Should You Go to Grad School? A Guide to Making the Right Choice

When I was nearing the end of college, I started to think about my next steps after graduation. Since I’d fallen in love with writing in the sixth grade, I knew I wanted my career to include that passion. A professor and mentor encouraged me to look into an MFA in creative writing. The thought of continuing to learn and grow in a classroom environment excited me, but there was a lot to consider — the time, the cost, what to study. I knew it wasn’t a decision to take lightly, so I started to do some homework. Here are some tips for weighing your options.

Consider your overall career and life goals

When I was finishing college, I was dating a man I thought I would marry. We discussed having children sooner rather than later and that helped to inform my decision — at first. I knew that taking care of a newborn, working, and attending grad school would be too much to tackle at once, so I had to factor in the demands of being a student with my other life goals and responsibilities. (Spoiler: We ended up breaking up for other reasons, and I was glad that I had applied to school.) The workload in grad school can be significantly more intense than in undergraduate studies, so keep in mind the responsibilities that will continue while you’re in school. If you’re considering grad school and have few obligations to others right now, this might be an ideal time to go.  

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Consider how an advanced degree will help your career

If yes, pass Go and collect $200. Or, more realistically, collect $200 and save it to start paying off your student loans. If you’re considering advanced study to enhance your knowledge, though advantageous, it may not be quite as necessary. There are some fields — like computer science — where you can earn certificates in niche areas to increase your skillset, though overall, you may still earn less than a peer with a master’s degree. There are other ways to increase your desirability to employers. Work experience, mentorships, and professional development programs all can be beneficial for advancement.

Research shows that the earnings of young workers with advanced degrees grow more than those with bachelor’s degrees. Across the board, there’s been a shift in what employers are seeking. Fast Company reports: “According to a new survey from CareerBuilder, 27% are recruiting those who hold master’s degrees for positions that used to only require four-year degrees, and 37% are hiring college grads for positions that had been primarily held by those with high school diplomas.”

Review your financial situation

It is no secret that higher education is expensive, even if you attend a public university. On average, graduate tuition is between $30,000 and $40,000 per year, depending on the school. So, it’s important to explore options for scholarships or other funding from the school to help you pay for your studies. Student loans are an option, but factor in any existing student loan debt and take a good look at your financial picture to see if and how you can make grad school work for you. Six months after you graduate or officially leave a program (even without a degree), student loan payments will be due. Because student loan debt doesn’t disappear until it’s paid off, it is vital to make a realistic budget that includes loan payments so you won’t be caught off guard. If you’re working right now, see if your employer offers any financial assistance for school.

Realistically consider the job market

Although I was thrilled when I was accepted to the MFA program at The New School, I had lingering concerns — I had done the research online and knew that most colleges were only  hiring adjuncts. The typical pay rate for a creative writing adjunct tends to be low, and there isn’t a lot of job security. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

While following your dreams is important, use both your head and heart when deciding your future. Websites like Glassdoor.com offer information about salaries in different fields. If there is a particular company you’re interested in working for, often searching online will yield helpful info about starting salaries. Talk to people who work in the field you’re considering and connect with  others who have gone through the  program you’re applying to. They’ll likely have valuable insights. Additionally, consult your school about job placement resources for after graduation — what options do they offer for networking with potential employers? It never hurts to ask questions!

Don’t be afraid to change your plans

Just when I thought my future was all set, an unexpected health crisis altered my path. When I realized that I had to decline my acceptance to focus on my wellness, I was crushed. But, it turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me. I felt pulled to look into other graduate degree programs that my school offered. I discovered a program in Media Studies and Media Management — and that it would be possible to earn the degree via online courses. I took a chance and applied. I was accepted and began two months later. Instead of increasing my skills in an area I already had a strong background in, I am filling in the gaps and learning about the business side of media and writing. Had I gone with my original plan, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to broaden my mind — and skillset — and become even desirable to future employers.

The takeaway

Consider your options, research the pros and cons of advanced study in your desired field, evaluate your financial situation, and if it is right, take the leap and apply. If now is not the time, remember that school will be there down the road if you change your mind. It’s never too late to learn.