4 Questions to Consider Before Applying to Graduate School

More than 16 million Americans have a master’s degree—a 43 percent increase since 2002. While the “why” varies, there are clear personal and professional pay-offs to earning an advanced education.

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.

Hiring managers are also raising their educational standards. In fact, 61 percent of employers say the skills required for their positions have evolved, requiring a higher level of education, and 18 percent of all jobs will prefer or require a graduate degree over the next several years.

Considering that more people are attending graduate school, and more employers prefer or even require an advanced degree, deciding to enroll could be what sets you apart in the marketplace.

There are several important factors to consider, though, before earning your advanced degree. Here are four key questions to ask yourself before deciding if you should go to graduate school.

Questions to Consider Before Applying to Grad School

1. What Is My Motivation?

Figure out exactly why you want to go to graduate school, and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Whether it’s to gain more knowledge, specialize in your industry, change careers, earn a promotion, or increase your salary potential, make sure that earning your degree will get you what you want. Ask yourself, “Do I need an advanced degree to do what I want to do? Is my desired outcome realistic?”

In certain industries, such as healthcare, an advanced degree has a clear path toward higher earnings and promotions. 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.

For some fields, the professional gain is less clear. Do your research, and make sure the programs you’re looking into have the right ROI for you. You can do this by talking to alumni, professors, and program directors at your select colleges and universities. Also, find people in your industry on LinkedIn, and reach out to them to see if a graduate degree is a worthwhile investment.

2. What Type of Experience Am I Seeking?

When deciding whether you should go to graduate school, it’s crucial to determine what experience you’re looking for. Keep your long-term goals in mind when choosing an institution.

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.

Don’t forget to factor in location. If you prefer attending class in-person, do you want to be close to home, on the same coast, or in another time zone? Depending on your chosen industry, you may want to study in a region with plenty of employment opportunities post-graduation.

3. Does This Fit My Lifestyle?

Determine what flexibility you need in your schedule, and earn an advanced degree at the right pace and in the right format for you. Whether you have family, work, military, or other life commitments, figure out what’s the right structure. Decide whether you want to study full- or part-time, and whether you want to take courses in a classroom or online. Earning your degree online can provide you with the flexibility you need to tailor your education around your busy schedule.

Lastly, keep in mind how long it will take to complete your degree. Some programs can be completed in one year, while others are earned in several years.

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 hidden expenses, such as student activity fees and transportation. While your education is an investment, make sure you can cover the costs associated with earning your advanced degree.

Check out the financial aid options at your select institutions, and contact your prospective schools’ financial aid or admissions department for more information. Some universities also offer assistantships or fellowships in addition to loans, scholarships, and grants.

Don’t forget to consider 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 put into it, so having ample job opportunities post-graduation can make all the difference.

Lastly, if you’re currently employed, speak with your company to see if they cover tuition costs. Over 60 percent of organizations offer tuition reimbursement to help their employees to go back to school.

Are you interested in applying to graduate school? Explore Northeastern’s more than 200 graduate programs.