Early Career

4 Questions You Should Ask Before Deciding on Graduate School

So you have a bachelor’s degree, but you’re wondering what comes next. Maybe you want to unlock the door to your dream job. Maybe you’re ready for a promotion and a raise. Or maybe you think the job market is still too weak in your field. There are lots of reasons to consider a graduate degree, but be financially wise about it. Here are four questions you should ask when making this important – and potentially costly  – decision.

 1. Do I need a graduate degree for my career?

The first thing to ask is whether your dream job even requires a graduate degree in the first place. Doctors, of course, have to attend medical school, lawyers almost always have to grind through law school (though legal apprenticeships are allowable in  some jurisdictions), and top-notch academics generally have PhD’s. But, for many high level jobs, graduate degrees aren’t needed, and relevant work experience can be just as good.

We crunched some federal labor market data on management occupations (which are generally the highest paying jobs) to show you just how wide the differences are across industries. If your career is in education or health, you may want to seriously consider grad school to advance: 36 percent of managers have a master’s degree or above. It’s different in the hospitality industry, where only 7 percent of managers have been to grad school. Of course, the numbers are just the beginning of the story, and even within industries the needs vary widely. So do your homework,  including talking with people in your industry who can attest to a degree’s value, and figure out what the norm is for your career.

Managers don't always have graduate degrees

 2. Will graduate school give me a salary bump?

Next, ask yourself how a graduate degree will likely impact your salary after graduation. Again, every situation is unique, but we recut the federal labor market data to show you a typical “salary bump” from an advanced degree. If you work in government or health services, having an advanced degree can open up jobs that pay you 50 per cent more. For all you urban farmers out there, be mindful that your graduate work on Socrates doesn’t necessarily make you a successful avocado grower: the typical advanced degree holder in agriculture takes jobs that pay less. So don’t assume graduate school will always translate into a huge — or immediate — raise.Graph 2

 3. What does graduate school cost – both in money and time?

Many students rush to graduate school for the benefits – but make sure you carefully understand the costs too. Obviously there’s tuition (may range from $30k all the way up to $120k!), books, fees, and in some cases the room/board that you otherwise wouldn’t be paying. But there’s also what you give up to attend (what economists call opportunity costs): your old salary and career advancement. If you have to take out student loans to finance your education, these add interest costs and could impact your credit after school. Of course, you can lower the burden of these costs with scholarships, fellowships, and working in school.

Working while getting your graduate degree may mean you’ll be in school longer, and not every institution offers evening and weekend classes,  but they don’t involve sacrificing salary or career advancement. Some companies may even set aside financial assistance for employees going to school; it never hurts to ask your HR department.

Think hard also about the length of your desired degree and the number of years you plan to work after graduating. A typical master’s is two years, while the typical PhD is around seven years. So even if a doctorate gives you a bigger weekly salary bump (which it doesn’t always), you still might make more over your whole career with a master’s because you spent less time in school. For similar reasons, you should investigate programs that meet on nights and weekends, letting you earn a regular salary and make progress to an advanced degree. Financially, this might be the better choice.

Graduate school or real life experience  4. Are there better alternatives?

Today, there are many alternatives to traditional grad school. If you explore these routes, consider their unique risks. Be particularly careful with for-profit universities or for-profit companies. Some are pioneering the future of education, and some are just making a quick buck.

A fast growing option is the online degree, many now offered by accredited and prestigious institutions. An online degree could give you the flexibility to earn credits while in school or taking care of a loved one. But also consider that you won’t get all of the benefits of in-person study groups, on-campus research facilities, and the ability to network with classmates. Taking classes online is also a different learning dynamic than in-person and may not be right for everyone.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) through sites like Coursera or edX are often low-cost and taught by faculty from top universities. These sites have also begun to offer certificates in specialized fields, which may be useful in demonstrating command of specific skills (such as a programming language). But so far these credentials aren’t really equivalent to a comprehensive graduate degree, and there isn’t reliable data yet if they affect your salary or your career advancement.

Skill-based boot camps are intense, on-site, 8-12 week programs that help you learn a discrete skill (particularly coding) fast. If you’re thinking about graduate school through the lens of changing careers then a boot camp may make sense, though understand that they are predominantly for-profit and still largely unregulated.

It may also pay off more to build up your portfolio of work on sites like Dribble, Github, or a personal blog. To some employers, especially in startups, real projects speak more than fancy degrees. Your personal projects also let you explore your passions, and passion can push many people to learn more than the fear of a bad grade.

There are many reasons to go to graduate school – professional, intellectual, personal, etc. But whatever motivates you, a careful, clear-eyed weighing of the financial costs and benefits should be part of your decision.


Shouvik Banerjee is the Founder and CEO of AverPoint, a platform to bring crowd-verified evidence into editorial and marketing content. AverPoint’s mission is to empower authentic, evidence-driven brands like Mint.com give individuals the information to make better choices.