Should You Go to Graduate School?
Published on May 4, 2020
- Many college graduates go on to graduate school to earn a master's or doctoral degree.
- With a graduate degree, you can raise your earning potential and conduct research.
- Drawbacks of attending graduate school include increased stress and more student debt.
Graduate school. It's a tempting prospect for many undergraduates and working professionals, but what's it all about? Will it allow you to pursue your passion or advance your career? Will it land you in deeper debt? Is graduate school even worth it?
Recent college graduates struggling to find a job with their current credentials — and even seasoned professionals pondering a career change — might consider graduate school. But how do you know whether it's right for you?
If you do decide to enroll in a graduate program, you'd be joining the approximately 3 million students pursuing an advanced degree in the U.S. For many, graduate school is a useful stepping stone on the path to their target career.
However, graduate school isn't for everyone. For some people, the investment of time (and often money) simply isn't worth the extra credential hanging on their wall.
So should you go to graduate school or not? If you want help making a measured decision, this guide will walk you through some of the most important considerations.
What Is Graduate School?
Graduate school is an overarching term that covers many types of education that students can pursue at the master's, professional, or doctoral level. Regardless of the field or type of degree you pursue, all graduate education involves advanced training, education, and research.
Graduate degrees are not one-size-fits-all degrees; rather, they prepare students for specific career outcomes. Here are the three main types of graduate programs you can enroll in.
This type of degree allows students to study a field at a "mastery" level. Prior to graduation, students often need to complete some sort of capstone project, professional experience, or thesis to demonstrate their expertise in the field. Master's programs usually take 1-2 years of full-time study; however, many students enroll part time or extend their theses, taking up to five years to graduate.
These degrees go beyond a master's degree. Students may take 4-7 years (or even longer) to graduate. Once students get to the doctoral level, they often find a niche within an academic field. During a doctoral program, a student's main focus is no longer attending classes; instead, a large part of doctoral training involves conducting original research. Doctoral students typically receive a doctor of philosophy, or Ph.D., which prepares them to teach at universities as professors.
Students can earn professional degrees at the master's or doctoral level. Some examples include doctor of medicine (MD), juris doctor (JD), master of business administration (MBA), and master of social work (MSW) degrees. These degrees prepare students for professional licensure and also qualify them to work in certain areas, such as medicine, law, or nursing.
Why Do Students Choose to Go to Graduate School?
Students attend graduate school for a variety of reasons. For example, many learners need an advanced degree to qualify for licensure and/or a particular job. For people who want to work as doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and social workers, this is usually the primary motivating factor.
Those who want to stay in academia and become professors must also earn a graduate degree, normally a doctorate.
In other cases, students' motivations may be more complex. Maybe a Ph.D. candidate is passionate about solving a certain problem within their profession through research. Pursuing a doctorate allows them to dedicate years to that research. Meanwhile, another student might simply want to become an expert in their chosen field.
Even if a student's dream job doesn't require graduate school, an advanced degree can help them rise through the professional ranks and earn a higher salary.
Is Graduate School Right for You? Weighing the Pros and Cons
When determining whether graduate school is right for you, it's important to consider your motivations. Ask yourself why you want to get a graduate degree — and be honest with yourself, too.
Ask yourself why you want to get a graduate degree — and be honest with yourself[.]
If you plan to pursue only a master's degree, your commitment could set you back thousands of dollars, and you'll probably have to dedicate at least a couple more years to school and miss out on any income from work. Although some universities offer part-time programs that allow students to work full time, working while studying may feel overwhelming.
If you pursue a doctoral degree, you could be in school four another 4-7 years and, depending on the field, you could face rather dim job prospects. Tenured academic positions are notoriously hard to get, and adjunct faculty often don't have stable work.
Do not decide whether or not to attend graduate school on a whim. Instead, carefully consider all of the pros and cons, including those listed below.
8 Reasons Why You Should Go to Graduate School
Many people obtain an advanced degree because they need it for their careers.
Graduate degree-holders also tend to earn significantly higher wages than individuals with only bachelor's degrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), those with graduate degrees brought home median weekly earnings of $1,559 in 2019. In contrast, the median weekly wages for workers with only bachelor's degrees was $1,281.
In addition to increased wages, there are many other reasons to consider graduate school. Some of these are laid out below.
You could get paid while studying.
Many master's programs provide graduate assistantships, offering students work as a teaching assistant or research assistant. Additionally, some master's programs may provide tuition waivers. Unfortunately, not all schools offer these options, and even if they do, salaries are usually quite low.
Your chosen field requires it.
Many professions, such as social work or mental health counseling, require you to earn a master's degree to earn licensure.
You want to advance your career.
While not a requirement, it is common to earn a master's degree in some fields, such as business, public administration, or engineering. These degrees may allow you to specialize in a particular area, like marketing, or to become an effective generalist.
You love intellectual stimulation.
Some people prefer a job that doesn't continually challenge them mentally, whereas others thrive in this type of intellectual environment. The latter type of individual might find fulfillment conducting research and studying a subject at an advanced level.
Your job is your passion.
Doctoral students dedicate years to research that they developed. They can align their research with a topic they find fascinating, spending each day with purpose and doing something that drives them. Furthermore, doctoral students often get paid to follow their passion (albeit not a large salary).
You can contribute directly to your field.
Your research can help answer a question that nobody else has ever answered before. Expanding the scope of human knowledge can feel extremely rewarding.
Every day is different.
If you're the sort of person who gets tired of doing the same tasks over and over again, pursuing a doctorate might be for you. Doctoral programs often require students to complete a variety of duties. On any given day, you could be researching, conducting interviews, writing, listening to a lecture, attending a conference, or teaching a class.
You'll get a sense of camaraderie with your peers.
Your fellow doctoral students will probably be as passionate as you are, and you can expect to hold many interesting conversations with them. They'll also go through the same struggles as you, which means you'll have a built-in peer group with whom you can share your difficulties and successes.
11 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Go to Graduate School
To gain a balanced perspective, it's also helpful to consider potential drawbacks to getting a graduate degree. Read the reasons below to see whether any of them resonate with you. If they do, that might be a red flag that graduate school isn't an ideal path for you.
It's common for master's degree programs to offer students no funding. Students rely on private financing or federal student loans to pay for their education, which may land them in serious debt.
It may not be necessary for your career.
Many fields do not require a master's degree. Carefully consider whether the field you're entering requires advanced education.
It won't allow you to teach at the college level.
Some master's students may expect to teach at the college level with only a master's degree. While this is possible for some fields, college professors are generally expected to have a doctoral degree in their field.
Your mental health may suffer.
According to a 2018 study published in Nature Biotechnology, graduate students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than are members of the general population.
You're trying to put off real life.
If you're just looking for an excuse to procrastinate and avoid finding a full-time job, it may not be wise to pursue an advanced degree. Graduate school is an incredibly demanding time, and you need to be passionate about your subject in order to succeed.
Watch out for burnout.
Like a master's program, a doctoral track is time-consuming and challenging; however, doctoral programs last much longer than master's programs, which makes them even more of a marathon. If you don't take care of your mental health, it's easy to burn out.
Stipends are low.
Getting paid to go to school is a pro, but the amount you get paid is generally a con. Stipends for graduate assistantships are hard to live on. As your non-graduate school peers work their way up the career ladder, you'll likely be earning less than them. The reality is that graduate stipends can be as low as $14,000 per year.
You might feel as though you're falling behind.
Because of the low wages typically earned by doctoral students, your quality of life will probably decline for a few years. You might have to put off buying a house, getting married, or having kids. If you already have dependents, providing for a family as a doctoral student won't be an easy task.
You might not like the job.
People often choose to pursue a doctorate because they feel passionate about their research. That said, one of the primary job outcomes for doctoral degree-holders is becoming a professor. Unfortunately, someone who enjoys research might not enjoy teaching, or might feel that they're not cut out for it.
The job prospects aren't great.
According to a 2014 survey from the National Science Foundation, less than 70% of science and engineering doctoral students — and only 55% of humanities doctoral students — had a job lined up by graduation. Many graduates continue to turn to lecturer, postdoc, and adjunct positions, which pay very little per hour. In 2016, postdoc workers earned a median salary of $47,500, with some salaries as low as $23,660. Although BLS data shows that college professors earn a median salary of $79,540, getting started on this career path can be a taxing process, especially after spending several years making little money as a student.
It can be lonely.
Even with the camaraderie you might feel with your peers, feelings of loneliness can creep in when conducting solo research as a graduate student.
What Are the Risks of Attending Graduate School?
Many factors in graduate school will be out of your control. Here are some of the biggest risks you may face as a graduate student.
- If you don't like your advisor, you may struggle to find success. Your advisor is essentially your boss and mentor for the entire time you pursue your degree, and it can be difficult to change your advisor without dropping out of the program entirely. Reach out to potential advisors before you start a graduate program to get a better sense of their personalities and work habits. Ask them out to coffee, or at least try to talk to them on the phone, so you can ensure you get along and will work well together.
- With such low stipends, it can be difficult to start saving money until you finally earn your graduate degree. You could be in your late 20s or well into your 30s before your bank account isn't constantly hovering right above zero.
- Securing a job is not guaranteed. You may even be overqualified for many positions, making it more difficult to land a job in your field.
In the end, only you can decide whether graduate school is the right step to take. Remember that this choice can have a significant impact on the trajectory of your future career. Take your time and consider all of your options before making a decision.