Just a few decades ago, an undergraduate degree was sufficient to give you a leg up on competition in the job market. Today, more people than ever have undergrad degrees, and many employers require an undergraduate degree as a minimum qualification.
Post-college education is necessary for some fields and helpful in others, and those who attend grad school have more time to figure out what they want to do and gain specialized knowledge in their chosen field. However, you should weigh the benefits of grad school against the time commitment — not to mention the financial costs — of prolonging your career in favor of going to school for another two academic years. So, is graduate school worth it? Let’s find out.
On this page:
- Weighing the Cost of Graduate Schools
- The Benefits of a Graduate Degree
- Is a Graduate Degree Necessary for Your Career?
- Alternatives to Grad School
- You Can Get Help
Weighing the Cost of Graduate Schools
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees for postsecondary education was $18,416 annually in the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent year for which data is available). Private institutions were more expensive than public universities, with the cost of the former reaching $24,712 per compared $11,617 for the latter.
Many people have to borrow money to pay for graduate school. Unfortunately, any debt you take on to earn an advanced degree will be added to what you already borrowed for your undergrad program. Since federal student loans have a standard repayment period of 10 years but can be repaid over as long as 30 years when you consolidate or opt for income-based repayment, your student debt could be with you for a decade or longer.
These substantial costs must be considered when deciding if grad school is worth it.
Don’t Forget About Opportunity Costs
Although many people focus on tuition and fees when deciding if grad school is worth it, there’s another important aspect that’s too often overlooked: opportunity costs, which should be estimated and added to your total cost of attendance.
When you attend graduate school, you have to spend additional years out of the workforce. This is time in which you could obtain a full-time job and generate positive cash flow by earning a salary versus generating negative cash flow by borrowing for school.
Not only do you have to borrow to pay for the cost of tuition, but you also incur other miscellaneous expenses during grad school. You’ll have living expenses, of course, and must find a way to pay for them even when you have little or no cash coming in. Often, covering these other costs means taking on even more debt.
The Benefits of a Graduate Degree
The costs of grad school — including tuition, fees, living expenses, and missed earnings from years spent out of the workforce — are just one side of the equation when deciding if grad school is worth it. The other side is the advantages of a graduate degree.
Earning a grad degree comes with lifelong benefits. It can give you more time to pursue specialized education and decide what field you want to work in. It can also be critical to landing a job in your desired field or to earning a higher salary. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified a few key fields in which a grad degree can be especially important, including business, education, healthcare, social services, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Although grad degrees may be especially valuable in those industries, people with such degrees generally do earn higher salaries than those without. According to the BLS, the median wage is much higher among those with graduate or advanced degrees compared to individuals with a bachelor’s or associate degree:
- In 2017, the median weekly wage for people with a doctorate (Ph.D.) was $1,743;
- $1,836 for people with a professional degree;
- $1,401 for people with a master’s degree; and
- $1,173 for people with a bachelor’s degree.
However, the difference in salary isn’t the same in all fields, and an advanced degree may have a much higher impact on your earnings in certain industries.
To decide whether a graduate degree makes sense for you, use Glassdoor or BLS data to estimate your potential earnings based on the kind of work you want to do. This calculation will help you determine if a grad degree is necessary — or a waste of money.
Is a Graduate Degree Necessary for Your Career?
As previously mentioned, grad degrees are especially valuable in business, STEM jobs, the healthcare or Social Services industries, and education. However, there are some fields where an advanced degree — sometimes even a doctorate — isn’t just a bonus but a necessity.
You’ll definitely need to continue your education beyond a bachelor’s degree if you want to become a lawyer, doctor, surgeon, chiropractor, dentist, orthodontist, or veterinarian.
If breaking into your industry isn’t possible without an advanced degree, you’ll have no choice but to bite the bullet and pay the price for further education. To find out if grad school is required or recommended in your profession, research the job you’re interested in. Check top employers, licensing boards, and state and federal regulations to see what type of education, training, and certification you’ll need to obtain.
In other situations, you may already have a job and your employer may offer tuition reimbursement to help make your degree program more affordable (or provide a raise upon graduation thanks to your added value to the company). Many times, online master’s degree programs allow students to continue working as they take classes part-time. In these situations, if you’re willing to do the work, getting a master’s degree is a good idea because you have a better shot at a return on investment.
Alternatives to Grad School
Although grad school might seem like the only way to advance your career and develop new skills, there are other educational opportunities to consider.
Learning On Your Own
If you’re a self-starter, you can often pick up new skills and abilities without grad school — especially if the skillset is one you can teach yourself, such as web development.
If you think you can learn on your own, consider getting an entry-level job or internship instead of going to grad school so you can learn while getting paid, or at least without taking on more debt. Your extra years of real-world experience may give you an advantage over graduate students who choose to delay entering the workforce.
Look for One-Off Courses and Boot Camps
These take far less time than earning a graduate degree and can provide hyper-specialized training and certification at a much lower cost. Of course, these professional development alternatives are only options if your field doesn’t absolutely require an advanced degree.
You Can Get Help
If you decide to attend graduate school, there are many ways to obtain financial aid to pay for it. Some of your options for paying for grad school include grants, fellowships, and scholarships that don’t have to be repaid; federal student loans; and private student loans that should only be used to cover any funding gap that may remain.
Ultimately, only you can decide if grad school is worth it. There are clear benefits, of course, especially for specific career paths where a degree is required or preferred. But if you’re not sure what you want to do or you’re interested in an industry that doesn’t place as much emphasis on an advanced degree, you may want to forgo grad school — and the thousands of dollars in additional debt it comes with.
Author: Christy Rakoczy
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