It is a boom year for graduate and professional schools. From Cornell Law’s unprecedented 52 percent increase in application numbers, to Brown and Princeton University’s graduate program double-digit applicant jump, it is safe to say that college grads both old and new are seeking refuge from the economy and lagging job market in the safe haven of academia.
On the surface, the reasons for hopping on the education train look good: You get a temporary break from the economy, you can take out loans to finance your schooling and living expenses, which in turn makes it easier to temporarily make ends meet, and you get an education, which can make you a more attractive employment prospect once the market picks back up.
However, what many aspiring graduate students fail to realize is that eventually they will be done with their program and they will be back out on the workforce trying to find a job—except this time they will be saddled with loan payments and they might still be trying to navigate uncertain employment waters.
With all this in mind, graduate and professional school applicants must ask themselves: Is grad school worth it?
The answer to this question, as it turns out, is “Yes.” It is, however, a qualified “yes.” Education, in and of itself, is always beneficial. Nonetheless, whether it is beneficial for a specific person is another matter entirely. Applicants must do a lot of thinking and soul-searching before making this choice in order to ensure that the decision is the absolute best path for them.
The answer to this question, as it turns out, is “Yes.” It is, however, a qualified “yes.” Education, in and of itself, is always beneficial. Nonetheless, whether it is beneficial for a specific person is another matter entirely. Applicants must do a lot of thinking and soul-searching before making this choice to earn a Masters education in order to ensure that the decision is the absolute best path for them.
Why do you want to go back to school?
Although it is certainly tempting to escape a bleak employment landscape by diving into an advanced degree program, that alone is not really reason enough to make the plunge. The most successful graduates are those that have a concrete reason for applying to and attending graduate school.
The reason must be more than simply, “I can’t find a job right now,” “I don’t know what to do with my career,” “I’m bored,” or “I heard attorneys/people with Masters/Ph.D.s make more money.” Think about it: You are about to spend at least two years of your life and thousands of dollars getting this degree. You need to make sure that it will not only fulfill and complement your professional ambitions but that it will also fulfill and complement you. More money, boredom or a convenient escape hatch from reality is not enough to make the stress and sacrifice of getting an advanced degree worthwhile.
Can you handle the financial burden?
It has been mentioned before but is worth mentioning again: Grad school and professional school are not cheap endeavors. Even at the most inexpensive level, you will still spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition. If you also take out loans to cover your living expenses, that is even more money added to the bill.
At the most basic level, you need to consider if you are credit-worthy enough to be able to take out all this debt; at the most complex, you need to consider if taking out all this debt is even a smart thing for you to do. Although it may seem a little like “free money” when you are in school, once you have graduated and the students loan bills start coming in the mail it might be that very freedom that gets taken away.
Have you thought about what you will do with the degree?
Ideally, the degree should be a necessary pathway to something you have already thought about thoroughly and considered attaining. It should not be a hoped-for catalyst to jumpstart a lagging career.
Many graduate students suffer from “academic blinders:” They only see as far as graduation, and have not really considered what lies beyond it. If you find yourself applying to graduate school “by default,” or “to see if it makes things better,” then seriously consider if it is really for you. You might be better served spending your time and money elsewhere.
Are you willing to make sacrifices?
You will not be able to live like a lawyer during law school. You also will not be able to live like a tenured professor during graduate school, or like a dot-com tycoon during business school. Your life during grad school will be frugal, sleep-deprived, and stressful. Is that something you are comfortable with?
Perhaps you are someone that cannot imagine not being able to travel, eat at restaurants or live in large homes or apartments. That will most likely not be your life while you are in school. Living like a pauper is the de facto state for graduate students. If that is not something you can live with, perhaps it is not the smartest choice for you.
Have you thought about what will happen if you cannot find a job after you have graduated?
And thus we come full circle. You attained more schooling so you could get a better job and better money. What happens if you graduate and are unable to find a job (again)? You will still have to make student loan payments and find the means to pay your rent, utilities and food. Do not think that graduate school is a magical solution that guarantees employment at the end.
As thousands of recently-minted, unemployed J.D.s can attest, that is certainly not the case. Ask yourself: Even if you cannot find a job after you graduate, will you still be happy you went to school? Will you still consider yourself lucky to have that education? If all you will feel is angst, then graduate school may not be the solution you are looking for.
Graduate and professional school is a certainly attractive, stable prospect in what can be an unstable world. However, is the investment worth it? For some, very much so. But it is not for everyone. Carefully weigh your options. Make sure you are doing it because of your aspirations, and not in spite of them.