Is it worth getting a master’s degree?

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By Ellen Gans

Whether you’re coming to the end of college or you’re a mid-career professional dreaming of a new path, you may be considering attending graduate school. Before gathering your letters of recommendation and sending in your application, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. Students should expect to spend significant amounts of time, mental energy, and money before a degree graces the wall.

According to education company Peterson’s, graduate tuition and fees at public institutions average $30,000 per year, and graduate tuition and fees at private institutions average $40,000 per year. If you plan to pick up a degree from an elite institution such as Harvard, expect to spend closer to $120,000 for the full course, according to estimates from TIME.

If you don’t have significant financial support via fellowships, scholarships, or tuition reimbursement from your employer, the expense of graduate school can negatively offset any potential future salary benefits, burdening you with student debt for decades.

Economic Uncertainty

Even though the economy is recovering from the Great Recession, college graduates no longer enjoy a world of opportunity. For one thing, there are simply more people competing for the same jobs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences, the percentage of young people who are enrolled in college is rising. In 2012, 41% of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, compared with 35% in 2000.

Well into the post-Great Recession economic rebound in 2014, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released statistics highlighting the loathsome job market faced by new college graduates. Rates of unemployment and underemployment for new college graduates have risen steadily over the last two decades. The current unemployment rate for recent college graduates hovers around 6%, compared with 4% for all college graduates, indicating that new graduates have a tougher time finding employment than their more experienced counterparts.

The Temptation of Graduate School

Faced with poor job prospects and economic uncertainty, new graduates frequently turn toward graduate school. TIME reports that more than three-quarters of college freshman have plans to attend graduate school, and many of them follow through on those plans.

While this may pay off for people who get some or all of their schooling paid for or land a job with a high salary upon graduation, these scenarios are the exception. For many others, consecutive degrees mean mounting debt, mental burnout, and time spent in a classroom that could have been used to develop a resume and job skills. For these people, graduate school isn’t a solution – it’s a problem.

During the 2011-2012 school year, post-secondary institutions awarded 754,000 master’s degrees. Only two years later, that number was up to 821,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that enrollment in graduate school increased in nearly every broad field between 2003 and 2013, with the exception of education, arts, and humanities, which saw slight drops over the same time period.

woman attending grad school classes

When Graduate School May Be Advantageous

Prestige, knowledge, and a few extra letters at the end of your name hold a lot of appeal. However, those reasons alone aren’t sufficient to take on the time and cost commitment of a secondary degree. Yes, grad school is an investment, but it’s only worthwhile when you see a return. Here are several instances in which attending graduate school can be a wise decision.

1. Your Chosen Field Demands It

Some fields, such as law and medicine, absolutely require advanced degrees. For new college graduates who were pre-law or pre-medical majors, graduate school is often a given. For others in social work or psychology, an advanced degree may be vital to advancing within a career field.

In some fields, including many in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) arena, so many job candidates have bachelor’s degrees that a bachelor’s is “the new high school diploma,” according to comments from a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Marketplace. In order to be competitive, a graduate degree may be considered part of the cost of entry.

2. A Degree Makes or Breaks Your Salary Prospects

Peterson’s reports that individuals with master’s degrees typically earn $400,000 more over the course of a lifetime than those who hold bachelor’s degrees. And while a graduate degree doesn’t always mean extra money, it can make a difference in some fields.

For example, the American Physical Society says that a physicist with a master’s degree can expect to earn around 33% more than a physicist with a bachelor’s degree. According to CBS News, web designers, marketing professionals, financial advisors, and graphic designers can all expect a salary jump of 17% to 21% with a master’s degree. And many districts and states have higher salary standards for teachers who hold master’s degrees in education.

 young man graduating from graduate school

3. It Promises High Job Placement Rates

Not all graduate schools are created equal. School rankings matter, but job placement statistics are likely to be even more relevant to your post-school success. U.S. News & World Report publishes job placement rates, so before applying to a program, find out your program’s track record of placing graduates in full-time jobs in their chosen fields.

Keep in mind that the 100% placement rate you see on a school’s website may come with a little asterisk. According to CBS News, job placement rates are usually based on self-reported data. This is problematic because those who aren’t employed may be less inclined to disclose their circumstances. If you’re seriously considering a particular school, ask to tap into the alumni network so you can do person-to-person research and ask what it’s really like to enter the job market post-graduation.

4. It Will Be Paid For

Free or discounted tuition can offset some of the financial risk of taking on additional education. Some graduate programs offer fellowships wherein a graduate student receives free or significantly reduced tuition in exchange for teaching undergraduate classes or conducting research (though this opportunity is often reserved for PhD candidates). These fellowships are most commonly offered at larger schools that function as research institutions or have large class sizes that require the presence of teaching assistants. Other schools may offer merit-based scholarships based on your undergraduate record or employment experience, though these are harder to come by than they are for undergraduate programs.

You may also have graduate school paid for by being employed by a company that offers tuition reimbursement. According to Business Insider, the following companies offered tuition reimbursement ranging from $3,000 per year to 100% of reimbursable costs:

  • Apple
  • Best Buy
  • Bank of America
  • Boeing
  • Chevron
  • Disney
  • Ford
  • Gap
  • Home Depot
  • Intel
  • Procter & Gamble
  • UPS
  • Verizon Wireless
  • Wells Fargo

Keep in mind that corporate tuition reimbursement policies are subject to change. Furthermore, exceptions can apply, and many companies require employees to have been employed with the company for a certain amount of time or sign on to stay with the company for an additional duration once their degrees are complete.

graduate student in the library with a stack of big books

When to Avoid Graduate School

Graduate school can be enjoyable, especially if you’re passionate about the field you’re studying. However, if you hope to extend your undergraduate years of late nights and partying, think again. Graduate students must remain more focused on results – you can expect a lot of homework and a lot of independent research. You’re going to be investing a significant amount of time, money, and mental energy toward your degree, so carefully consider the following instances when avoiding graduate school may be the best choice.

1. You Haven’t Yet Entered the Workforce

“There is rarely a reason to go to grad school immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree,” says professor and author Andrew Roberts, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report. This is because even though you may have filled your resume with internships during college, there is simply no substitute for working full-time. Becoming proficient in your field requires trial and error, lateral moves, and constructive failure.

By jumping straight from undergraduate studies into graduate school, you don’t get to try out a particular field and discover whether it’s really a good fit. Imagine investing four years of college plus two or more years of graduate school – only to emerge with a pile of debt and a job you can’t stand.

2. You Could Invest Directly in Your Career

While some express programs can be churned through in a year or less, the majority of graduate programs require at least two years for full-time students, and possibly three to four years for students who attempt to work and attend school on a part-time basis.

  • Full-Time. Although you can finish your degree faster, you have to fully remove yourself from the workforce. This means falling behind on valuable experience that your peers are gaining. If master’s degrees aren’t prized in your field, this may give your competitors a leg up. Also, keep in mind that while they’re racking up paychecks, you’re acquiring debt. That can significantly affect your ability to save for retirement, as well as your future ability to buy a home.
  • Part-Time. Many professionals decide to keep their day jobs while completing a part-time program during the evenings and weekends. Part-time students can hang onto their paychecks, and some even have the advantage of tuition reimbursement. However, part-time programs aren’t a practical option for many people fresh out of college because executive graduate programs often won’t consider an applicant without real-world work experience. It’s also incredibly overwhelming to take on a full-time job and school simultaneously when you’re just starting your first professional gig. Arguably the biggest downside of a part-time program is simply the schedule commitment. Expect to attend class for several hours per week, with substantial homework involved.

young woman taking a college math class grad school

3. Your Desired Field Doesn’t Require Advanced Degrees

If graduate degrees aren’t required for success in your field, obtaining them can actually backfire. While you’re off investing in graduate school, your peers are obtaining real-world work experience. Many employers prioritize someone with concrete experience over someone with a degree but no experience. You run the risk of being seen as overqualified and dismissed before you even have a chance to interview.

A reporter for Forbes faced significant resistance from employers who viewed her newly minted graduate degree as a drawback. She found that hiring managers worry that an over-educated candidate may have a sense of entitlement or demand too much pay.

4. Higher Job Placement Rates and Salaries Aren’t Guaranteed

Forbes tells the harrowing story of a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a law degree who thought that more school equaled more job prospects and higher pay. Instead, she left school with crippling debt – to the tune of $275,000 – and the job market wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. In 2014, she was making $20,000 per year as a lawyer in a small Minnesota town, and collected public assistance.

This lawyer’s case may be extraordinary, but it’s not as unusual as you might think. While a master’s degree does increase an individual’s lifetime earnings on average, average numbers don’t tell the whole story. For every person who got a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and landed a hefty paycheck and dream job, there are others who pursued a similar degree and ended up working at a coffee shop.

Even if you do land a dream job, you still need to crunch numbers. According to Forbes, you should add up whatever outstanding debt you have from your undergraduate degree plus whatever debt you expect to incur from graduate school. Then, subtract the salary you expect to earn in your first year after completing the prospective graduate degree. If the first debt-based figure exceeds the salary-based figure, Forbes says the total cost of your education may be too high.

Simply put, it’s crucial to be realistic and do your research. Not every field rewards graduate education, and not every program opens up doors.

graduating class students black gown and robe

Final Word

New college graduates aren’t the only ones turning to graduate school. Some people who have been in the workforce for years return to graduate school to give their existing career paths a boost, or to change career fields entirely.

The life stage may be different, but the same rules apply: Graduate school only makes sense if your field of choice demands (or strongly values) graduate degrees, and if the financial payoff will be worth the investment. So before enrolling in a graduate program, buckle down and do your homework.

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