If you're thinking about graduate school, you may be wondering when you should attend. Is it best to go straight from college or wait and gain work experience first? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. What you choose depends on your personal interests and your own circumstances, so it's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. No one can dispute the value of higher education, but if you're up for the challenge, it's really up to you to figure out the best time to pursue a master's degree. If you believe that a graduate degree is in your future but are not sure whether now is the time, here are some factors to consider.
- Getting an advanced degree may boost your earnings prospects and career advancement.
- You can defer your student loan payments and you won't sacrifice your lifestyle by going directly into grad school after you receive your undergraduate degree.
- You may change your mind about your chosen field if you wait and you may be able to get employer-funded tuition if your company includes that in your compensation package.
The Financial Benefits
If you're still stuck on whether to go to grad school, consider the financial benefits once you've completed your program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, each step up in education means a higher salary and greater job security. For instance, high school graduates in 2019 had median weekly earnings of $746 and an unemployment rate of 3.7%. Workers with a bachelor's degree earned a median of $1,248 and had an unemployment rate of 2.2%. Those with a master’s degree had median earnings of $1,497, with an unemployment rate of 2%.
This can be a powerful argument for attending graduate school. But it does not necessarily mean that doing so immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree is the right course. While a handful of fields require a graduate or professional degree as the price of admission, in many others, a bachelor's degree is sufficient for an entry-level job.
There's no right or wrong time to go to grad school—when you choose to attend depends on your personal circumstances and your goals.
Why You Should Attend Sooner
It may be easier to make the transition to grad school without taking a break. Consider the fact that you're accustomed to studying and test-taking, and living the far from lavish life of a typical college student. A couple of years in a comfortable job, on the other hand, is likely to dull your study habits and accustom you to the finer things in life.
If you take a break from education, your life may change in unforeseen ways. You might get married, have children, buy a home, or take on new responsibilities that will make attending and paying for graduate school even more challenging.
If you racked up a lot of federal student loan debt as an undergrad, one way to postpone repaying in some cases is to continue your education and obtain a student loan deferment. Of course, the downside is that you’ll probably take on more debt for grad school and you'll have to start paying it back sooner or later.
When It's Better to Wait
You probably deserve some time off from midterms, all-nighters, and cold pizza after you complete a rigorous undergraduate program. And let's face it, graduate school isn't cheap. Tuition and fees alone average approximately $35,000. This figure, of course, doesn't include the cost of living, books, and other materials you may need. A couple of years of work can help you pay for your next degree without taking on unnecessary debt.
Once you have spent some time in the workplace, your interests and ambitions may evolve. It might be better to discover your true vocation before you invest in a graduate degree in the wrong field. You might still end up in grad school, but studying something completely different.
With a little added maturity, you will bring more to graduate school and most likely get more out of it. Some work experience on your resume could also be a plus, both when you apply to grad school and when you finish your degree and are job hunting once again.
Many companies will subsidize or completely pay for graduate work, particularly if your training is in their interest. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 54% of employers offer tuition assistance. Also, under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules, you can exclude up to $5,250 in employer-provided education assistance from your income if your employer’s program qualifies. You’ll owe some income tax above that amount, though it’s still a better deal than paying for grad school all by yourself.
The Bottom Line
Whether you decide to pursue a graduate degree immediately after school or wait a while before going all depends on your finances, your area of interest, and your instincts. Don't rush to go if you don't feel ready. On the other hand, if you are offered a tempting fellowship, it might be worth going straight to grad school, particularly if you are targeting a field that requires a Ph.D.