For some people, going to graduate school means the difference between being stuck in a rut and advancing their career. For others, a graduate degree may have minimal effect on their earnings and career trajectory. Attending school may still be worth it intellectually, but try not to decide whether to go without doing the analysis and the math. Go ahead and ask yourself the following questions, then get out your calculator.

Key Takeaways

  • Before you apply for graduate school, make sure you weigh out your options to see if it makes sense.
  • Ask yourself whether continuing education fits with your career goals.
  • Research how much you'll be able to earn after you graduate.
  • Be sure to analyze and forecast the financials.

Does Graduate School Fit With Your Career Goals?

One of the first and most important steps you should take is to decide what kind of job you want and how that job relates to the degree you are considering.

Will you be comfortable with the lifestyle, day-to-day activities, hours, and responsibilities associated with the job? Shadowing professionals, interning, and conducting informational interviews can give you a better idea of what the job is really like. For instance, law school might seem a responsible choice, 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.

Next, make sure you check out the job requirements in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This is 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 experience and quality of work are more important than having an advanced degree in other fields like marketing and computer science.

Finally, be sure the school you're considering will get you where you want to go. A master of business administration (MBA) is a classic example 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 earn enough in the future to make that debt and/or time worth it. Be sure to research these four issues:

  • Starting salaries for your program's graduates. This information should be available through the universities you are considering or on a number of publicly-available websites.
  • How much do people in the field ultimately earn? Take a look at some of the major salary-information websites like Glassdoor, Payscale, and Salary List to research and learn more.
  • Can graduates find jobs? Research employment statistics for the programs to which you're applying. Will you have easy access to career services and other types of alumni networking support?
  • Translatable skills. Can you expect an oversupply of new graduates with the same degree and skills, or does your career field have a shortage of new hires? Look for an in-depth breakdown of job projections on the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website.

Websites like Glassdoor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics can give you valuable insight into salaries and job projections.

Analyze and Forecast the Financials

Now it's time to do some math to see the type of financial impact a graduate degree can make versus the cost of obtaining it. 

Assess the Cost of the Program

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 through its benefits program?

Inquire About Second Chance Scholarships

Not every student who is awarded a scholarship will attend the program. A few weeks after acceptance decisions are announced, call your graduate program to see if they have any recently-available funding—even if you have already been given a scholarship. If you were accepted into other programs, don’t be shy about name dropping to remind them that you are a competitive candidate.

Asking for money may 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.

How Long Will It Take to Payoff?

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?

How Does It Affect Your Earning Potential?

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 you should 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. You may also want to think about the intangibles as you do your research and add up the costs.