Is a Graduate Degree for Me?

At some point in your undergraduate career, you’ve probably asked this question. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and there are many factors to consider. A graduate degree may offer a wealth of opportunities, but it’s a major financial commitment that may not be the best option for all students. Some of the more common reasons for going to graduate school include increasing earning potential, obtaining the credential required for a particular occupation such as a doctor or lawyer, enhancing opportunities to do more in-depth research, or pursuing more personal growth interests. Graduate school may make sense if your are planning to go into a field that significantly rewards a graduate degree or that has a shortage of in-demand, qualified candidates, or if you are planning to attend a program that has a strong track record of job placement for its graduates.

Before making the decision to apply, it’s important to define your true aspirations and personal goals. A good time to start thinking about these goals is at the end of your sophomore or beginning of your junior year. This should allow you ample time to learn more from your professors or advisors about the pros and cons of attending graduate school, as well as begin your research into the programs and universities your are considering. Of course, you also have to start preparing to take the required entrance exams, such as the GRE (subject matter tests), LSAT (law school) GMAT (business school) or MCAT (medical school), which are usually taken in the calendar year before you plan on enrolling. There are many good resources online, such as the guide provided by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, that provide application timelines and help you navigate the process, but your own college or university is also a great source of information.

There are also a number of financial considerations you should take into account before making the commitment. The first is reduced income. The time you spend in your program can vary from 1-2 years for a master’s degree to many more years to become a doctor. During this time, you may be earning less income or even none at all. Some graduate programs offer teaching or research assistantships that provide some level of support and/or stipend, so be sure to investigate what support is provided and how to apply. Be aware that professional programs such as business, law and medicine rarely provide financial support.

In addition to reduced income, you should seriously consider the amount of debt you may be required to take on in order to afford the program. This could be especially worrisome if you already have significant debt from undergraduate school or other personal debt such as a mortgage or car loan. In this case, it may make more sense to hold off on graduate school until you have paid down some of that debt.

According to a 2014 study by the New America Foundation, the average student loan debt for graduate students was $57,600 in 2012, up 43 percent from 2004. And the amounts borrowed varied significantly depending on the field of study, for example:

Average Student Loan Debt for Graduate Students

Degree Cost
MBA $42,000
Master of Science $50,400
Master of Education $58,539
Master of Arts $58,539
Law $140,616
Medicine $161,772

There is some federal financial aid available for graduate school, although most is in the form of loans.

For example, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year through the Direct Unsubsidized Loan program, which currently carries an interest rate of 5.84 percent. If more funds are required, you may also borrow under the Direct PLUS loan program under which you can borrow up to the cost of attendance (which is determined by the school) minus any other financial assistance received. There may be additional resources, such as Federal Work-Study or Pell grants (teacher certificate programs only) available. For any federal aid, you must complete and submit the FAFSA.

While there is no guarantee that obtaining a graduate degree will result in more income or upward mobility, it is certainly worth seriously considering, especially if you are passionate about your career, research and/or community services aspirations. Take the time now to carefully evaluate all your options, talk to your professors and advisors, and find the right path for you.

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