Are you looking for a way to boost your earning potential? Graduate school is a smart way to improve your career prospects. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the median annual earnings of workers with a master’s degree or higher was $69,700 in 2020— approximately 17% higher than workers with only a bachelor’s degree. But graduate school isn't the right choice for everyone. It can be prohibitively expensive, and in some fields, it’s unnecessary. Before you start applying to graduate programs, ask yourself the following questions to make sure it's the right decision for you.
1. Why do I want to go to graduate school?
Spend some time thinking about why you want to attend grad school in the first place. Some common reasons why it’s a good choice include:
- Your field requires a master’s degree: A master’s degree is required in some fields to work or become eligible for promotions. For example, mental health counselors, social workers, librarians, and archivists need a master’s degree. If you plan on a career in business and management, an MBA may be necessary.
- It will help you earn more money: Depending on your career path, earning your master’s could allow you to make significantly more money. PayScale reports that engineers with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $87,000 per year, while engineers with a master’s degree earn an average of $96,000. Throughout your career, a graduate degree could help you earn hundreds of thousands more.
- It will improve your employability: In general, individuals with graduate degrees have better employment prospects than those with undergraduate degrees. In fact, the unemployment rate for those with a master’s degree is 2.6%, while the unemployment rate for people with bachelor’s degree is 3.5%.
You may be considering graduate school for other reasons beyond these. Some college students feel a bit lost after graduating, and because they enjoy school and learning, they consider grad school as the next step. While more education is always a good thing, it is also expensive. Unless you have a lot of disposable income, attending grad school because you don’t know what else to do isn’t a good idea.
Related: Is Now the Right Time for You to Go to Grad School?
2. What type of degree do I need?
Before enrolling in grad school, it’s important to research the type of degree you need for your desired career or position. Some common types of graduate degrees you’ll come across include:
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
- Master of Science (MS)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
- Master of Education (MEd)
Find out from advisors and professionals in your desired field which degree is required, and make sure any school you consider offers that specific degree type.
3. What type of program is right for me?
There are several types of graduate programs to choose from. To find the right one for you, consider your goals, schedule, budget, and learning style.
- Full-time programs: Full-time graduate programs are typically two years long and require students to complete coursework during the day. Students in full-time graduate programs often work closely with professors and take advantage of on-campus resources such as study groups, libraries, and research facilities.
- Part-time programs: Part-time programs typically take three or four years to complete and allow students to take courses in the evening or on weekends. They’re a good option for students who need to work full-time or take care of other obligations while going to school. This can also be a great way to reduce student loans since you can use your paycheck to cover some of your costs.
- Online programs: Many colleges and universities offer online graduate programs that allow students to complete coursework at home. Online graduate programs typically have the same admission requirements as traditional programs with more flexibility. You can also consider hybrid programs, which have a mix of on-campus and online requirements.
Related: On-Campus, Online, or Hybrid: Which Grad School Format Is Right for You?
4. How will I pay for grad school?
We’ve already said it—grad school is expensive. The NCES reports that the average cost of tuition for graduate students is $19,792 at public schools and $26,597 at private schools. But some leading schools—particularly business schools—cost significantly more. For example, one year at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania costs $118,568. However, many financial aid options are available for grad school. In fact, 56% of graduate students received financial aid through grants, employer assistance, or federal student loans, according to the NCES. To cover your grad school costs, consider the following financing options:
- Employer assistance: Some employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement as a benefit to attract and retain workers. Talk to your manager or HR department to find out if this is an option for you.
- Grants and fellowships: Thousands of grants and fellowships are available for graduate students from the federal government, states, schools, and nonprofit organizations.
- Scholarships: You may be eligible for scholarships from schools, nonprofit groups, and private companies. For example, the Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship provides up to $5,000 to women in business school.
- Work-study: If your school participates in a federal or state work-study program, you can get a part-time job and use that income to pay for some of your expenses.
- Federal student loans: Graduate students can file the FAFSA to see if they’re eligible for federal aid in the form of Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Grad PLUS Loans.
- Private student loans: If you run out of other options, you can apply for private student loans to cover the remaining costs of your graduate program.
5. What will be my return on investment?
In some fields, the cost of graduate school is worth it because of the increased earning potential it provides. But in others, it may not be worth the expense. In fact, a recent study from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity found that 40% of master’s degrees had no net financial value. When thinking about the ROI of a master's degree, consider the following:
- The cost of school: This varies widely depending on the type of program and school you choose. For example, public schools are less expensive than private ones unless you qualify for grants and scholarships that offset the cost.
- Student loan debt: Consider how much money you’d need to borrow. Loans for graduate study usually have higher interest rates than others, making grad school even more expensive.
- Expected starting salary: Compare your expected starting salary with a bachelor’s degree to your expected salary after earning a master’s degree. If the difference isn’t significant, a master’s degree may not be a wise investment.
Related: 10 Overlooked Questions to Ask About Graduate School
Going to grad school is a big step that requires a lot of consideration and planning. When deciding if graduate school is right for you, evaluating the cost, your employability, and your earning potential will help you make the best choice for you and your career.
If you decide that grad school is definitely in your future, use our Essential Grad School Search and Application Timeline to help guide the way through the entire admission process. You can also explore great options using our Graduate Program Search tool!