To go to graduate school or not?
That is a question you may face after several years on the workforce and looking for a boost in your career; or after several decades of work and looking for a major change. Given the time and expense of a graduate school education, it makes sense to weigh the decision carefully.
Here are 10 questions to consider before deciding on graduate school as the next step to advance your career:
1 – Why do you want to go to graduate school?
If your desire to attend graduate school is strictly for career advancement, you’ll want to confirm the net benefit to your career (see question 4).
If it’s a bucket list item that you’ve always wanted to check off, so why not now, then you want to confirm the time is right (questions 2 and 5) and your choice of program (question 6).
If it’s some other reason, you want to clarify what that is, so you confirm that graduate school will meet your objectives and there isn’t another better, cheaper, more accessible alternative (see question 8).
2 – Is now the right time for graduate school?
Even if you are 100% sure you want to go to graduate school at some point, that doesn’t mean that point is now.
Now could be the right time if there is a natural inflection point in your career:
- In a banking career path, for example, analysts often opt for graduate business school after 2-3 years;
- or maybe your company has just eliminated your position and you now have both time and some severance money to put towards graduate school;
- or say you’ve been working towards a career change, and you’ve confirmed it’s for you, but you see that the candidates you’re up against have a graduate degree.
You could be far enough along in your career metamorphosis that graduate school makes sense.
3 – How will you pay for it (or pay it back)?
Graduate school tuition, books and fees can run thousands of dollars.
If you need to relocate, then room, board and moving costs add significantly to this figure. Finally, you may not be able to work while attending school which means lost wages.
How are you going to cover all of these expenses, which can total in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars? If you plan to borrow, how will you pay the loan back? If you’re counting on your post-graduate career to pay down your loan, confirm that the projected salaries for your industry and role can cover this.
4 – Are you sure about the career benefits from graduate school?
Similar to doing a cost-benefit analysis on the financial investment into graduate school, you want to look at the overall costs and benefits to your career post-graduate school.
- Is a graduate degree required, customary, or rare in your field?
- Will getting the degree offset the gap in your work experience that will occur if you attend school full-time?
- If you attend part-time so there is no employment gap, will your part-time degree be seen as competitive enough with the full-time degrees?
- Do employers in the field that you are targeting prioritize the graduate degree?
5 – Can you prioritize the time and energy that graduate school requires?
If you decide to go to graduate school, you’ll want to go full-out, with 100% commitment.
What else is going on in your family commitments, relationships, and work (if you’re continuing to work while in school)? If you’re part of a dual-career couple and your spouse is starting a big role, now might not be the time for you to make a big transition. If your company had plans to sponsor your graduate school but now there’s a big restructuring at the company, you might be better off doubling down on work.
6 – Is this the right school program?
How much schooling do you need – e.g., is a Masters enough or do you need a PhD? What type of advanced degree is best for your goals?
For example, I have coaching colleagues who opted for programs in Social Work, Psychology, HR Management and Organizational Development – all different, but all are active in the coaching field. What school fits your needs?
For some, a local program might be best simply because it doesn’t require a move. For others studying a more niche area, they may have to relocate to specialize in what they want.
7 – What else will you need in addition to graduate school?
If you want to teach, graduate school for a Masters degree may not be enough.
If you want to have a clinical counseling practice, you will need to meet a minimum number of counseling hours.
If you’re eyeing graduate school as part of reaching a specific career objective, make sure you’re ready to complete all the requirements, not just the classroom piece.
8 – What are your alternatives ?
Given the time, expense and opportunity cost of graduate school, you owe it to yourself to consider alternatives.
- Will a certification suffice?
- Will additional work experience be a substitute or even make you more competitive?
- If it’s the knowledge you’re craving, can you learn what you need through MOOC’s or self-study?
- If it’s the camaraderie, can you get more involved in your professional association or community service?
9 – How competitive is your application?
If you’re committed to attending graduate school, can you get in?
Can you get in to your first choice program?
Are you on time to enroll for the upcoming cycle?
If you need financial support, are you eligible for scholarships, and are you on time for those deadlines?
10 – What happens after graduate school?
The learning and challenge of graduate school will surely change you and give you new ideas. However, you still want to have a sense for what you’re doing after school is up.
- Will you return to your current company, industry and/or career?
- If you are planning to use graduate school to launch your career change, how exactly will the degree fit into your job search plan?
- What are your tentative plans for the summers off, if applicable, and your immediate few months after graduation?
The decision to go to graduate school is multi-faceted.
- It’s not just about career – it could be a personal call.
- It’s not just about money – there are other benefits.
- It’s not just about the schooling – there’s opportunity cost and additional requirements for most every career goal.
So the decision to go or not should be weighed carefully, and these questions can give you a start.
A version of this post originally appeared in my Leadership column on Forbes.com.