How to decide if you should go to grad school

Consider these top financial and career motivations for getting an advanced degree.

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When I graduated from college, I frantically searched for a meaningful career. I’d majored in English, so I figured getting my Ph.D. in English Literature was a solid next step. I applied only to America’s top five programs. If I got in, I reasoned, it was meant to be.

I ambivalently awaited grad school decisions only to learn I didn’t get in anywhere. Looking back, the rejections and subsequent decision to forgo grad school was the best choice for me. Of course, ideally, I would have spared myself studying for the GRE, spending $500 in application fees, and an entire fall spent on personal statements.

But, for some people, going to grad school is a smart choice — professionally and personally. Just make sure you’re in tune with your motivations for attending before signing your acceptance letter and accepting a financial aid package. Here are the top reasons to go to grad school — from three of my own friends who chose that route and advanced in their careers because of it.

You have a definitive end goal

It’s important to have a plan for your career that warrants a degree. My friend Sarah, a Spanish and psychology major, wanted to go into health care administration. When she realized her ideal jobs required a master’s degree, she applied to graduate schools on the basis of their job placement track record and regional alumni networks. Now a senior operations analyst at a Fortune 500 health care company, she says to ask yourself: How is grad school going to help me get that dream job? “Grad school is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a lot of energy,” she says. “So don’t go if you haven’t thought through what you want to do with the degree.”

My friend Vanessa echoes that sentiment. As a political science major, after graduation she enrolled in an M.A. program in international administration and “didn’t have any particular job in mind or a plan of action.” Vanessa wound up in the nonprofit world and soon realized that wasn’t her calling. She ended up going back to school again — this time with a specific goal in mind: a career in law. Now an attorney after earning her J.D., Vanessa told me that her lack of a plan rendered her M.A. irrelevant.

You have or can get real-world experience during or after your undergrad years

Every student wants to put their learning to the test beyond the classroom. That may be especially important if you’re trying to decide whether grad school is right for you.

Sarah’s internships in hospital administration throughout college helped her choose an M.A. in health care services program over a more generalized MBA. Sarah thinks getting even more work experience prior to applying and enrolling in grad school might have further helped solidify her goals and increase her desirability to employers: “I don’t regret my decision, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken a year or two as a break.”

Similarly, Steve, another friend of mine and an anthropology and environmental policy major, didn’t know exactly what job he wanted after graduation. In college, he enjoyed working with GIS, a software that helps people analyze spatial data. Realizing the professional versatility of GIS, Steve pursued a geology master’s program to help hone his skills and gain exposure to companies using GIS. For his thesis, he did research on one of Denver’s bike programs. Now he’s employed as a transportation planner with the same group.

Vanessa told me she regrets not taking advantage of her international administration M.A. program’s field connections. When she went back to school for her J.D., she didn’t make the same mistake twice: “As a result, I was exposed to great opportunities.” She learned that students with real-world experience often fared better in the job market compared to those who went to law school straight from undergrad or didn’t have related experience.

You’ve thought about the cost

On average, grad school costs between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. Like undergrad programs, you can apply for scholarships, fellowships and grants, part-time work or even employer tuition programs. But, if those means don’t cover the whole cost — as well as living expenses — you may take on significant debt to earn that advanced degree.

Sarah’s parents financially supported her while she went to graduate school. Her high academic performance landed her a large scholarship her second (and final) year.

For Steve, grad school was a net gain. He secured a graduate teaching assistantship that paid his tuition plus income. Without that, he says, he might have sought a job that offered an employer tuition assistance program rather than take on student loans.

Vanessa considered the financial factors of law school carefully. “Some people advised me to go to the best law school I could get into, but that would have meant I’d graduate with close to $200,000 of debt,” Vanessa says. She saw this approach as a “tremendous risk,” so she selected the university that offered her a full scholarship.

“I think people may not realize the financial consequences of the debt they take on in grad school,” Vanessa warns. “Unless a person has a scholarship, savings, or someone who can help pay the grad school bill, they may want to hold off.”

For many, grad school can be a great career move, especially if you have financial help to pay for it, or you know it can help get build your earning potential in your career. But, for others, a graduate school degree isn’t necessary — you can advance professionally and financially though experience and performance.

My closing advice? Don’t just take my friends’ word for how to make the decision on grad school. Talk to people with the job or career path you want (try setting up informational interviews). See if they have graduate degrees and ask them if they think it’s necessary. You may find out it’s not, save yourself a lot of money, and get helpful suggestions on how to reach your career goals you didn’t have before.

Learn more about financing your continued education with Wells Fargo GraduateSM Student Loans.