You finally did it. You scraped a passing grade in your last gen ed class and earned your undergraduate degree. The rose-colored college years have passed you by, and the terrifying abyss of the “real world” lies on the other side of that commencement ceremony. So… what next? Do you get a job? Go to law school? Go to med school? Twiddle your thumbs anxiously until you’re 30? If you’re considering a graduate program to take your career to the next level, there are a few questions everyone should ask themselves before they commit.
Can you afford it?
Let’s first address the huge, ugly elephant in the room: grad school is expensive as hell. The average annual cost for master’s students hovers somewhere around $30,000 — and that’s pushing aside major outliers like the $100,000 sticker price of some top-20 business schools. Compare that to the average cost for in-state undergrads, about three times less at $9,000, and you begin to see how much more of an investment postgrad education is.
Most students fresh out of undergrad already have a handful of loans itching to leech everything from their bank accounts. So applying to grad school can seem like you’re just digging yourself into a deeper hole.
On the bright side, most master’s programs only last two years, and between grants, work-study programs and fellowship funding for research, grad students do have options for financial aid. But not unlike undergrads, most fall back on loans to cover their expenses. Miranda Bullard, a first-year student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, said finances were her biggest worry. “I was most concerned about how I was going to pay for grad school and what the legal market was like,” said Bullard. “If you have a solid LSAT score and a solid GPA and you go to a mid-tier school, you’ll likely get a good scholarship offer. But if you’re set on going to a Top 14 school, unless your credentials are much higher than other applicants, you’re likely to be paying tuition primarily through student loans.”
Some schools, like Temple, won’t even allow first-years to hold a part-time job, which puts students like Miranda in a sticky position. “You basically have to take out loans for housing, food, textbooks, and other essentials even if you manage to get a great scholarship offer,” she said.
Is it worth it?
This question lies at the heart of your dilemma because there’s no single definite answer. Sure, you can compare the sunk cost of a degree to your gross salary, but you can’t as neatly quantify the skills you gain or the knowledge you glean. “Journalism school isn’t exactly necessary to enter the field, but it is definitely helpful,” said Alanna Weissman, a student at Columbia Journalism School. “In addition to the art and craft of reporting itself, we learn things like how to pitch and slug our work, which are all necessary skills for professional journalists but things that people not coming from a journalism background might not know.”
That’s not only applicable to journalism students, of course, because regardless of your field you won’t walk away from grad school having learned nothing.
“The extra knowledge that comes from journalism school—and, of course, the credentials and connections—gives graduates an edge,” said Weissman.
For Gurman Bhatia, who also attends Columbia, grad school was the only option to learn the skills she needed. “I am from India and the media industry there is booming. However, data is a field several publications are still trying to understand. I came to Columbia to train myself in data journalism and tools surrounding the same,” she said.
Some would attest that real-world experience is paramount, and others that a grad school education is irreplaceable. But for those who fall somewhere in the middle — well, they wait first, and then go.
Should you wait?
Depending on your situation, it might actually be beneficial to take at least a year off before pursuing that graduate degree. You can use that gap to focus in on your career goals, or to get a job in the field for a taste of the experience. Who knows — you might get a job at a veterinarian’s office only to find that caring for sick puppies isn’t as fulfilling as it sounds.
“I decided I would go right out of undergrad… I just assumed that was what you were ‘supposed to do’,” said Beasley law student Michael D. Sells. “I was surprised to find when I got to law school that many people wait a few years after they graduate and many of my classmates are 25 and older.”
“More and more students are taking that break,” said Penn State academic adviser Beth Brown. “Having that year’s time to think about what you want to do can be really helpful. Often the idea of something is better than the work itself.”
Plus, it’s not uncommon for companies to help cover their employees’ education costs — so if you don’t snag a scholarship, getting a job first might be your safest bet.
Is this what you really want?
Deciding that you want to go to graduate school is a major life decision, one that’s literally worth thousands of dollars. So before you cave in to Mom’s wishes, look into where you want your degree to take you and whether it’s really worth your time and investment. For many, it’s the best career decision they’ll ever make. Your undergrad major put your foot in the door; a master’s degree will let you kick it down.