Should I Go to Grad School: 4 Questions To Consider

Featured Category Grad School Tips & Advice Featured Area of Study

Are you feeling the growing pressure to advance your education? If so, you are not alone.

Increasing competition in the job market has made the decision to enroll in grad school even more significant. With shifting motivations, career aspirations, and life circumstances, you might be wondering: “Should I go to grad school?”

For most professionals, going to grad school is a valuable step toward a more fulfilling career. However, if you’re still skeptical, here’s a closer look at what factors will likely influence your decision.

Is going to grad school a good idea?

Before pursuing higher education, it’s essential to understand the reasons to go to grad school. Many professionals enroll for career advancement, acquiring specialized knowledge, and fulfilling personal and professional goals.

As a result, the number of Americans with advanced degrees has increased dramatically. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of people 25 years of age and older who had a master’s degree as their highest degree increased to 24.1 million people—a 50.2% jump.

This dramatic increase is due in large part to the advantages advanced degrees provide to employees and shifts in hiring preferences among employers. Some of these benefits include:

  • Increased wages: Advanced degree holders routinely earn more than bachelor’s degree holders and face lower levels of unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly findings.
  • Competitive advantage: Thirty-three percent of employers prefer to hire people with master’s degrees for positions typically held by those with only a bachelor’s.
  • More job opportunities: Occupations that typically require a master’s degree or higher are expected to have more than an average of 500,000 annual openings from 2022 to 2032.

In addition to these benefits, aligning your education with industry needs can provide remarkable benefits for high-demand fields, such as technology, healthcare, business, and engineering.

With these promising figures in mind, earning an advanced degree can be an enticing pursuit. There are, however, important factors to consider before investing significant time and money into your graduate education. 

Read on to explore the important factors to consider when deciding whether graduate school is right for you.

How to decide if you should go to grad school

Understand your motivations.

Understanding your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree is crucial to ensuring it’s the right choice for you. Here are a few factors to consider when assessing your motivations to go to grad school.

Consider your goals

Figure out exactly why you want to go to graduate school and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Assess your current goals to determine if advancing your education makes sense for your current situation. Whether you’re hoping to gain more knowledge, specialize in your industry, change careers, earn a promotion, or increase your salary potential, it’s important to do your research and ensure an advanced degree can actually help you attain those goals. More often than not, the answer will be yes. For some individuals, however, a graduate certificate or nontraditional course may be more aligned with your aspirations.

To help determine if your goals can best be met with an advanced degree, go right to the source. Identify industry professionals, program directors, or alumni at the universities you’re interested in, then ask to speak with them about both their experiences in the workplace and the ways your career can benefit from a graduate degree. 

Interested in advancing your career?

Explore Northeastern’s 200-plus graduate programs to find the one that can best help you achieve your goals.

Find Your Program

Consider your field

Ask yourself, “Do I need an advanced degree to do what I want to do? Is my desired outcome realistic?”

In certain industries, a graduate degree translates directly into better career prospects and higher salaries. One particular field that benefits from advanced education is healthcare. According to Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, biology and life sciences majors with graduate degrees earn 63% more than those with bachelor’s degrees, while advanced degree holders who majored in health and medical preparatory programs earn 137% more than those with less education.

In other fields, however, the professional gain may be less clear. To discover the return on investment (ROI) of an advanced degree in these fields, browse job boards for the titles you’re seeking, and note if those positions require candidates to have a master’s. Or locate people in your industry on LinkedIn, and reach out to them to see how a graduate degree might have impacted their career. Do your research, and make sure the programs you’re considering have the right ROI for you. 

Identify the experience you want. 

Deciding to pursue graduate studies completely depends on what experiences you seek to gain. This is often influenced by factors like your area of focus and the program’s location.

Consider your desired focus

Depending on your area of study, you may have already determined that pursuing an academic or professional degree is the right choice for you. For those who have flexibility in program type, however, it’s important for you to consider what you hope to focus on during your time in grad school. 

For example, are you looking for a school with a strong research or academic focus or one dedicated to finding students job opportunities post-graduation? Do you prefer a school with robust academic support? Do you want classes taught by professors with relevant industry experience? Prioritize what you’re looking for and find schools that align with your needs.

Consider program location

If you choose to pursue your degree online, you won’t likely be limited in your program search by geographic constraints. Though courses structured like this do come with their own unique challenges, the ability to take courses from anywhere in the world is one of the biggest benefits of pursuing your degree online.

If you prefer attending class in person, however, you need to think about if you want to be close to home, on the same coast, or in another time zone during your graduate studies. Even if the answer is that you have no preference, taking the time to think this through will help you narrow down your options and ensure you end up in the perfect place for you.

Depending on your industry, you may also consider different regions for grad school based on the employment opportunities there. If you are pursuing a technology-related degree—such as data analytics or computer science—you may consider strategically pursuing your master’s in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is home to many top tech companies. If you are hoping to land a career in healthcare and life sciences, on the other hand, you may consider pursuing your degree in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the opportunities for exciting careers are expanding at a rapid rate.

Did you know: To provide its students with access to the best post-graduate opportunities, Northeastern has regional campuses all over the world in addition to its Boston campus. Learn more about our global campus system here.

Determine whether it fits into your lifestyle.

Determine what flexibility you need in your schedule, and look for a degree program that will allow you to learn at the right pace and in the right format for you. Today’s universities offer various formats for programs to fit the needs of every type of student. So whether you have family, work, military, or other life commitments, it’s important to be honest with yourself as you evaluate your current situation and pick a program that aligns with your needs.

Consider the time commitment

Many graduate programs are offered in both full- and part-time formats. Take a close look at your schedule and the time you have available to commit to your learning, and decide which type of structure is the right fit for you. It’s better to finish your degree at a slower rate than to become overwhelmed with a full-time schedule and have to stop mid-program.

Consider your learning style

Many programs include courses offered on campus, online, or in a hybrid format. Think through how you personally prefer to learn; some people need the structure of a classroom and a predetermined time to sit and study, whereas others prefer the flexibility and open-ended time frame of online learning. Both are perfectly viable options, and it’s up to you to figure out which will be the right fit for your needs.

If you have considered both of these factors, you are more likely to be prepared for graduate school and its impact on your schedule.

Evaluate the financial commitment.

To decide whether or not graduate school is right for you, consider the financial factors, such as tuition and fees, living expenses—which can vary depending on location—books, supplies, and a contingency fund for unforeseen costs. This will give you a better understanding of how to pay for grad school and whether or not you can enroll at this stage of your life.

Consider your financial aid options

Check out the options your institution offers for financial aid, and be sure to contact your prospective school’s financial aid or admissions department for more information on what options are available for you. Some universities also offer assistantships or fellowships in addition to loans, scholarships, and grants.

Learn More: A Guide to Northeastern’s Graduate Student Scholarships

Planning and discipline are critical when paying for grad school, so you need to actively manage your expenses and seek financial support when needed. For example, if financial aid options don’t subsidize enough of the cost, you may need to consider part-time work or freelance gigs—particularly those related to your field of study—which can supplement your income.

If you have a solid financial plan in place, where you can focus more on your studies and less on financial stressors, graduate school is likely something you should pursue.

Consider tuition reimbursement opportunities

Many organizations offer tuition reimbursement programs for employees looking to advance their careers, although prospective graduate students often forget to consider their current employer as a potential source of financial aid.

Learn More: What Is Tuition Reimbursement? Taking Advantage of Benefits

In fact, almost half of all organizations offer some type of education assistance, but research shows that 98% of employees don’t take advantage of these opportunities. If your current company can offer assistance for your education, pursuing graduate school could be right for you.

Consider your career outlook

Don’t forget to factor in your future earning potential and job prospects when figuring out if you should go to graduate school. Your degree should be worth the cost and time you invest, so having ample job opportunities post-graduation can make all the difference.

There are also certain master’s degrees that are known for their high salary potential. Graduates of programs like a Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Nursing, or Master of Science in Engineering Management, for example, commonly earn a median salary of well over $100,000 per year. 

If you are confident that your career outlook will outweigh the cost and time you’ll need to invest in graduate school, it might be time to take the leap.

Grad school vs. work experience

Even if you’ve considered all the factors mentioned above, you may feel that gaining more work experience is a viable alternative to going to grad school. However, these professional development paths don’t always offer the same results.

For example, specialized programs offer in-depth knowledge and skills in various industries, enhancing one’s potential for increased earnings and access to senior positions and providing rich networking opportunities. Engaging with peers, professors, and industry professionals can help develop invaluable connections throughout one’s career, offering a blend of support, mentorship, and potential job opportunities. However, graduate school requires both money and time, which some working professionals don’t have.

On the other hand, gaining work experience directly after an undergraduate degree has its own benefits, including applying theoretical knowledge to practical settings, which is greatly valued in the job market. However, much of this development offers a very narrow scope of learning, limiting exposure to innovative practices and emerging trends that formal education or external training programs offer.

Ultimately, deciding between advanced education through graduate school or on-the-job learning depends on individual career goals, financial circumstances, and personal values. It’s crucial to weigh the immediate benefits and challenges of each option and their long-term impact on your career and life.

Visual representation comparing education vs. experience.

Setting yourself up for success in grad school

If you’ve decided to apply to grad school, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Follow these three tips to prepare yourself for the demands of an advanced degree program:

  1. Evaluate the structure of your program: Once enrolled, examine the syllabi of your courses ahead of time, noting details such as when classes meet, when midterm and final exams are, and how frequently you’ll be working on group projects. Identifying these facts in advance will allow you to adjust your personal life as needed to succeed, whether that means delaying a vacation until after exams, clearing certain weekday evenings for potential group work, or even talking to your boss about adjusting your hours in order to accommodate midday courses.
  2. Develop a sense of self-direction: Most grad school programs require a good deal of self-discipline to stay on track. Although you must be able to work well independently and as part of a team, more often than not, you will have to rely on your own self-will to stay focused, on task, and productive in your work. 
  3. Rally your support system: Talk to your family and friends about your goals in attending grad school and how this will help you personally and professionally. Advanced education requires a big time commitment, so knowing you have people around you who can both cheer you on and step in to help keep your life afloat when you’re immersed in schoolwork can go a long way.

Earning your graduate degree has the potential to make a lifelong impact on your career and your life. Take the time to set yourself up for success by considering all your options, following these tips to prepare, and beginning your journey toward graduate school today. 

Could grad school be the next step in your professional journey? Explore our 200+ graduate degrees and certificates to learn more about how they could help you achieve your goals. 

This article was originally published in August 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.