An advanced degree can be great for your career—but not always. Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt shows how Grownups can evaluate grad school programs and determine return on investment.
After being in the workforce for a few years, you may start to wonder what else is out there… specifically, graduate school.
Graduate school can seem like the natural next step in your professional career, but is it right for you? Given the high price of college tuition, the decision to go back to school can be a tough one.
As someone who quit their job to go to graduate school—and took on an additional $58,000 in student loans in the process—I think I can offer a unique perspective on furthering education.
Assess Your Financial Situation
Before you make any moves, take a good hard look at your financial situation. Do you have enough in savings or earned income to pay for your tuition? Or will you be taking on student loans to fund your education?
If you have enough in savings, will going back to school afford you a salary that will help you rebuild your savings after you graduate? If you go the student loan route, consider how much you are borrowing and also look at the interest rates on your potential student loans.
I decided to go to my dream school, New York University, because it was the best, and completely ignored the fact that my tuition was nearly twice as much as my salary at the time.
Your education is an investment for sure, but you want to make sure it pays off financially in regard to your career.
So if you’re thinking of going back to school, it’s important to look at your current financial situation and be honest with yourself about how going to school will affect it. Be honest about what it will take to pay back your student loans and what potential career opportunities may be ahead. Regardless, there are some ways you can leverage your degree into something else—even if it isn’t why you initially went to school.
Evaluate the Opportunity Cost
OK, so you’ve checked your financial situation. You know how much you have to borrow and how going back to school will affect your finances. But it’s key also to calculate the opportunity cost of going back to school.
Opportunity cost refers to the potential loss of choosing one option over the other. Let’s say you have a job making $45,000 per year and you quit your job to get a master’s degree. A two-year master’s program would mean losing out on $90,000 in wages! Think of that on top of any potential debt you may be taking on to attend graduate school. While that may seem grim, there are ways to get ahead in graduate school if you play your cards right.
Through working part-time and leveraging opportunities that arise in your graduate program, you can lessen the opportunity cost and make graduate school worth it. But before you decide to go to graduate school, consider the overall opportunity cost regarding wages and promotions and weigh it against what you can earn and the opportunities you have while in school.
Do You Need a Graduate Degree?
When I went to graduate school, I had dreams of teaching at the university level, so getting my degree felt like the right next step. But once I was in graduate school, I never quite felt like I fit in. While I loved the philosophical concepts and ideas—the ones which attracted me to graduate school in the first place—the work made me feel increasingly further from reality.
Graduate school felt like the quintessential ivory tower experience—where we talked about big issues like privilege, racism, classism, and sexism, but never talked about doing anything to shift the culture. I felt enveloped in ideas, but not action. About midway through my program, I figured out that academia wasn’t for me and changed course.
If you’re thinking of going back to graduate school, start by defining your dream job and your goals post-graduation. Then, research whether you need a degree to get there. If you’re looking to be a professor, doctor, or change careers completely, it’s likely that getting another degree is a good idea. Look at job descriptions online and see if they require an advanced degree.
If your dream job doesn’t require an advanced degree, take a very critical approach: Could you instead network with experts in your field? Or take community college classes on the side? Or find a mentor? There are other (cheaper) ways you can go about snagging that dream job.
Also, your goals may change while you’re in grad school or shortly afterward—and that’s OK. Though I don’t think a degree was necessary for my current work, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the lessons learned from graduate school (including finding out what I don’t want to do).
Consider Your Values and Goals
Deciding to go back to school is a tough decision, one you should make carefully with a clear vision of your future.
Going back to school should be something you do for you and your career—not because you’re unsure what to do with your life, or you think school is a noble endeavor compared to being unemployed.
Before you make a final decision, weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself what’s right for you.
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While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.