This blog post has been updated by Kristina Rust, Career Consultant on March 1, 2024 for relevancy, inclusivity, and formatting.
The question of whether or not to go to graduate school is a timeless one for undergraduate students. After spending lots of time and (I repeat: lots) of money earning a bachelor’s degree, the thought of spending more time – and more money – in school can seem like unnecessary, self-inflicted punishment.
Yet, as you begin to sift through job openings and research long-term career paths, you keep coming across that same, deflating phrase: “Master’s degree preferred.”
Thus, for many students it is not a question of whether to go to graduate school, but rather, when is the right time to go. Spoiler alert: there is no definitive answer to this question. It depends on you, and what you want to get out of graduate school.
Weigh the Pros and Cons.
So how do you decide when to go? Well, let’s first ask, how do you make any decision? When you put a dollar into a vending machine, do you choose the candy bar or the granola bar? At the movies, do you buy a ticket for the Oscar-nominated drama or the slapstick comedy? When you have to add an elective class to your schedule, what kind of class do you add?
In all of these examples, you will weigh the pros and cons and ultimately make the decision that seems best for you, whether that means for the short term, long term, or both. Deciding when to apply to graduate school is no different; at the end of the day, you must weigh the pros and cons and figure out what is best for you.
Let’s look at some pros and cons. We already mentioned that more and more employers are seeking applicants with graduate degrees. In fact, according to a 2014 Forbes article entitled In Defense of the Master’s Degree, “Increasingly, employers value the problem solving, critical thinking, and technical skills that graduate-level education provides.” The article states that over 20% of open jobs prefer or require graduate degrees, compared to only 11% of the population holding advanced degrees.
Understand Your Goals, Necessary Qualifications, and When Works for You.
So consider your long-term goals. Do you know what field you want to work in, or have you narrowed it down by job description (i.e. I want to do something with advertising or I want to help and counsel people)? If so, you can begin to research what a career may look like, how important graduate school is to that career, and what type of degrees people in the field typically earn.
If you are thinking of professional fields like medicine, law, and teaching, you know that the quicker you get started, the quicker you can get the jobs you want. Still, that does not mean you have to go right away. It’s just important that you continue to improve your resume during any gap time.
Think about doing something that will differentiate your experience from other applicants, such as research assistant positions if you are working toward medical school, or positions with federal and state legislature if you are going the law school route. Before you choose what you want to do, always think about how you will sell it to graduate admission committees.
A possible con of waiting to go to graduate school is that you may never make it back. While it can be a challenge to go back to school after working professionally, it can also be very rewarding to have the experience, and that experience can add a useful perspective to your graduate classes.
Consider the Timeline of Standardized Tests.
If you know you want to go to graduate school, but not right away, a good strategy is to take any required standardized tests before, or soon after, you graduate. Not only will you probably have more time to spend studying, your scores will also be valid for a few years.
GRE scores, which may be required or optional for many Master’s programs, can be used for up to 5 years. The same goes for the GMAT and LSAT, whereas DAT scores can be used for 3 to 5 years depending on the program, and MCAT scores can be used for 3 years. Knowing these timelines can give you the accountability to stick to your plan, even after working full-time.
Define Your "Why."
Finally, you must really consider what you want to get out of graduate school. Not knowing what else to do, or wanting to get a higher paying job are not good enough reasons to go.
Yes, graduate school is a great way to advance professionally, but it is more than an advanced degree; it is a breadth of knowledge gained through studying and researching history, theory, practical applications, and trends within your program’s focus. The workload will test you in ways that you haven’t been tested as an undergraduate, and you will likely be balancing a graduate assistantship or job on top of it.
So don’t only think about the jobs or salaries you could get with the degree, also think about what you will learn in the program. If it just seems like a means to an end, you might be better off getting a job first and reconsidering later. On the other hand, if you can find a program that allows you to apply for assistantships, you could go to graduate school immediately while still gaining beneficial work experience.
Both routes have potentially positive financial implications as well, whether an employer may be willing to cover a chunk of your tuition or an assistantship could come with a tuition waiver altogether.
In the end, deciding when to go to graduate school is up to you. But you can do yourself a big favor by really weighing the pros and cons and being intentional about what you hope to get out of the continued education.
You may decide that taking a break and entering the workforce is just what the doctor ordered, or you may want to strike while the academic iron is still hot. Regardless, make sure that whatever you do, you are always advancing your professional development!
If you need any additional help thinking about graduate school and navigating the application process, give the Career Center a call (706-542-3375) and schedule an appointment!