Is Graduate School Worth the Time and Money?

There are various reasons behind people’s decision to go to graduate school. Some professions, like medicine, law and academia, require a higher degree. For others, however, it’s mostly a combination of factors like knowledge, skills and prestige that motivate someone to pursue further education.

The biggest motivation comes from the desire to increase one’s earnings. Generally people with graduate degrees are statistically shown to earn more than their undergrad counterparts in equivalent fields — often as much as 50% more. However, a different outcome should be taken into account – one where graduate degree earners find themselves buried in student loan debt, late to the career marketplace and without a suitable job offer. All in all it’s not an easy decision to make and sometimes going to grad school may feel like a wild gamble, but if you consider carefully the pros and cons you should be prepared for the challenges that come with it.

The most important question you need to ask yourself is not whether a graduate degree is worth the time and cost, but under what circumstances is a grad degree worth it?

Most people go back to school because they don’t know what else to do and how to make it in a tough job market. But you should be more assertive about your decision-making. This is not only because a grad degree can leave you with a six-figure debt, but also because pursuing an advanced degree takes you out of the workforce for several years and doesn’t necessarily guarantee better job prospects.

So how to decide whether a grad degree will be worth it for you? Here are several points to consider before applying:

Is the amount of the student loan payable within a few years after graduating? People who intend to go to law or medical school, and practice afterwards, are in a decent position to eventually pay off all student loans. But a Masters degree in liberal arts may not pay off as expected. In 2004, the median debt for an MA amounted to $38,000, but in 2012, it was $59,000 (inflation-adjusted). Research average starting salaries for your desired field before you apply. Then do the calculation and see if a grad degree is truly a smart investment.

Do you have clear goals of your future and a safe backup plan in place? Going to graduate school for lack of something better to do with your time can be a dangerous move, especially if you’re just putting off the big question of “What am I doing with my life?” until you are a few years older (and much poorer). You should know the reason behind wanting to get a degree and what you’ll do if your Plan A doesn’t pan out. Also consider whether your degree will make sense for both your primary and contingency plans. For instance, a large number of law students realize right after graduation that they don’t want to practice law—and discover their degree can actually make them seem overqualified for positions in other fields. In this case they’ve just thrown money down the drain.

Is a grad degree comparatively valuable in your desired field? If you want to become a software engineer, it’s not mandatory to go to MIT to learn coding. The internet is full of free resources that are more than sufficient to educate yourself on any of the popular programming languages without spending a cent—while you keep your current day job. In fact, in some fields, leaving the workforce for a while might actually hurt you when it’s time to job hunt. Employers are looking now for professional experiences over academic credentials more than ever before. That’s especially true in technical areas like programming, software development and IT. So consider whether graduate education is really valuable in your intended field—or if an apprenticeship or alternative training program could result in the same pay bump. Recent research reports show that a graduate degree does not boost incomes uniformly: for students with a graduate degree in biology or life sciences, the income could jump more than 100%, but in the arts, only a 23% boost is observed. Pursuing a degree part time while continuing to work is a viable option for those who are not sure if they can afford the commitment, but still want to further their education. This keeps the resume uninterrupted and the income flowing.

Going back to the same or similar study does not result in higher earnings for some fields, which means it is not a worthwhile investment.

Students who take the time to go for graduate studies in areas like computer science, public relations and advertising, media and art-related courses are known to show statistical career earnings that are no more than 15% greater than those of their undergrad counterparts.

Likewise, many who enter MBA programs or later decide to pursue careers in programming and software development gain surprisingly little from a large graduate school investment.

In the end not all industries place value on advanced degrees, so going to grad school is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Depending on your long-term plans it can either be a smart investment or a waste of time and money. Remember – what makes sense financially and socially for someone else doesn’t necessarily make sense for you. Be honest with yourself. What’s behind the motivation to go to graduate school? If you don’t have a valid reason, do yourself — and your wallet — a favor and consider a cheaper alternative.

Entering the real world and starting a career can be daunting, but attempting to delay that by remaining a student is only a good idea if you can afford it without piling a massive amount of debt. Going to grad school because you feel obligated to by parents, peers or teachers is also a bad idea. Your financial wellbeing, not theirs, is at stake, and only you can determine if graduate school is a good choice.