My parents immigrated to the United States in part because my dad wanted to go to graduate school here. Clearly, my parents value higher education.
They talked about attending college and grad school as an inevitable part of life, like going to the supermarket to buy groceries or visiting a barbershop for a haircut. My brother and I bought in. He attended medical school, and I received a Ph.D.
Your parents may be like mine, or you may be the first person in your family to attend college or consider graduate school. You may be in college and confused about what career to pursue, or perhaps have a job you love but see all your friends going for higher degrees. Financially, you may have access to a trust fund to pay for any program of your choice, or face a mountain of debt upon graduation.
Regardless of your situation, you’re probably asking yourself, “Should I go to grad school?”
And I’m glad you are, because attending grad school can involve significant financial and opportunity costs. Depending on your situation, it can be a great idea or poor decision.
Traditionally, “graduate school” refers to degree-granting academic programs beyond the undergraduate level (i.e., “college”).
In recent years, some people have expanded the definition of grad school to include any advanced program after graduating from college, including academic degree-granting graduate programs (e.g., Master’s, Ph.D.), professional degree-granting programs (e.g., M.D., J.D., M.B.A.), and graduate school preparatory programs (e.g., post-baccalaureate programs before medical school).
In this guide, we’ll use the expanded definition because the advice applies regardless of the field(s) you’re considering.
I’ll answer this complex question by exploring the following five factors:
- Career prospects
- Cost to attend
- Career earnings
- Opportunity cost
1. Evaluate Your Career Prospects
The first question you should ask yourself is, “Does my dream career require a graduate degree?”
If the answer is yes (e.g., becoming a physician requires a medical degree), graduate school may be right for you. If the answer is no (e.g., starting a business doesn’t require an M.B.A.), you can be successful in your chosen field by skipping the additional schooling.
(Note: I’m not saying you shouldn’t attend grad school if your chosen field doesn’t require it. For instance, receiving an M.B.A. can increase your odds of business success, open your eyes to new career opportunities, and build a powerful network. That said, you don’t need to attend business school to start a successful business.)
2. Analyze the Cost to Attend
Depending on the program, enrolling in grad school can be an affordable option or a heavy financial burden for decades to come.
For example, a fully-funded Ph.D. program may offer free tuition and a living stipend so you can graduate with little or no debt, whereas law school tuition alone can exceed $40,000/year.
According to Credible, the average grad school debt among recent graduates in various fields is as follows:
- Average M.B.A. debt: $66,300
- Average M.A. debt: $72,800
- Average research Ph.D. debt: $108,400
- Average law school debt: $145,500
- Average medical school debt: $246,000
As you can see, graduate school isn’t cheap. When you factor in multi-year or multi-decade interest, attending grad school becomes even more expensive over time and can influence lifestyle decisions (e.g., where to live, what job to take).
There are, of course, exceptions to these numbers. You may receive a full ride to med school or significant grants for your M.B.A. Your employer may even reimburse you for a portion of the tuition as an educational benefit. However, it’s important to know the costs associated with any educational choice you make.
3. Consider Potential Career Earnings
People with graduate degrees tend to make more money than people without graduate degrees.
That said, like graduate school debt, prospective earnings vary widely depending on your chosen field and degree. In other words, some degrees are associated with much higher pay than others.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings by degree type are as follows:
- Professional degree: $1,836 (annual: $95,472)
- Doctoral degree: $1,743 (annual: $90,636)
- Master’s degree: $1,401 (annual: $72,852)
- Bachelor’s degree: $1,173 (annual: $60,996)
A person with a Master’s degree earns 19% more per year than someone with a Bachelor’s degree. Doctoral degree and professional degree holders earn 49% and 57% more than Bachelor’s degree holders, respectively.
There is significant variance within these degree categories as well. For instance, the average physician earns a much higher salary than the average pharmacist, despite both having a professional degree.
Although the cost to attend grad school can be high and you may have to take on significant loans, the higher prospective career earnings may be worth it.
4. Know How Long It Will Take
Whereas some graduate programs require one or two years of time commitment, others require much more.
It took me only 5 years to earn my Ph.D. (I emphasize “only” as a joke, but most of my program peers took 6 or 7 years to graduate). My brother earned his medical degree in 4 years, but that was before 3 years of residency and 2 years of fellowship to become a pediatric emergency physician, during which he earned a relatively meager salary.
Many prospective graduate students brush off the time commitment by thinking that it will all be “worth it” in the end. That may be the case for you, but it may not be.
I certainly don’t regret my education, but I also believe that your 20’s and 30’s — the youthful decades during which you’re most likely to attend grad school — have special value. Do you want to spend 3 years toward a graduate degree? How about 7? How about 9 to complete grad school and specialty training?
Only you can answer this personal question. But as you’re making the decision, here are some numbers you should know:
- How long does it take to get a Master’s degree? Two years
- How long does it take to get a Ph.D.? Five to seven years
- How long does it take to get an M.B.A.? Two years
- How long does it take to get a law degree? Three years
- How long does it take to get a medical degree? Four years
Note: These numbers correspond to the years of required schooling for most programs that follow a full-time, traditional format. With non-traditional programs — such as online degrees — the time to graduation can be shorter (e.g., if your program offers an accelerated option) or longer (e.g., if you attend part-time).
Moreover, coursework may only comprise a fraction of time spent earning your degree. For example, many Ph.D. students spend the first two years of their program completing coursework, whereas the remaining time is spent working on a dissertation.
5. Weigh the Opportunity Cost
If you go hiking between 8AM and 10AM on a Saturday morning, you can’t surf during that same time.
This is an example of an opportunity cost, which is technically defined as the value of the next-highest-valued alternative.
If you attend graduate school, you’ll have to give up certain opportunities. For example, if you enroll in a 6-year Ph.D. program, you can’t also gain 6 years of full-time consulting experience during that same period.
During those 6 years, you can earn income as a consultant, save and invest money, not take on educational loans, and move up the career ladder.
While a graduate degree can help you earn a higher salary in the long run, you’ll have years of catching up to do with regards to finances and experience.
Given the various costs, you probably shouldn’t attend grad school for the sake of attending grad school.
As we discussed in the previous section, you’ll want to first consider whether your dream career or desired pay requires you to attend a specific graduate program.
Therefore, I think that, “What should I go to grad school for?” is the wrong question. The better question is, “What do I want to do professionally?”
You may have a clear idea of what you want to do professionally and are wrestling with the decision of whether to attend grad school. Or, you may be unfulfilled with your current prospects and believe that going to grad school — for anything — will lead to a better option.
If you fall in the latter camp, I encourage you to pump the brakes because grad school isn’t the remedy for your confusion.
Instead, I encourage you to do more research on what your work in various fields will actually look like. That may involve taking a job in a field you’re considering or treating a professional in your area to coffee so you can learn about their work, work satisfaction, career path, whether they recommend attending grad school in their field, and advice on how to get there.
Asking advice from people you look up to — whether they have your ideal job or ideal marriage — is a great way to learn how to achieve your goals. You can avoid making unnecessary errors along the way and discover strategies to accelerate your success.
Regardless of the field, successful graduate school admissions boil down to the following: academic achievement and extracurricular experiences.
On the academic front, most worthwhile graduate programs will require you to have a competitive GPA and standardized test scores. The specific test required (e.g., GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT) depends on your chosen program.
The experiences you should pursue are also field-specific. For instance, if you’re looking to attend law school, you may want to work as a legal clerk and volunteer your time to work in local politics. On the other hand, if you want to attend med school, you may want to work in a research lab and obtain patient exposure experiences, in addition to community service.
In addition to developing a strong academic and extracurricular background, you will likely have to write various graduate school application essays, such as a personal statement and school-specific supplemental essays. Finally, some programs also require in-person interviews as a final application step.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with a given field’s admissions requirements so that you can adequately prepare. Realizing an important step too late can delay the start of your education and dream career.
It depends on the field, how competitive your academic and extracurricular background is, and how competitive your school list is.
For instance, if you’re applying to relatively non-competitive programs like Master’s in Social Work (MSW), you can apply to fewer schools. On the other hand, it’s common (and justified) to apply to 30+ medical schools.
In addition, the stronger your academic stats and extracurricular experiences, the smaller your list can be. If you have a 3.9 GPA, near-perfect test scores, and a stellar resume, many grad schools would love to have you. On the other hand, if your background is weaker, you’ll want to cast a wider net.
Similarly, the more competitive your school list, the more schools you should apply to. Your admissions odds will be very different if the 10 schools you apply to comprise schools ranked 1-10 vs. schools ranked 21-30.
Applying to grad school is an incredibly important decision that requires significant reflection. The considerations I’ve listed are meant to guide your decision-making process.
If you decide to attend grad school, entering with a sense of clarity about your goals will help you make the most of your experience. However, don’t go to grad school simply because you think it will “look good” or because you’re not sure what to do next. The decision you make will have a lasting impact on your personal and professional life.
While well-meaning friends and family may have opinions about what you “should” do, I encourage you to think deeply about what you want from a grad school education. By approaching this decision carefully, you can ensure that going to grad school is a wise investment in your future, not a costly mistake.
About the Author
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a graduate school admissions expert and founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. For over 15 years, he has helped thousands of students get into top medical schools, law schools, Master’s programs, and Ph.D. programs.
Growing up with Tourette Syndrome in a middle-class family, Dr. Shemmassian was often mocked by peers and teachers and discouraged from applying to elite colleges. Therefore, he taught himself everything he needed to know to graduate debt-free with his B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
Dr. Shemmassian has been featured in The Washington Post, US News & World Report, Business Insider, and NBC, as well as been invited to speak at Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. He presents on topics including how to craft a stellar medical school personal statement, law school personal statement, and graduate school statement of purpose.
Image Credits: college graduates throwing caps in the air