Is a slow economy a good reason to go to grad school?

A young student looks at his laptop

In a weak job market, it may be tempting to pursue an advanced degree instead of launching a career. But the choice isn’t straightforward. Here’s what to consider.

When I graduated from college, I frantically searched for a meaningful career. I’d majored in English, so I figured getting my Ph.D. in English literature was a solid next step. I applied only to America’s top five programs. If I got in, I reasoned, it was meant to be.

I ambivalently awaited the schools’ decisions only to learn I didn’t get in anywhere. Looking back, the rejections and my subsequent decision to forgo grad school was the best choice for me. Of course, ideally, I would have spared myself studying for the GRE, spending $500 in application fees, and spending an entire fall on personal statements.

But, for some people, going to grad school is a smart choice — professionally and personally. Just make sure you’re in tune with your motivations for attending before signing your acceptance letter and accepting a financial aid package. Here are the top criteria to meet in deciding whether to go to grad school — from three of my own friends who chose that route and advanced in their careers because of it.

Spoiler alert: While the prospect of getting a deferment on undergraduate loans while pursuing an advanced degree is attractive, choosing to attend grad school could increase your education debt.

You have a definitive end goal

It’s important to have a plan for your career that warrants an advanced degree. My friend Sarah, a Spanish and psychology major, wanted to go into health care administration. When she realized her ideal jobs required a master’s degree, she applied to graduate schools on the basis of their job-placement track record and regional alumni networks. Now a senior operations analyst at a Fortune 500 health care company, she says to ask yourself: How is grad school going to help me get that dream job? “Grad school is expensive and time-consuming, and requires a lot of energy,” she says. “So don’t go if you haven’t thought through what you want to do with the degree.”

My friend Vanessa echoes that sentiment. As a political science major, after graduation she enrolled in an M.A. program in international administration and “didn’t have any particular job in mind or a plan of action.” Vanessa wound up in the nonprofit world and soon realized that wasn’t her calling. She ended up going back to school — this time with a specific goal in mind: a career in law. Now an attorney after earning her J.D., Vanessa told me that her lack of a plan rendered her M.A. irrelevant.

You have or can get real-world experience during or after your undergrad years

Every student wants to put their learning to the test beyond the classroom. That may be especially important if you’re trying to decide whether grad school is right for you.

Sarah’s internships in hospital administration throughout college helped her choose an M.A. in a health care services program over a more generalized MBA. Sarah thinks getting even more work experience before applying to and enrolling in grad school might have helped further solidify her goals and increased her desirability to employers: “I don’t regret my decision, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken a year or two as a break.”

Similarly, Steve, another friend of mine and an anthropology and environmental policy major, didn’t know exactly what job he wanted after graduation. In college, he enjoyed working with geographic information system (GIS) software, which helps people analyze spatial data. Realizing the professional versatility of GIS, Steve pursued a geology master’s program to help him hone his skills and gain exposure to companies using GIS. For his thesis, he did research on one of Denver’s bike programs. Now he’s employed as a transportation planner with the same group.

Vanessa told me she regrets not taking advantage of her international administration M.A. program’s field connections. When she went back to school for her J.D., she didn’t make that mistake again: “As a result, I was exposed to great opportunities.” She learned that students with real-world experience often fared better in the job market, compared with those who went to law school straight from undergrad or who didn’t have related experience.

You’ve thought about the cost

On average, according to the Education Data Initiative, the cost of a Master’s degree typically  ranges from between $30,000 and $120,000 per year. As with undergrad programs, you can apply for scholarships, fellowships and grants; work part-time; or look to employer tuition programs for support. But, if those don’t cover the whole cost — as well as living expenses — you may take on significant debt to earn that advanced degree. While going to grad school may let you qualify for a student loan deferment on your undergraduate borrowing, remember that, depending on how you fund your graduate studies, you will owe both balances after you finish grad school.

Sarah’s parents financially supported her while she went to graduate school. Her high academic performance landed her a large scholarship for her second (and final) year.

For Steve, grad school was a net gain. He secured a graduate teaching assistantship that paid his tuition plus provided some income. Without that, he says, he might have sought a job that offered an employer tuition assistance program rather than take on student loans.

Vanessa considered the financial factors of law school carefully. “Some people advised me to go to the best law school I could get into, but that would have meant I’d graduate with close to $200,000 of debt,” she says. She saw this approach as a tremendous risk, so she selected the university that offered her a full scholarship.

“I think people may not realize the financial consequences of the debt they take on in grad school,” Vanessa warns. “Unless a person has a scholarship, savings, or someone who can help pay the grad school bill, they may want to hold off.”

For many, grad school can be a great career move, especially if you have financial help to pay for it, or you know it can help build your earning potential in your career. But for others, a graduate degree isn’t necessary — you can advance professionally and financially though experience and performance.

My closing advice? Don’t just take my friends’ word on how to make the decision about grad school. Talk to people with the job or career path you want (try setting up informational interviews). See if they have graduate degrees and ask them if they think getting one is necessary. You may find out it’s not, save yourself a lot of money, and get some helpful new suggestions on how to reach your career goals.

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