Theme: Is Grad School Worth It?

February 24, 2010

By Kelli Smith

You see friends going back to graduate school. Your mother clips newspaper mentions of grad programs and slyly mails them to you with “thinking of you” post-its attached. You see a job posting for the position of your dreams, then notice the “master’s degree required.” In short, there are a lot of reasons you’re thinking about going back to school.

In 2004, there were over 2 million students enrolled in U.S. graduate schools, and it may seem clear to everyone around you (that newspaper-clipping mother of yours, for instance) that you should be among them. Credentials are great, but you’ve probably also heard the horror stories of the “over-qualified candidate.” And while Mr. Over-qualified may be an urban legend, the tradeoffs involved in either leaving the workforce or continuing to work while earning a degree are significant. Financially, professionally, and personally, is graduate school really worth it? 

Graduate School to Launch Your Career

For Chris, 30, the answer to the “was it worth it” question is a definite yes. He went straight from college into a Masters of Teaching (MAT) program. “My undergraduate drama degree wasn’t landing me any jobs,” he says, “and I wasn’t passionate enough about acting to [endure] the waiter/actor life for long.” A year and a master’s degree later, he started teaching. His degree gave him the teaching license he needed, but because it was a graduate degree, it also meant his salary was several thousand dollars higher than other beginning teachers who only held bachelor’s degrees. What’s more, each year thereafter his salary increased at a higher rate than theirs, but the real clincher was that he got to be a drama teacher.

For many people like Chris, a graduate degree is a means of launching a career. Academics present a classic argument for a post-graduate degree as a PhD is essential. This also holds true for doctors and lawyers. However, if you’re already working in your field of choice and are simply looking to get ahead, the question of graduate school may become more complicated.

Graduate School as a Career Booster

Will, 29, works in hotel management and decided the time off in going to graduate school wasn’t worth it. “I’d get a bump in pay and position if I got an MBA, but in my industry, just working those two years would get me more in terms of promotions, experience, and salary.” However, he decided he wanted the extra education anyway. Will felt that education would give him a slight boost at work and because it would give him a foundation to make a change in career field easier if he ever wanted to make one. So his solution was to keep working while enrolling in a distance-learning MBA program. Even though it’s the “have-it-all” answer, it hasn’t been without sacrifices. He’s busier than ever, with weekends and evenings now packed with schoolwork. For him, though, it’s worth it. “My wife and I don’t have kids yet,” he explains, “so this is the best time for us to work really hard.”

Part-time or distance learning graduate degree programs are becoming more and more popular. In 1990 only about a third of graduate students were enrolled part-time, but today roughly half of them are. For students like Will, doubling up works fine, but for others it can be a real burden. With more graduate school options than ever, there’s plenty of flexibility to be had, but you’ll have to take a close look at your personal life and the changes that you’ll need to make.

Graduate School as Reinvention

Karin, 28, also enrolled in a post-collegiate program while working full-time, but for her, the program was all about reinvention. She already had an MBA and was working at a job she liked well enough, but she couldn’t stop thinking “that if I really loved what I was doing, life would be different.” So she finally enrolled in a massage therapy program. She took weekend and evening courses, and now that she has the experience and education she needs to be a practicing massage therapist, she’s said goodbye to technology management and hello to her own massage therapy business. “Now I’m doing what I really want to be doing and building my own business, and I’m so excited about it,” she says. Unlike her old job, she explains, “Here people come happy and leave happy. It’s as much therapy for me as it is for my clients.”

If you’re looking to change over to another field–and you’re not alone in the modern workforce where mid-career career change is commonplace–a graduate degree or certificate or even coursework in a new area can do the trick.

Even with all the upsides of post-collegiate education, the answer to “is it worth it?” is still complicated. Take a close look at your profession, the flexibility of various programs, and your personal and financial situation because when all is said and done, the only real question is “is it worth it for me?” Now quickly, clip this article and send it to your mother.