Should I go to grad school? 17 key things to consider

    Olga Knezevic
    Olga Knezevic

    Olga is an in-house editor and writer at She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.

    Should I go to grad school? 17 key things to consider

      You’ve earned your bachelor’s and now you stand at a crossroads. Graduate school may seem like a natural progression, especially if you had a great college experience and excelled academically. But should you go? And if so, should you go right after undergrad or is it better to gain some professional experience first?

      Graduate school refers to an educational institution where students pursue advanced academic degrees such as a master’s or doctorate. It offers specialized and in-depth coursework, research opportunities, and mentorship in various fields of study. A master’s degree will take you 1-2 years to complete, while a PhD can take 5 or more years.

      There are many potential benefits associated with going to grad school. However, it’s essential to weigh these against the costs, such as the financial investment and time commitment.


      Why go to grad school?

      Grad school provides an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and expertise in a chosen field. This in turn can open doors to advanced career opportunities and, in some cases, higher earning potential.

      1. It’s a prerequisite for some careers

      Many professional fields require a graduate degree for higher-level positions. For example, while you can become a social worker, accountant, or registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree, clinical social workers, certified public accountants, and nurse practitioners all require further education.

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs requiring a master’s degree are expected to grow by 13% over the next decade, which is the largest increase among all degree levels.

      These advanced roles typically entail a wider scope of practice, increased responsibility, and, as a result, higher salaries. If you have a clear career goal that requires a specialized skill set or advanced knowledge, grad school can provide the training. In fact, this is one of the best reasons to go to graduate school.

      2. You could earn a much higher salary

      The average short-term salary boost for earning your master’s is $13,099 per year, or 23%. But depending on your field, it could be much higher. For example, a master’s in finance leads to an average $28,286 boost; for computer software and media applications, it’s a whopping $43,146.

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      Is a master’s degree worth it?

      It depends on your field. A master’s degree in visual and performing art results in a 74% salary increase, on average, compared to having just a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, a master’s in marketing may result in a much more modest increase, closer to 8%.

      Master’s Degree Salary boost over bachelor’s*
      Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services 139%
      Computer Software and Media Applications 99%
      Bioethics/Medical Ethics 89%
      Business/Commerce, General 87%
      Teaching English or French as a Second or Foreign Language 77%
      Visual and Performing Arts, General 74%
      Educational Administration and Supervision 69%
      Biological and Physical Sciences 62%
      Philosophy and Religious Studies, Other. 60%
      Public Health 60%
      Dance 56%
      Education, General 39%
      Design and Applied Arts 35%
      Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities 33%
      Social Work 32%
      Clinical, Counseling and Applied Psychology 25%
      Public Relations, Advertising, and Applied Communication 22%
      Public Administration 20%
      Criminal Justice and Corrections 19%
      Psychology, General 15%
      Human Resources Management and Services 15%
      Economics 11%
      Biology, General 9%
      Marketing 8%
      Industrial Engineering 4%
      Engineering Technologies/Technicians, Other 2%
      Architectural Sciences and Technology 0%

      *Calculated using weighted averages of bachelor’s and master’s degree earnings in the same subject, 4 years after graduation; based on data from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

      3. It allows you to specialize

      Bachelor’s programs typically provide a well-rounded general education. The focus is on knowledge acquisition – learning what experts in the field have written or discovered.

      The purpose of graduate school is to take you a step further – so you’re no longer just learning what’s already out there, but also generating new knowledge and eventually making an impactful contribution in your chosen field.

      For example, as part of a master’s in environmental science, you could specialize in marine conservation, and delve into areas such as coral reef ecology and sustainable fisheries management. Similarly, a computer science grad student can specialize in AI and machine learning, exploring advanced algorithms and natural language processing.

      4. You may be able to go for free

      One of the strongest arguments in favor of going to grad school is if you are able to attend for free. PhD programs are typically fully funded. When it comes to master’s degrees – your employer may offer tuition assistance to cover all or part of the cost.

      In 2019, 47% of US employers offered some undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance. This is more likely in industries that heavily rely on advanced research and specialized skills, such as:

      • tech and engineering
      • healthcare and pharmaceuticals
      • finance and consulting
      • education
      • government

      Tuition reimbursement programs usually have specific criteria and guidelines, such as requiring you to maintain a certain GPA or commit to remaining with the organization for a specific time after finishing your degree.

      5. You may have improved job security

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with graduate degrees have lower rates of unemployment compared to those with only a bachelor’s education.

      Grad school can also:

      • Enhance your competitive edge in the job market; for example, 87% of business school alumni report that their graduate degree improved their employability.
      • Expand your scope of potential careers by helping you gain specialized knowledge and skills, conduct research, and build a professional network.
      • Increase your job security during economic downturns thanks to your higher level of specialization and expertise. Research from the height of the pandemic shows that higher levels of educational attainment were associated with fewer job losses.

      6. It can be a great way to transition to a new career

      Chose the wrong major? Realized too late what your true passion is? Grad school can be a great way to upskill and reskill for those wishing to transition to a new career. This is especially true if you choose a career-focused degree like a master’s in social work or a professional doctorate.

      If you’re in a lower-paying job or industry, grad school can help you move into a higher-paying career. For instance, transitioning from a social work role to a clinical psychology role can yield an average salary increase of around $20,000 per year.

      Considerations for avoiding grad school

      Most of the reasons for not going to grad school are economic – the added debt, the opportunity cost, and the potential impact of your undergraduate student loans, among others.

      1. It could leave you in serious debt

      According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition for a single year of grad school during the 2020-2021 academic year stood at $19,749.

      The average master’s student leaves school $43,379 in debt, in addition to whatever they borrowed for their undergraduate studies.

      While you can and should fill out the FAFSA for grad school, it is essential to thoroughly research and understand the terms and conditions of any loans you consider taking.

      One of the key issues surrounding federal loans for graduate school is the lack of interest subsidies. Unlike undergraduate loans, which often receive interest subsidies while the student is in school, graduate loans typically accrue interest from the moment you receive them. This means that the total amount borrowed for grad school can significantly increase over time, putting additional financial burden on students.

      2. The “opportunity cost” may not be worth it

      The time you spend in grad school is time not spent gaining work experience, climbing the career ladder, and earning a full-time salary. Depending on the field, those “lost” years might outweigh the benefits of getting a graduate degree.

      One way to measure the opportunity cost of grad school financially. You can use the percentage boost over a bachelor’s that we show above. Or you can look at average starting salaries. While master’s degrees in construction engineering, public policy analysis, and management information systems and services all come with starting salaries of $80,000+, neurobiology, classics, and culinary arts average around $33,000 – a stark difference.

      3. It may not boost your earnings very much

      Most students report “investing in their future” and “earning more” as key reasons they chose to go to grad school. However, the following 21 master’s programs actually lead to a decrease in salary over the bachelor’s degree in the same field.

      Master’s Degree Salary boost over bachelor’s
      1. English Language and Literature/Letters, Other -2%
      2. Sociology -2%
      3. Materials Engineering -3%
      4. Systems Science and Theory -4%
      5. Science, Technology and Society -5%
      6. International Agriculture -8%
      7. Agricultural Engineering -9%
      8. Mathematics -9%
      9. Social Sciences, Other -9%
      10. Cell/Cellular Biology and Anatomical Sciences -10%
      11. Philosophy -11%
      12. Industrial Production Technologies/Technicians -13%
      13. Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering -14%
      14. Pharmacology and Toxicology -14%
      15. Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Medical Systems -14%
      16. Culinary Arts and Related Services -15%
      17. Non-Professional General Legal Studies (Undergraduate) -17%
      18. Psychology, General -19%
      19. Fire Protection -20%
      20. Health/Medical Preparatory Programs -24%
      21. Neurobiology and Neurosciences -26%

      4. Your undergraduate loans could impact your options

      Undergraduate loans can significantly impact your options during grad school in terms of cost and financing.

      1. The federal direct loan program imposes limits on the amount of subsidized and unsubsidized student loans you can borrow. The amount available to you for graduate school may fall short of covering all your costs.
      2. If you reach your borrowing limit for other types of federal financial aid, you may have to take out Grad PLUS or private student loans, which have higher fees and interest rates.
      3. The repayment of your undergraduate loans may overlap with your graduate studies, adding to your monthly financial obligations and reducing the funds available for tuition and living expenses.
      4. The total amount of debt you carry, including both undergraduate and graduate loans, can impact your credit score and future borrowing opportunities.

      Having a significant debt load may also end up influencing your career choices after grad school, as you may prioritize higher-paying jobs to meet your financial obligations rather than pursuing careers based on passion or personal interests.

      5. Lack of industry-specific training

      While certainly not the case with professionally focused degrees like a master’s in nursing or education, some graduate programs lack specialized training tailored to specific industries. This limits their practical relevance for career advancement or at least for immediate career application.

      Short-term career-specific training like micro-credentials can offer a more targeted approach. These programs focus on acquiring specific skills relevant to professions such as data analysis, digital marketing, project management, web development, graphic design, or cybersecurity. You can quickly gain hands-on experience and industry-relevant knowledge to help you get ahead, without the time commitment and financial burden of graduate school.

      6. Becoming an academic isn’t what it used to be

      Perhaps you’re considering grad school because you want to work in academia. Becoming a professor has long been perceived as a cushy job, but the reality may be quite different. For one, securing tenure is an uphill battle. According to a 2019 study, only 26.5% of college faculty are tenured. This represents a sharp decline, and some political factions are even campaigning to do away with tenure altogether.

      If you do get tenure – expect to put in around 54 hours of work per week, with about 15% of that time spent in administrative meetings and only about 15-30% spent teaching.

      However, the vast majority of faculty are adjunct lecturers. Despite holding doctoral degrees, they struggle with meager paychecks, are usually hired on a semestral basis, and have little to no say in how colleges are run.

      Questions to ask before deciding to go to grad school

      If you’re still not sure about going to grad school after weighing the pros and cons we’ve discussed so far, you can ask yourself these questions to help you decide.


      What are my career goals?

      Consider what you want to achieve professionally and whether grad school aligns with those aspirations.

      Is this financially viable for me?

      Assess your financial situation and determine if you can afford the costs associated with grad school, including tuition, living expenses, and potential student loans.

      Have I thoroughly researched the program?

      Ensure you have thoroughly investigated the specific program you are considering, including its curriculum, faculty, reputation, and opportunities for research or practical experience.

      Am I prepared for the commitment?

      Honestly assess if you’re ready to dedicate a significant portion of your time and energy to grad school. Consider the demanding coursework, research projects, and potential teaching or assistantship responsibilities. Are you willing to make sacrifices and put in the necessary effort to succeed?

      Is this the right time in my life for grad school?

      Consider where you are in life right now. Going to grad school right after undergrad has its perks – you’re less likely to have family and work obligations, plus the student lifestyle is still fresh in your memory. As an older student, it might be tougher to juggle your existing responsibilities. On the flip side, having professional experience can be a valuable asset.

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