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How to decide if graduate school is right for you

Est. 6 min read

Graduate school is expensive. The decision to go shouldn’t be solely based on desire or emotion. An analytical consideration of whether to go, which major and which school is important.

A common American ethos is that more is better. Since the 1960s, portion sizes for food have grown. The average square footage for houses has gone up. Even the average size of Americans has increased. Probably the only thing that hasn’t grown since then is savings accounts.

To that end, is more always better? Is there a point of diminishing returns when it comes to costs like earning an advanced degree?

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The costs of undergraduate and graduate degrees have increased since the mid 1990s, with an alarming increase of 296 percent for in-state tuition and fees at public universities. Students are graduating with more student loan debt than ever. This is leaving many with considerable financial constraints.

Because of this burden, many graduates are forced to live at home with their parents after graduation. Graduates are postponing life events, such as marriage and having children. Such delays affect not only their lives but the whole economy.

Is more school better? The answer depends on several factors.

How will you evaluate the potential return on your graduate degree?

There are two ways to evaluate the potential return on investment of a graduate degree, not considering your quality of life or career satisfaction. The first is the percentage increase from a salary with an undergraduate degree to a salary after a graduate degree. The second is to compare the maximum salary potential with an undergraduate degree and the maximum salary potential with a graduate degree.

A critical component of both valuations is the longer-term prospects of the return on investment. For example, a journalism degree is proportionally less valuable today than it was in 1960. It’s not that journalism isn’t a worthwhile profession. It’s that with the advent of the internet, online media, and social media, access to information no longer requires filtration through a publisher.

When you’re deciding whether or not pursuing further study in a field is worthwhile, take into account how it has and will continue to grow. What has the market for your desired profession looked like over the past few years? What will it look like in the future? Resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projection program can help you decide if you think the time and cost of going to graduate school is worth the return.

What are the salary projections for your field?

A 2015 study by SoFi compared the salary projects of different graduate degrees. It showed that advanced degrees in medicine, not including nursing or pharmacy, had the greatest potential salary increases. Graduate degrees in medicine are averaging 10-year returns of 15 percent.

Advanced degrees in dentistry came in second with 10-year returns of 7 percent. Despite coming in second, dentistry had an projected salary increase of less than 50 percent of a graduate degree investment in medicine. With baby boomers’ advancement in age, medicine, healthcare, and elder care will be rapidly growing fields. Dentistry, by and large, will stay the same.

Coming in third, also 50 percent less than its predecessor, is engineering and computer science. It showed a projected salary increase of 4 percent over 10 years. With advancements in computer science, space, and technology, this makes sense and prospects look good.

The lowest percentage increases were in nursing and pharmacy. Salaries in both careers increased 1 percent over 10 years. Specialties and symbiotic careers, such as nurse anesthetists and pharmaceutical sales, may generate much higher incomes than general master’s degrees.

Dollar-for-dollar comparisons are also helpful. According to SoFi, the average undergraduate in medicine starts at $80,400 salary and is projected to earn $284,600 after 10 years with a graduate degree. Undergraduates in dentistry average $128,900 and increase to $233,700 with a graduate degree after 10 years. On the other end of the spectrum, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences’ salaries went from $62,000 to $84,500 after 10 years.

When weighing the pros and cons of graduate degrees, it’s wise to first determine if you have the stamina to complete a graduate program if your main driver is money. The benefits of credits obtained for graduate degrees are reduced when the graduate program isn’t finished.

It’s not enough to pick a major. You must also choose the right school, as all graduate degrees aren’t equal.

How will you choose a graduate school?

PayScale did a study that weighed the best graduate schools based on salary potential. Many names at the top of the list are expected, such as Harvard, the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Columbia University and Stanford University.

Some names might be more surprising. Emory University came in third place. Brooklyn School of Law tied Stanford University’s MBA program for 10th place. The University of Chicago came in 13th place, and Santa Clara University at 17th place.

The analysis that includes the most majors and schools for graduate degree programs is U.S. News & World Report’s graduate degree rankings across the U.S., ranging from business to education and occupational therapy to sociology.

Of course, the more desirable the school, the more money prospective students can expect to pay. However, as Jocelyn Paonita, owner of The Scholarship System, says, “When considering the cost of graduate school, it is different than undergraduate. For graduate programs, the name of the school has a heavier weight than with undergraduate. That said, sometimes the higher price tag can be worth it simply because of the network.”

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As Paonita goes on to say, regardless of the expense of whatever graduate school a prospective student chooses “it is important for future graduate students to look for options outside of student loans, such as scholarships.”

How will you pay for graduate school?

For most, more school means more student loans unless they find scholarships. Therefore, when weighing the pros and cons of a graduate degree, one should consider how much they must borrow to obtain that advanced degree. Many undergraduates still have undergraduate degrees to pay off. Student Loan Hero says that a third of undergraduate students still have student loans after graduation with an average balance of $24,000.

This means that many students must decide if they should take on more student loans to finish school earlier or put off graduate school until after they pay off their undergraduate school loans. Finishing one’s schooling at a younger age is enticing, but increasing student loan debt balances means it will take longer to pay off all their student loans.

Kiplinger conducted a study to calculate how long it would take to repay graduate school loans for varying degrees. The advanced degree that would take the fewest number of years to pay off is marketing management. It would take five years and three months with an average salary of $119,000 per year. The advanced degree with the most number of years to pay off is human resources management. It would take nine years and six months to pay off with an average salary of $74,400.

There are many factors to consider when deciding if graduate school is right for you and, if so, which school and which program is best. It’s important to remember that a higher income or more money doesn’t always correlate to a better quality of life or more financial security.

There are too many cases of people with advanced degrees and high incomes who are in just as much or more of precarious financial situations than people with average incomes. Before proceeding, know what obtaining your advanced degree will cost you in time, money and energy. Only then can you make the right decision.

Published on January 16, 2017

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John Schneider has over 16 years of experience writing about money, with a focus on the queer community, being featured in Yahoo Finance, Business Insider, Time and more. With his husband and business partner, he co-owns Debt Free Guys and co-hosts the Queer Money podcast, a podcast about the financial nuances of the queer community.
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