BY ANTHONY MASTERTON
It’s a big question: what comes after college? Some people join companies, others start companies, and some go straight to graduate school. But how does someone decide if they’re going to need more than a bachelor’s degree to meet their professional and personal goals? And how does someone balance those goals against practical considerations like balancing debt vs. income? Advanced degree programs can be academically intense, making them hard to pursue while working on a career or trying to get a startup off the ground (although that doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people from managing it every year).
If you’re considering grad school, ask yourself the following five questions.
- Does your target career require a graduate degree?
One of the most sensible things to do before you start signing up for placement exams (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.), is to look at job postings–and their requirements–for your occupation. For instance, if you want to provide guidance to high school students, then guess what? Most schools will want you to first obtain a master’s in school counseling, as well as some relevant experience – experience that you’ll need to plan for while still in school. In this case, you’d want to check out local education markets to see if there are good opportunities near any of the graduate schools you might attend. Geographic location is a bigger factor for experience-building than you might guess. It’s also important to consider how competitive the market will be in that location. Some schools may be desperate for counselors, while in other places the supply will far outstrip the demand.
- What kind of doors do you want opened over time?
A few years ago, The New York Times reported that 2 in 25 people over age 25 have a master’s degree. It’s true that returning to school can become more popular during economic downturns, but that’s not the only factor behind what some experts call “credential inflation.” Year after year, having a bachelor’s degree is becoming more of a base requirement for jobs than a real differentiator. Keep in mind that, in the corporate world especially, there are jobs that won’t seriously consider candidates who don’t have at least a master’s degree (especially jobs beyond a certain level of management). On the other hand, if you are more likely to be starting a company on your own (or joining a startup), a higher-level degree will function more as a general credibility builder; not having one won’t necessarily keep you from moving forward (although having one could certainly make things easier).
- Are you able to commit the time?
Getting a master’s degree can be an excellent decision for those in career fields that really require it (like the career field of speech pathology), but signing up for another two (or more) years of school isn’t a decision to make lightly. If you are a little hesitant about committing the time, remember to explore your class-structure options. Many reputable schools offer online degrees that allow you to go to work during the day and take care of your classwork at night, which can mean less disruption in your day-to-day life. Other post-college options for learning key materials and gaining experience in your field include internships and apprenticeships, which are usually shorter than a grad program and can segué directly into full-time jobs. Depending on your goals, these may be a better fit.
- Can you afford it?
While some programs may provide you with scholarships or financial assistance, graduate degrees rarely come free-of-cost. If you are one of the many people who already has student loan debt, it can be daunting to sign up for even more, especially with a rapidly-changing job market. According to one estimate, about 70 percent of students graduate with some debt, and in a survey, most people said they don’t anticipate paying off all that debt until they’re in their 40s. Graduate degrees are typically more expensive than undergraduate degrees, which means they take longer to clear. That doesn’t mean grad school can’t be the right decision for you, but it does mean you should develop a strong plan for how you will manage additional debt. Of course, with many grad programs, you have the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant, research assistant, or teaching assistant. These opportunities can offer you major tuition breaks, although you will have to be conscious of managing your time and energy.
- Do you have a backup plan?
If you get partway through graduate school and realize it isn’t for you, you don’t have the time, or you aren’t comfortable with the cost/benefit tradeoffs, you need to have a backup plan. Before you undertake something as time-consuming and costly as graduate school, think through an exit strategy. This is a helpful exercise if you are completely set on graduate school, because you’ll take inventory of all your options. When life gets intense, sometimes just knowing you have options can alleviate pressure and keep you moving forward.
Anthony Masterton is a young entrepreneur trying to break through in the tech world. When he’s not working on growing his young startup, he writes about everything from tech advancements to his own experiences as a young CEO. A self-starter, he likes to help others learn from his own successes and failures, as it’s always most impactful to learn from experience.