For some people, graduate school is the key to advancing in their career. For others, a graduate degree may have minimal impact on their earnings and career trajectory. School might still be worth it intellectually, but don't decide without doing the analysis – and the math. Ask yourself the following questions, then get out your calculator.

Does Graduate School Fit With Your Career Goals?

The first – and most important – step is deciding what kind of job you want and how that job relates to the degree you are considering.

  • Is the career a good fit for you? Will you be comfortable with the lifestyle, day-to-day activities, hours and responsibility associated with the job? Shadowing professionals, interning and conducting informational interviews can give you a better idea of what the job is really like. Law school might seem a responsible choice, for example, but will you be happy spending 60 hours a week reading detailed documents? Doing your research before committing to grad school can save you from pigeonholing yourself in the wrong career.
  • Do you need grad school to succeed in the field? Check out job requirements in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, a comprehensive resource that matches job titles with the skills and education required for that position. In many careers (science, law, medicine) a graduate degree is necessary to move beyond entry-level work. But for marketing, computer science and creative fields, experience and quality of work are more important than having an advanced degree.
  • Will the graduate school you got into/can afford get you where you want to go? MBA degrees are a classic example of programs where networking and connections are one of the main draws. If your option is a second-tier school, will it give you the kinds of connections you need to rise in the field?

How Much Can You Expect to Earn After Graduating?

Before paying for grad school – especially if it involves taking out big loans – be sure you'll eventually earn enough to make that debt and/or time worth it. Research these four issues.

  • The starting salaries your program's graduates make This information should be available through the universities you are considering.
  • How easy is it for graduates of your program to find jobs Research employment statistics for the programs to which you're applying. Will you have access to career services and alumni networking support?
  • Whether your skills will be in-demand when you graduate Will there be an oversupply of new graduates with the same degree and skills, or does your career field have a shortage of new hires? Look for job projections on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Crunch Some Numbers

Now it's time to do some math.

  • Program cost Calculate tuition, cost of living, books and fees for each program you're considering. Apply for grants, fellowships and financial aid. Look into working as a teaching assistant, research assistant or even a resident hall advisor to help reduce expenses. Can you work while you are in school? Will your current employer pay for some of the costs of your degree?
  • Second chance scholarships Not all students who are awarded scholarships will attend the program. A few weeks after acceptance decisions are announced, call your graduate program to see if they have any funding that has come available (even if you have already been given a scholarship). If you have gotten into other programs, don’t be shy about name dropping to remind them that you are a competitive candidate. Asking for money might feel uncomfortable, but your school has already decided that they want you. The worst that will happen is that they will say no, while the best case scenario is free money for one awkward email/phone call!
  • Payback period Consider the amount of money you expect to make the first few years out of graduate school and the long-term earning potential of someone in your field. How long will it take for you to earn enough to pay back your loans?
  • The promotion factor Imagine you are currently making $35,000 per year. You like your job, but there is no option for a promotion within your company. The two-year graduate program you are interested in costs $50,000. After graduating, you expect to start off making $45,000. In an upper-level position, someone with your degree can expect to make $75,000. In the first five years after graduate school, you will have earned $50,000 more than you would have made without graduate school – and that's if you stay at $45,000 with no promotions. You will also have more doors open to you and larger long-term earning potential.

Is it worth it to you to spend two years in school and the next five years working to break even financially? That's what you have to decide.

The Bottom Line

If you're thinking about graduate school to avoid the “real world” or because you’re not sure what to do next, it is probably a better use of time and money to hold off for a few years. Graduate degrees are expensive, hard work and take a lot of time.

But an advanced degree is about more than money. Graduate school provides you with knowledge, skills, a network and a wider set of career opportunities. Even if you don’t end up using your new degree or working in the field, having it will increase your value as an employee in the future. So also think about intangibles as you do your research and add up the costs.

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