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Should I go to grad school? A guide to answer the questions about your future

February 23, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is grad school?

6 questions to ask yourself before considering grad school

How much will graduate school cost you?

Why should you go to grad school?

Why shouldn't you go to graduate school?

The bottom line

Heads, it’s yes. Tails, it’s no. 

A coin toss is a simple way to make a choice, but it’s not the best way to approach a massive life decision. Going to graduate school is a big decision. It’s an investment of time and money. There’s also the opportunity cost of what you’re trading off — what else you might do if you aren’t in grad school. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive increase in career and degree program applications, especially as work-from-home positions are increasingly popular. In the past two years, high layoffs and unemployment rates have left many wondering what to do, and continuing with education is an attractive option. 

Undergraduate degrees aren’t as valuable as they once were, and people are turning to higher education to get ahead. But is a second degree right for you? Should you go to grad school?

No one can give you that answer. It’s your own decision to make based on your unique circumstances. Read on to get perspective and information that will help you approach this big decision.

 

What is grad school?

Graduate school is where you earn an advanced degree after completing your four-year bachelor's degree, like a master’s degree or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a professional degree like a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA). Only medical school can give you a formal MD, and law school will get you a Juris Doctor degree. 

Master's programs last from one to three years, and doctoral programs are generally four years or more. 

The material covered in grad school is more specialized, with students focusing on a particular topic of interest or niche professional skills. Grad students can participate in workshops, teaching, research, and work placements while completing coursework, research, or both.

Master's and Ph.D. programs usually conclude with graduate students producing and presenting original content, like a research study or creative assignment. 

Going to grad school after an undergraduate degree is a step forward in professional development. It could be what you need to supercharge your career. But it’s a very personal decision. Thankfully, you don’t have to decide alone

An objective outsider, such as a BetterUp coach or mentor, can help you work through what’s weighing on your mind and heart. Having someone to talk to can help you gain insight into your career goals and motivations.

Developing self-awareness is a critical step toward reaching your full potential, whether that’s improving your Mental Fitness, mending your relationships, or finding the courage to take that academic leap.

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6 questions to ask yourself before considering grad school

Graduate studies are a big commitment. Completing a degree takes a lot of time, effort, and money. 

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Here are six major questions you should ask yourself before deciding.

1. Why do you want to go to grad school?

Examine your motivations. Are you hoping to earn a promotion? Change career paths? Facing pressure from your family? Perhaps you don’t know what else to do.

If you can easily afford it, going to grad school to figure out your interests isn’t a bad idea. But, it’s an expensive one, and maybe not the best choice if it will put you in dire straits or if you aren’t truly passionate about the topic.

2. Why do you want to do this now?

Have you always wanted to go to grad school, or are you feeling pressure to make a drastic change? Are you wondering if you should go to grad school right after undergrad? 

Sometimes, you want to keep the momentum of your previous studies, but you also might benefit from some rest. Work experience outside academia may also give you a better understanding and appreciation for your studies when you decide to continue.

3. What type of degree are you seeking?

Knowing what you’re passionate about is a great start. Since it’s a lengthy process, being deeply interested in what you’re studying will make all the difference. Whether you call it purpose or passion, you should find your chosen area of study compelling. Don’t commit to a program that doesn’t interest you just because you feel obligated.

Some programs are also highly competitive. College graduates who wish to pursue a doctoral degree or a fellowship will need strong letters of recommendation and good academic standing. You may also need a strong idea for a research project, depending on the nature of your program.

4. Where do you want to study?

Is there a university in your hometown that you could commute to, or are you going to use school as an excuse to move to Europe? Do you want to work with a specific professor or in a particular lab? Research the program thoroughly before deciding. You can usually reach out to departments for more information if you’re unsure.

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5. Full-time or part-time?

Part-time degrees are a good option for those who want to pursue a degree but still want to work while doing so. It makes the process longer, but you’ll still be earning money. Full-time often degrees receive your full attention, though, and might be easier to find.

6. Can I afford it?

Grad school can be costly. While researching what program interests you, check out their funding packages and work opportunities. Having a savings account will be helpful — especially if you’ve been daydreaming about graduate school for years.

How much will graduate school cost you?

Your degree’s price tag depends on the course you apply for and where you want to study.

Application fees are usually $100 or more per school, so narrow down the list before applying. 

Tuition varies, but it’s a few thousand at the least. For out-of-state and international students, tuition rates often double. Additional costs will apply for textbooks and other equipment. 

Don’t forget that your living expenses are another huge factor. Gas, food, rent, and insurance all add up. Most institutions offer paid teaching assistant positions and multiple scholarships, which can help alleviate the costs.

But if you’re eyeing schools in expensive cities, you might need to find some roommates or live somewhere with a hefty commute. Think about the entire lifestyle you are committing to, and ensure you’re up for it. 

Unless you’re working while going to school, your income will drop while you complete your degree. Don’t underestimate the importance of financial stability. Financial wellness or unwellness can affect your health and well-being and, ultimately, your ability to succeed in grad school.

Why should you go to grad school?

There are many reasons why you may wish to consider a graduate education; listed below are some of the advantages of pursuing this path:

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1. A better salary

Higher earning potential is among the most popular reasons people attend grad school. A master's or a Ph.D. can lead to more prestigious, higher-paying jobs and promotions.

2. Advance your career

A graduate degree can help your career flourish. They’re becoming more desired and even expected as undergraduate degrees become the baseline for most jobs. Applicants with in-depth knowledge and experience stand out amongst the rest. 

That being said, you should research your desired career before committing. As of 2020, only 11% of jobs actually require a master’s degree or higher — so there’s a slim chance you’ll need one. 

But, on the flip side, completing a grad program can help you stand out in highly-competitive industries. If you want to be a journalist, an MA in a specialized field (in addition to your undergraduate degree in journalism) is a great way to add value to your application.

3. Enjoy travel opportunities

Some graduate programs like archeology or journalism include fieldwork. This can be a fun, fulfilling bonus and looks great on a resumé.

4. You’ll make connections

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Networking is important, and developing your people skills is vital to success now and in the future. You’ll meet with your peers, faculty members, alumni, and other professional connections.

And these connections aren’t just for LinkedIn; this is an excellent way to get your foot in the door and find new opportunities for your post-grad life.

5. Because you want to

Many people, especially self-directed learners, attend grad school to further their knowledge and explore their passions in-depth. As the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That may be an unrealistic bar to set — even work we love can have annoying or boring parts to it — but the direction is correct.

Why shouldn't you go to graduate school?

Before choosing, you should always consider the drawbacks just as much as the benefits. Here are five factors to keep in mind when thinking about grad school:

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1. It’s highly competitive

Graduate programs can help you get ahead in a competitive industry. But they can also be extremely competitive themselves.

These programs only accept a certain number of students each year. And, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are returning to school to find better jobs — so most program application rates are rapidly increasing. Find something in your experience that helps you stand out. 

The competition doesn’t cease once you’re in — only so many scholarships and TA and research positions are available. Competition is another reason to make sure you research a school’s funding opportunities.

2. It fosters the “professional student mindset"

This refers to individuals who don’t want to leave school. They may fear the job market, work in a field with few opportunities, or be unsure which field to study. The longer they stay out of the workforce, the more intimidating and overwhelming it seems to get started. This is, unfortunately, an unproductive and expensive behavior to encourage.

3. It's stressful

Grad school is stressful. The higher you climb in academia, the more demanding it becomes. You must be able to prioritize, stay organized and focused, and have emotional maturity for when things get tough — and they will. A Ph.D. is a test of endurance, not intelligence.

4. A lengthy time commitment

A master's degree may take up to three years, and a Ph.D. can take even longer. It all depends on your program of choice, personal circumstances, and whether you must continue working while studying. Some people simply can’t afford to take two years and sink their savings into tuition payments.

5. Graduating with a large student loan debt

Graduate degrees don’t guarantee you a higher salary, but they guarantee a debt. The longer you’re in school, the more student loans you’ll acquire, which can take a while to pay off. You may have to take any job you’re offered after graduation to settle your debts.

The bottom line

Grad school isn’t for everyone, but it may be just the thing for you. Not only can it help your career, but it can also be exhilarating in its own right. You’ll stretch your knowledge and bask in the joy of learning. You’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your passion for the topic. And ultimately, you’ll graduate more qualified than others in your industry.

But it’s important to remember that an extra degree is a commitment. It can be long, expensive, and stressful. And you may not even need it for your career. 

As thrilling as it is, you shouldn’t take this decision lightly. “Should I go to grad school?” is not an easy question. Talk with your family, a teacher, or a coach for advice — they’ll be able to see things in a new light. 

BetterUp can help, too. We champion human connection, leadership and career development, and mental fitness, all in the name of positive human transformation. 

We won’t sugarcoat it — personal and academic growth is hard. But if it truly matters to you and you’re willing to put in the effort, we’re here to support you every step of the way.

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Published February 23, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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