Historically, grad school has been perceived as an escape hatch of sorts during an economic downturn. For some new university graduates, a master’s or even doctoral program offers a seemingly safe alternative to entering the job market when employment opportunities are limited. Some experts warn that grad school isn’t the answer. They argue that it could actually exacerbate the problem by adding to your student loan debt. While there’s no clear answer that will provide the best route to a successful career for everyone, there are some important questions to consider when making the best choice for your personal goals and circumstances. Below, we present 10 of these questions along with some relevant information for each.
#1—Does your field require (or reward) a graduate degree?
The decision to go to graduate school is a serious one, and it’s not one you should make just because you don’t know what else to do with your time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), less than 5% of all jobs in the United States require a master’s degree for entry. If your field doesn’t mandate an advanced degree, or you think you may not be rewarded (with a senior position and/or higher starting salary, for instance), then there may be better alternatives.
For instance, you may consider taking some professional development or certification courses in lieu of signing up for a full degree plan. This could be substantially cheaper than even the most affordable master’s program and may have a similar effect on your job prospects, depending on your field.
#2— Will you be more marketable with a graduate degree?
Even if your desired occupation doesn’t absolutely require an advanced degree, a master’s credential may make you more marketable in some fields. This is especially true in competitive sectors like technology, business, and engineering, for example, where there are often more applicants than available jobs.
On the other hand, there’s the concern of being overqualified for the position you want. If you get a master’s degree and the economy hasn’t recovered when you graduate, you could find yourself interviewing with budget-strapped companies who can’t afford to pay you what you’re worth.
#3— Were you planning to attend graduate school eventually?
If graduate school was always in your long-term plans, it may make sense to get it out of the way while we’re experiencing an economic downturn. The idea is that a recession is as good a time as any to advance your education, and it may be a way to avoid the difficult job market for a season. Professions such as those in law, medicine, and business will often require a master’s degree, so if these are the fields you’re interested in, graduate school is almost a no-brainer.
#4— Will the economy be improved when you finish grad school?
This is a question to consider, but let’s be frank—there’s really no answering it, at least not definitively. No one has a crystal ball to look into to predict the future, so we don’t really know what the state of the economy will look like two, three, or even five years down the road when you have a shiny new graduate degree.
#5— How will you pay for graduate school?
This is the real question, isn’t it? Most people faced with the dilemma of whether or not to go back to school for an advanced degree are most concerned with the financial hardship that doing so might create. Not only will you want to determine how to pay for grad school, but you’ll also need to examine your financial situation in its entirety. For example, if you already have student loans from undergraduate school, then taking out another loan may put you in a tough spot. After all, these loans don’t just disappear.
There are some circumstances in which an employer may pay for your grad school or you find yourself in another situation where an advanced degree is free or cheap. You may receive a generous scholarship or grant, for instance. In these cases, it may be too tempting to turn down the opportunity to get your advanced credentials with such a minimal investment.
#6—Do you have relevant experience in your field?
Depending on your prospective occupation, some employers may prefer that you have some experience in the field prior to pursuing an advanced degree. If your bachelor’s program didn’t include an internship or other experiential learning component, then it may be a good idea to seek some sort of real-world experience in your area of expertise before applying to graduate school. This could mean an entry-level job, a post-grad internship, or even a volunteer position.
#7— How does your professional network look?
It’s a cliché because it’s true: sometimes, getting a great job (or any job) is all about who you know. If you look around and find your professional network lacking, then a graduate degree program may afford you the opportunity to grow this network. Grad school provides students with the unique experience of being surrounded by people with similar career goals and interests. Often, professors double as industry leaders with connections to companies and individuals who could provide meaningful internship opportunities and even job leads. Just being a part of this kind of professional community could give you an advantage in the job market. This is particularly true if you take grad school seriously and prove to be a high-achiever.
#8— What is your projected ROI?
Calculating your return on investment is always a good idea when enrolling in a degree program, but in times of national financial crisis, it’s crucial. In order to estimate what your ROI will be from graduate school, you’ll need the following information: 1) cost of your graduate program and 2) projected earnings after graduation.
Of course, this will require a bit of fortune-telling since there’s no real way to project your exact post-grad salary. Still, you can research median annual wages for the position you’re hoping to get and use this as a best guess.
After that, the mathematical equation is fairly straightforward:
Projected earnings minus cost of graduate program equals return on investment.
Plug in the numbers to calculate short-term and long-term ROI and use the resulting figures as one factor to consider when deciding if grad school during a recession is worth it. Of course, if you choose an affordable grad school in combination with a lucrative occupation, then your ROI will be high. On the other hand, the more expensive the school and the lower the salary, the less your return will be.
Simple enough, right? Real ROI can be a bit more complicated than this, though, depending on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go. In reality, you’re investing more than just the cost of tuition when you decide to take on a graduate degree program. For example, you can expect to put in a lot of time and effort into your academic pursuit. You may have to sacrifice some things such as your social life and the money you would be earning had you decided to take a full-time job instead. It’s up to you to decide how much value to place on these hypotheticals and whether they’re sacrifices you’re willing to make for your master’s or PhD.
#9— Can you get into graduate school?
A recession means that entry into graduate school will be more competitive than ever. Translation? You’ll need to examine your academic transcript and determine how you’re going to stack up against the numerous other applicants who have the same idea as you. At a minimum, you’ll likely need a 3.0 GPA, but the higher it is, the better your chances will be.
Remember, many graduate schools also require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores as well. If you’re sold on the idea of returning to school for an advanced degree, you’ll need to prepare yourself for success on the test. Average GRE scores fall in the 150 range for both sections of the test (i.e., quantitative and verbal), so this is a good minimum score to aim for. Still, some schools weigh these scores differently than others. While a high GRE number may impress some universities, others will want to take a more holistic approach to evaluating your grad school application.
#10— What are the known benefits of grad school (for you)?
As you’ve likely already gathered, you’ll face a lot of unknowns when deciding whether or not to return to school for a graduate degree during the recession. Take a moment, though, to think about what you know you’ll gain from the experience. Will you feel a sense of great accomplishment after receiving your master’s or professional degree, for instance? Is there a certain research area or specialty you’re particularly excited about studying? While there are many uncertainties about what an advanced credential will do for your career, there are also some known personal benefits that many people experience.
Ultimately, the decision to go to graduate school during an economic downturn (or at any time, for that matter) is a highly personal one. No one—not even the best economic advisor or career counselor—can make this choice for you. Still, the more information you have, the better equipped you’ll be to make the call. Our advice? Find out as much as you can about your specific field of employment. You can gain helpful information through online research, but don’t underestimate the value of talking to people already employed in your field. These individuals can often provide you with an inside look into hiring practices and industry trends.
Once you’ve done your due diligence, make a list of pros and cons, talk to your friends and family members about the potential of going back to school, and seek out whatever resources and guidance you can to make this tough call. In the end, you’ll want to ensure that no matter what you decide, you’re content with your decision. After all, it could affect your future career for the long-term!
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