7 Alternatives to Grad School (Plus Tips on Choosing the Best Path for You)

Did you know you can launch or advance your career without a graduate degree? Our list walks through the best alternatives to grad school.
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  • With tuition prices rising, grad school can land you in significant debt.
  • Instead of grad school, consider some low-cost or free alternatives.
  • Professional development training, online classes, and bootcamps can help you reach your goals.
  • Understand your field and your career goals to choose the best path for you.

More than 3 million students enrolled in graduate school in the U.S. in fall 2019. And on average, every grad student owes over $90,000 in student loan debt. But are there alternatives to grad school?

In certain fields, taking on massive debt for grad school might pay off. After all, you can't become a doctor or lawyer without a graduate degree. But in other fields, grad school can leave you with a mountain of debt and low-paying career options.

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Fortunately, there are many alternatives to grad school. And these alternatives often take less time and cost significantly less than a graduate degree.

What Are Some Alternatives to Grad School?

Want to move into a new field or climb the career ladder? You've probably been told that grad school is the best way to break into a new industry or move into roles with more responsibility.

But grad school isn't the answer for everyone. Here are seven alternatives to grad school to consider before you submit your applications.

1. Certificate Programs

A certificate program offers many of the benefits of grad school at a much lower cost.

During a post-bachelor's certificate, learners take around 15 credits of graduate-level courses. Most certificate programs take one year or less. And, depending on the program, students may qualify for federal financial aid.

If you're considering grad school in the future, a high GPA in a certificate program can help you get into competitive programs. Your credits often transfer toward a master's degree, too.

2. Professional Development Training

Want to focus on specific skills? Then consider professional development training or a professional certification program. These options can help strengthen career-focused skills and knowledge. What's more, many offer flexible formats like self-paced online training modules.

You can learn more about professional development training through professional associations or continuing education programs. Many colleges and universities offer affordable training programs, for example.

3. Online Classes

Online classes are one of the best alternatives to grad school if you're on a budget. You can find free or low-cost online courses through local community colleges, professional training organizations, four-year universities, and massive open online course sites like Coursera and edX.

With an online class, you can learn more about a subject without pursuing an entire degree in the field and without breaking the bank.

4. Career Training

Many large employers have entire divisions devoted to training and development. Take advantage of opportunities for career training through your current employer instead of applying to grad school.

Employer-sponsored career training offers another major benefit: It's free, and you'll usually complete the training during your workday. Some employers even encourage employees to devote work time to learning new skills, like Google's 20% rule.

5. Mentorship

A mentor can guide you through the process of career advancement without graduate school. As experienced professionals, mentors often know the best ways to hone key skills and move to the next level.

Furthermore, mentoring provides a wealth of benefits to the mentee. In addition to getting support, mentees can strengthen their institutional knowledge and confidence. Mentorship is a great option if you're in the field and company where you'd like to grow your career.

6. Coding Bootcamp

If you're considering a career change into tech, coding bootcamps offer a much faster pathway than grad school. Many bootcamps offer specialized programs in software engineering, cybersecurity, data analysis, web development, and other in-demand fields.

There's a downside to enrolling in a coding bootcamp, however. While most cost less than graduate school, you can still expect to pay $10,000-$15,000 for a bootcamp. And unlike grad school, bootcamps don't typically qualify for federal financial aid.

7. Internship

Yes, you can do an internship even after graduating from college. And an internship can help you change careers without going to grad school.

Internships are a great way to gain real-world experience while building network connections. Landing an internship with little experience in the field can pose challenges, though, so consider reaching out to your network to ask about internship opportunities.

Should You Go to Grad School or Do Something Else?

With so many alternatives to grad school, what's the right path for you?

The best path depends on your field and career goals. If you're interested in tech careers, a bootcamp might offer the fastest route to a career. In some industries, connecting with a mentor and networking can help you reach your goals without the cost of grad school.

But what if your chosen career path requires graduate school? Certain jobs, like clinical social worker, professor, and advanced practice registered nurse, require a graduate degree. In those industries, alternatives to grad school simply don't exist.

Before pursuing these paths, compare the cost of a degree against your earning potential and job responsibilities. Then, research affordable programs and calculate your estimated monthly loan payments before applying to grad schools.

You should also spend time researching fellowships, assistantships, employer-sponsored tuition programs, and other ways to lower tuition costs.

Understand, though, that in many other industries, you can launch or advance your career without a graduate degree. Consider asking a trusted professional in your field about the best advancement opportunities that don't require grad school.


Feature Image: Dean Mitchell / E+ / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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