Someone once said you’d be a good graduate student if you can tell the time of day by looking at the traffic flow in the library. Or if the only thing separating you and your all-pasta diet from scurvy is a weekly box of Fruit Loops. But if that were the real measure, the entire fresh-out-of-college crowd would jump straight into grad school, telling their families how beneficial the twentieth grade would be to their future without ever evaluating it’s cost to their wallets.
That’s not to say graduate school isn’t useful. It just isn’t necessary for everyone. In some cases it could be a debt-burden without a lot of benefit. It pays, then, to know if you really need an advanced degree or you just want to go back to school because you miss it. Here’s how to gauge the difference:
What are the reasons you want to go back? If you’re intellectually curious and the cost of school isn’t an issue, then by all means enroll. Or if you’re looking for increased earning power and professional advancement in a field of study with job potential, then an advanced degree might be worth the cost even if you need loans to afford it. But the worst mistake we see is students going to grad school because they don’t want to enter the professional world yet and want to put of their search for a job. This just creates debt without the guaranteed ability to pay it later.
In light of the above, ask yourself: are you at risk of becoming a “professional student”? Again, this circles back to your motivations. Don’t just go to school because you have nothing better to do or just because you enjoy it.
Can you afford it? Graduate school is expensive. Fortunately most students qualify for some form of financial aid. In addition, many graduate programs offer fellowships or teaching assistantships that may cover some or all the cost of attendance. But that’s very school and field specific, so do all the research and know what aid is available before you pursue an education. It’s also very important to know what your earning potential will be once you graduate. Talk to alumni and search job listings to see what experts in your field make. After all, there’s no sense in paying $80,000 for a degree that won’t increase your pay grade as much as you need to cover that original cost.
Is your desired advanced degree program a practical one? While advanced degrees in academics and art are certainly beneficial in their own right, it’s much harder to justify them from a financial point of view. Job opportunities are scarce and therefore the return on your investment is slow. But advanced degrees in fields like business, law, medicine, and science not only increase your earning potential in an immediate kind of way, they’re also required for a lot of high-level, high-paying positions.
The point here is that graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to advance your education and pursue your ambition. Unfortunately it’s often expensive, meaning there’s a caveat: it’s not for everyone. And it’s probably not worth the cost if you’re just going for fun.