Big decisions: Grad school

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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, $500 in application fees, and an entire fall spent on personal statements. Instead I would have relied more on cost-benefit filters than fatalistic feelings.

But for many, going to grad school is a smart choice — professionally and personally. Just make sure you’re in tune with your motivations for attending before sending in that first tuition check. 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

Sarah, a Spanish and psychology major, wanted to go into health care administration. When she realized her ideal jobs required master’s degrees, she applied to schools on the basis of their job prospects and regional alumni networks. Now a senior operations analyst at a Fortune 500 health care company, Sarah 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.”

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 consequently wound up in the nonprofit world and soon realized that wasn’t her calling. She ended up going back to school — this time with a specific goal in mind: a career in law. Now an attorney after earning her J.D., Vanessa feels that her lack of plan rendered her M.A. irrelevant.

You have or can get real-world experience

Sarah’s internships in hospital administration throughout college helped her choose an M.A. in health care services over a more generalized MBA. Even so, Sarah thinks getting more work experience prior could have 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 break.”

Steve, 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 GIS’s professional versatility, Steve pursued a geology master’s program to help hone his skills and expose him 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 feels like she didn’t take advantage of her M.A. program’s field connections. When she went back to school for her J.D., she didn’t make the same mistake. “As a result, I was exposed to great opportunities.” She notes that students with real-world experience were more motivated and fared better in the job market than those who went to law school straight from undergrad or didn’t have related experience.

You have a financial plan

Sarah’s parents financially supported her decision to get an M.A., and she went into it knowing this was her chance to advance her desired career. Her high academic performance landed her a large scholarship her second year. For Steve, grad school was a net gain. He secured a graduate teaching assistantship that paid tuition plus some. He notes that, otherwise, he might have sought a job that offered an employer tuition assistance program.

Vanessa doesn’t regret her decision to get her M.A. because it was “practically free,” covered by the university she worked for at the time. But she considered the financial factors of law school more seriously. “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” in today’s legal job market, so she opted to attend a highly ranked 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.”

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