More and more students are going to grad school, as many say the Master’s degree is today what the Bachelor’s degree was a generation ago. For many young students, the question is not whether or not to go back to school—the question is when to do it. Historically, there has been some tension for those itching to make the best possible first step into a career, but who are often told how important experience is for admissions committees (and for employers thereafter). Still others are told a Master’s degree might not be worth it in the end. So how do you know what the right move for you is?
IS GRAD SCHOOL WORTH IT?
This question is one that’s different for every student. And it has to do with a complicated mixture of personal circumstances and the professional landscape. And there’s no way to answer this question until you figure out what your reasons for attending grad school would be.
DO YOU WANT TO WORK IN A SPECIALIZED OR PARTICULARLY COMPETITIVE FIELD?
Some fields and careers basically require a Master’s degree. This includes virtually all competitive jobs in the STEM fields. Many other kinds of jobs also require advanced education and academic certification, such as most fields of physical and psychological therapy.
You should explore the educational paths taken by people who work in the fields you’re interested in. You could even consider trying to reach out to some of them to ask them about their insights into the field. Did they have to have some form of graduate school? Are they glad about whether or not they went to school? What advice would they give you?
DO YOU WANT TO INCREASE YOUR EARNING POWER?
This is another question that has different implications for the larger question of whether to join the workforce or go back to school. And of course we understand that this is probably (for better or worse) one of the primary considerations for every move most people make in their working lives. The salary benefits of a Master’s degree are not distributed perfectly evenly across all the different industries.
In some fields, like English and Psychology, a Master’s degree doesn’t increase your earning power significantly over having a Bachelor’s. Though this is itself complicated. For one, neither of these are considered terminal degrees–as in, the highest possible degree in that field. You can get a Ph.D in both English and Psychology. Also, a Master’s in English or Psychology does increase your earning power…once it’s combined with increased experience and seniority.
In other fields where the salary benefits appear to be more obvious, there are still complications. This is true of business schools, for instance. The MBA is statistically a great way to increase your earning power. However, the salary benefits go disproportionately to graduates of top-ranked schools. And many MBA programs look favorably on applicants with relevant work experience – so joining the workforce temporarily may help you get into a better school when you do get your Master’s, which will help you command a higher salary when you graduate.
Taking a broad view of the economic landscape, a Master’s degree does seem to promise a significantly higher earning power. A a report issued in 2011 after the last national census found that the average worker, over the course of a forty-year career, can expect to earn $400,000 with a Master’s than with a Bachelor’s degree. The salary benefits in general seem to work out to an extra $10,000-20,000 per year.
DO YOU WANT TO DO SPECIALIZED RESEARCH?
This is another reason why people often go to graduate school. If you have some kind of original research you’d like to conduct, academia is the way to go. Degree-granting institutions help provide students with the resources necessary to conduct original research, which is very difficult to replicate on your own.
SO LET’S SAY YOU DO WANT TO GO TO GRAD SCHOOL. IS NOW THE RIGHT TIME?
THE RIGHT MOVE IS DIFFERENT FOR EVERY PERSON
Grad school can feel like a natural extension of your undergraduate experience–but don’t fail to appreciate what a large disruption to your life it can be, in ways both good and bad. Grad school is, for almost everyone, a major investment of time, effort, and money. Not only do you have to be able to stay financially afloat during the time spent working toward your degree. You also have to make sure you’re in the right point in your life to make the investment a Master’s degree requires.
DON’T YOU WANT TO EARN MONEY?
Even if the effects of a Master’s degree on your earning power seem positive in the long run, it can be difficult to give up the prospect of jumping straight into a decent salary in the short-term. Some students work and save long enough that they can go to grad school without having to take on significant debt. Others are happy to take on the debt in order to make the next step in their careers as soon as possible.
DON’T OVERLOOK THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
There are some fields where it can be specifically advantageous to accumulate some work and life experience before you enroll in graduate school. This is true in the humanities, for instance, where some interaction with the actual world of working human beings can deepen your insights when you eventually do return to your studies. It’s also true in the business world, where historically MBA programs have preferred that applicants have significant work experience.
The average full-time MBA student has 4.3 years of work experience before stepping foot in business school. This number goes up to 6.4 years of work experience for part-time MBA students and a whopping 13.3 years of experience for executive MBA students.
The right time to go to grad school–and also the answer to the question of whether to go at all–is different for everyone. For some, the benefits of grad school are accentuated by getting work experience before enrolling. For others, it makes sense to try to finish their education as quickly as possible. The right decision for you will depend on where you’re coming from and where you want to go.
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