracurricular experiences.
On the academic front, most worthwhile graduate programs will require you to have a competitive GPA and standardized test scores. The specific test required (e.g., GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT) depends on your chosen program.
The experiences you should pursue are also field-specific. For instance, if you’re looking to attend law school, you may want to work as a legal clerk and volunteer your time to work in local politics. On the other hand, if you want to attend med school, you may want to work in a research lab and obtain patient exposure experiences, in addition to community service.
In addition to developing a strong academic and extracurricular background, you will likely have to write various graduate school application essays, such as a personal statement and school-specific supplemental essays. Finally, some programs also require in-person interviews as a final application step.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with a given field’s admissions requirements so that you can adequately prepare. Realizing an important step too late can delay the start of your education and dream career.
How Many Grad Schools Should I Apply To?
It depends on the field, how competitive your academic and extracurricular background is, and how competitive your school list is.
For instance, if you’re applying to relatively non-competitive programs like Master’s in Social Work (MSW), you can apply to fewer schools. On the other hand, it’s common (and justified) to apply to 30+ medical schools.
Also, the stronger your academic stats and extracurricular experiences, the smaller your list can be. If you have a 3.9 GPA, near-perfect test scores, and a stellar resume, many grad schools would love to have you. On the other hand, if your background is weaker, you’ll want to cast a wider net.
Similarly, the more competitive your school list, the more schools you should apply to. Your admissions odds will be very different if the 10 schools you apply to comprise schools ranked 1-10 vs. schools ranked 21-30.
Grad School Can Be Worth It (But Don’t Take It Lightly)
Applying to grad school is an incredibly important decision that requires significant reflection. The considerations I’ve listed are meant to guide your decision-making process.
If you decide to attend grad school, entering with a sense of clarity about your goals will help you make the most of your experience. However, don’t go to grad school simply because you think it will “look good” or because you’re not sure what to do next. The decision you make will have a lasting impact on your personal and professional life.
While well-meaning friends and family may have opinions about what you “should” do, I encourage you to think deeply about what you want from a grad school education. By approaching this decision carefully, you can ensure that going to grad school is a wise investment in your future, not a costly mistake.
10 Tips for Balancing Work, Family, Studies
Graduate programs can be incredibly demanding, but if you find the right one and attend for the right reasons, as described above, they will be rewarding. If you have a family and a full- or part-time job, you’ll have a lot of demands on your time. Here are some tips for balancing your grad life.
- Hoard your contacts. Don’t burn bridges with undergrad professors. Ask your favorites for recommendations. Such contacts might later provide some moral support during difficult academic times.
- Determine your workload. Ask professors and current grad students how much time per week they expect you’ll need to devote. Then add 20–30% as a safety factor. Can you handle this along with all the other demands on your life?
- Have reliable transportation. Having your vehicle reduces the amount of time you’ll spend in transit—which is more valuable in this case than what it’s costing you for gasoline, insurance, parking, etc. Alternately, is city transit reliable enough and are monthly passes affordable?
- Live on or near campus. If you cannot or do not want a vehicle, consider living as close to campus as possible. Apartments for married students might also be available for rent.
- Determine a long term budget. It’s not enough to ensure you’ll have funds for the first semester of your program. Will you have enough for the entire run? Will a source of funds be available later once your current savings run out? If you are not working full-time, do you have an offer for a grad assistant/ research job from your degree supervisor?
- Work first, play later. Grad students do not necessarily have to give up all forms of entertainment. However, only you know what your priorities are and what they mean to you.
- Garner’s emotional support. If you have a family and do not have their emotional support, it will be very difficult getting through a grad program. This includes, but is not limited to, them respecting your study time.
- Define time boundaries. Ask family and friends to respect a schedule that you post — say on the kitchen fridge. These are times when you are not to be disturbed unless there’s an absolute emergency. Make sure to define, especially to children, what an emergency entails. If you have a significant other, they must help enforce these time boundaries.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity not only keeps you in shape and gives you the stamina you will need, but adrenaline pumping through your body perks you up. It’s hard to stay in a funk if you exercise regularly.
- Meditate or pray. When all else fails and you’re stressed out, consider prayer and/or meditation. Both calm you down and relieve stress.
Ultimately, you have to decide on the reasons why you want to pursue a graduate degree and whether it will be worthwhile financially. If doing so opens up greater opportunities in a few years, then it might just be worth it. ,
If you plan to enter a career where a grad degree is a necessity, then it’s also worth it, long term. Simply put, you cannot assess the value of getting a grad degree on a short-term basis.
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