The number of American’s with an advanced degree has doubled since 2000. According to the 2019 census, more than 21 million Americans currently hold a master’s degree, while another 4.5 million have earned their doctorate. This dramatic increase is due in large part to the benefits advanced degrees can provide.
These benefits include—but are certainly not limited to:
- Increased Wages: Employees with a master’s degree earn an average $2.7 million over their lifetime—and that number climbs to $3.3 million for doctoral degree holders.
- Competitive Advantage: 61 percent of employers say the skills required for their positions have evolved to require a higher level of education among applicants.
- More Job Opportunities: By 2022, it’s predicted that 18 percent of all jobs will prefer or require a graduate degree.
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 a graduate education.
Read on to explore the four key questions you should ask yourself before deciding if you should apply to graduate school.
Questions to Consider Before Applying to Grad School
1. What Is My Motivation?
Understanding your motivation behind getting a graduate degree is vital in ensuring you are making the right choice for you. To guarantee you are on the right path, it can be helpful to consider the following:
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. For example, 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 a hands-on learning opportunity, such as a co-op or internship, 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 earning an advanced degree?
Explore Northeastern’s 200+ graduate programs to find the one that can best help you achieve your goals.
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, the benefits of a graduate degree are easily reflected in promotion opportunities or a higher salary grade. One particular field that benefits from advanced education, for example, is healthcare. According to Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, biology and life sciences majors with graduate degrees earn 63 percent more than those with bachelor’s degrees, while advanced degree holders who majored in health and medical preparatory programs earn 137 percent more than those with less education.
In other fields, however, the professional gain may be less clear. To discover the 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.
2. What Type of Experience Am I Seeking?
When deciding if you should go to graduate school, it’s crucial to determine what experiences you’re looking for.
Consider Your Desired Focus
Depending on your area of study, it’s possible you will have already determined whether pursuing an academic or a 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? Are 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 to 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—for example, you may consider strategically pursuing your master’s in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is home to many top tech companies. If you were 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: In order to provide its students in various fields with access to the best post-graduate opportunities, Northeastern University offers six regional locations in addition to its Boston campus. Learn more about some of these locations and the industries that define them below:
- Growth Industries & High-Paying Jobs in Charlotte, NC | Northeastern University—Charlotte
- The Top-Paying, In-Demand Industries and Jobs In Toronto | Northeastern University—Toronto
- Highest-Paying, Most In-Demand Jobs in Seattle in 2019 | Northeastern University—Seattle
3. Does This Fit My 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 You Can Commit
Many graduate programs are offered in both full- and part-time capacities. 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, part-time rate than become overwhelmed with a full-time schedule and have to stop mid-program.
Consider Your Learning Style
Many programs include courses offered on-ground, 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, where 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.
4. Can I Afford This?
When determining how to pay for grad school, consider both the up-front costs—such as tuition and books—and the less obvious expenses, such as student activity fees and transportation. While your education is an investment, it’s important that you make sure you can cover the costs associated with earning an advanced degree.
Consider 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. Some universities also offer assistantships or fellowships in addition to loans, scholarships, and grants.
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.
In fact, over 60 percent of organizations offer some type of education assistance, but research shows that 95 percent of employees don’t take advantage of these opportunities. Don’t miss the chance to talk to your boss about what your company can offer toward your education.
Consider Your Future 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 Engineering Management, for example, commonly earn a median salary of well over $100,000 per year.
Setting Yourself Up For Success
If you’ve come to the conclusion that grad school is the right next step in your career, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Follow these three tips to prepare yourself for the demands of an advanced degree program.
- Evaluate The Structure of Your Program: Explore the syllabi of your program ahead of time, noting details such as when classes meet, when midterm and final exams are, how frequently you’ll be working on group projects, etc. 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 mid-day courses.
- 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.
- 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.
This article was originally published in August 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.