As long as you have the right intentions, grad school can be a major boon to your future. But you might be asking yourself, if there are “right” intentions, does that mean there are “wrong” intentions?
Yes, indeed, there are.
Graduate school is really only appropriate if it’s “necessary to advance professionally or financially” in your field, says Elizabeth Venturini, M.B.A., a college and career strategist with CollegeCareerResults. The key word being "necessary."
“There are lots of great reasons to decide to go to grad school. Boosting your earning potential, seeking career advancement, or pursuing important research or innovation are all great reasons, but I caution those people who choose to go ‘just because,’” says university administrator and author Chester Goad, Ed.D. “It needs to be the right degree for the right reasons.”
If any of the following five reasons are your chief incentive for wanting to go to grad school, well . . . you should probably think twice.
1. You can’t find a job
More often than not, employers want to see practical experience on your résumé, not another degree or credential. So with the exception of fields that might demand additional training (e.g., medicine, law, etc.), a graduate degree isn’t a guaranteed résumé booster or employment insurance. In fact, you may find you have just as much trouble—if not more—finding a job with a graduate degree. Only this time around, you’re deeper in debt and you spent years holed up in a classroom when your job search competitors were gaining real-world experience.
“Some college students believe that graduate school will look really good on their résumé,” says Tamara Hill, M.S., a therapist. “What college students fail to realize is that employers are not looking for years of school experience; they are looking for common sense, the ability to use critical-thinking skills, and some experience.”
Before jumping into grad school to jump-start your job search, reach out to people in the positions you want. (Informational interviews are a beautiful thing, and you can find connections through your undergraduate institution’s alumni office, professional organizations, social media, or your own personal network by asking around.) See if they have any thoughts about the future of their industry. Ask them what their educational background is like. Talk to them about your grad school ambitions. You may be surprised by what they say.
“The key is doing your homework,” Goad says. If your ideal post-grad positions call for five years of work experience or more, “it may be better to jump into the workforce and gain that experience before adding a graduate degree. Some graduate degrees offer valuable work or research experience, but others don’t.”
P.S. Employers aren’t the only ones who want to see real-world experience on your résumé; grad schools value it too! And it can boost your graduate application if and when it’s time for you to go back to school.
What to do instead
- Visit your undergrad career services office
- Go to networking events (like Meetups)
- Join a service program or volunteer
- Get an internship
- Seek out informational interviews
- Start your own consulting business
- Do freelance work
2. You need to hit the reset button on life
Suffering a bit of an existential crisis, unsure of what you want to do with your life? You’re hardly alone. But grad school isn’t the place to figure it out. Nor is it a place to steady yourself if you’re reeling from a life-changing event, like a big breakup. Grad school is incredibly demanding, and if you’re already stressed, it’s only going to make things worse.
“Some college graduates feel overwhelmed by decision paralysis. They don’t know what they want to be when they ‘grow up’ and are afraid they’ll make the wrong decision,” says Dr. Luz Claudio, a med school professor and academic advisor. “I advise students who are experiencing this decision paralysis to work and/or volunteer while they think through their options before committing to a graduate program. It is important that students take time to really think through different options with their end goal in mind. I tell them to please look at graduate school as an education consumer and ask yourself: ‘Is the training and degree that I am buying the right one that I need to reach my goal?’”
In short, there are much better ways to get your life back on track.
What to do instead
- Talk to a counselor or therapist
- Spend time with friends and family
- Try meditation, yoga, or exercise
- Start a new hobby
3. You want to make more money
Okay, who doesn't want to earn more money with their graduate degree? And, yes, grad school may increase your earning potential, says financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz, author of Filing the FAFSA. But it may not be enough of a salary jump to make the expense of grad school worth it.
Before even thinking about going back to school, you need to figure out the likely return on investment via projected job prospects and salaries in your field. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can be helpful in finding this info, as well as salary sites like PayScale.) Your expected increase in earnings needs to be worth the cost of your graduate education. And keep in mind that you're not just looking at tuition and fees but also lost wages while you're in school and interest payments from any debt incurred—and incurring grad school debt is very likely.
If you have a mountain of undergraduate student debt (again, who doesn't?), you might see a master’s degree as your ticket out. But be forewarned: “If a college graduate is having trouble repaying his or her student loans, the last thing he or she needs is to pile on more debt,” says Kantrowitz. “The rule of thumb concerning affordable debt—total student loan debt at graduation should be less than the borrower’s annual starting salary—still applies to graduate school but should include both undergraduate and graduate school debt as part of the total.”
So, before hunkering down with those grad school applications—and selling your soul for another student loan—ask yourself: Are there other ways to grow your income? Can you ask for a raise? Redo your budget? Start a side hustle in consulting? Find a more lucrative position in or outside your current company?
What to do instead
- Talk to a financial advisor
- Talk to your boss or HR rep
- Reassess living situation and finances
4. You hate your job
Hating your job is a serious problem, but grad school is an expensive solution. And in all likelihood, it’s not your only option. Maybe there are ways to improve your current situation. What is it about your job that you dislike? Can you talk to your supervisors or HR to change what you work on, who you work with, etc.? If that’s not doable, can you look for new positions elsewhere (see tip #1!)?
If you want to completely switch careers, a graduate degree can be a great means to that end, but you should be pretty darn certain it’s the right move before you commit to anything. Ask yourself a few more questions: How much do you know about the field? What kind of experience do you have in it? What degrees do most people in your ideal position hold? Is graduate school truly necessary? Getting a position—even as an unpaid volunteer or intern—in the field can give you clarity about your decision.
“It’s hard to hit a job target when you don’t have one,” says Beth Probst, founder of higher education advising firm At the Core. “A common misguided reason we hear for pursuing grad school is that the student lacks a defined career path and first job target. Without these, the student cannot know if the job they’ll ultimately pursue even requires or benefits from a graduate degree. We recommend that students work to identify potential careers and the education/skills required to do them much earlier and then frequently validate their choice via shadowing and course work experiences.”
Remember there are also certificate and other professional development programs that might give your career a leg-up. Of course, these programs come with their own prices and pressures, so you should still make sure it’s the right choice for your career goals, it’s a financially responsible decision, and it fits into your overall life plan.
If you’re in a job you’ve considered a stepping-stone to bigger and better things all along—and grad school is truly necessary to achieving your goals—then by all means get your master’s. You have our blessing. But if you’re just looking for an escape from your current position, grad school probably isn’t it.
What to do instead
- Talk to your boss or HR rep
- Take continuing classes education classes
- Find a mentor
5. You just love learning
Seems like a great reason to continue your education, right? But being particularly interested in a subject isn’t necessarily grounds for pursuing a graduate degree. Grad school means committing yourself to a distinct path and possessing a desire to contribute to the knowledge base in that field. You should be able to picture yourself conducting lots of research, growing your field, and helping others do the same, perhaps as a college professor. But even if that sounds like you, keep in mind that it takes more than an advanced degree and a snazzy tweed jacket to enter academia.
Michael Li, founder of The Data Incubator and a math Ph.D. from Princeton, breaks down some of the obstacles facing doctoral candidates and would-be academics: “The job market is tough. The funding environment is really tough,” he says. “If you don’t get a tenure-track position, career prospects may not be very good.” Being an academic can be an incredibly rewarding career, but it's also a long, often frustrating uphill climb in a competitive atmosphere, with uncertain outcomes at the end of it.
Keep in mind there are plenty of ways to indulge your curiosity and quench your thirst for knowledge, from joining professional organizations to continuing education classes to reading every book and article on the subject you can get your hands on.
What to do instead
- Audit free courses online (through orgs like Coursera, edX, and YouTube EDU)
- Volunteer with an organization related to your field (like giving tours for a historical society)
- Tutor others
- Start a blog or newsletter
In the end you may find grad school really is the next logical step in your career path. If so, take that step with pride and search for graduate programs that fit your needs and goals. But if you have doubts, you might want to walk in another direction.