Like most colleges in America, my alma mater was ill-equipped to provide career advice to students who were pursuing careers outside of the school’s immediate sphere. If you weren’t looking for work in Seattle or Portland or you didn’t have an engineering, accounting or other career-ready degree, they had very little advice to offer. And the professors, lifetime academics, were also less than helpful when it came to knowing how to turn your liberal arts degree into a job.
So like many college graduates who feel unprepared to pursue the career of their dreams, I enrolled in graduate school hoping that a few more years of higher ed would set me on the path to professional success.
Educational decisions are very emotional. Your hopes, your dreams, your sense of who you want to be are a huge part of the decision making process. And there are a lot of people–family, friends, professors, guidance counselors–who will tell you that more education is never a bad idea. But women should make smart educational choices based on research and facts, not assumptions and hope.
Over time, I’ve developed a list of questions that I think every person considering a graduate degree should ask herself before taking the plunge.
Is it necessary? Before you let a college career counselor or a professor whose probably never worked outside of higher ed tell you that spending $80k on another piece of lambskin is a good idea, figure out whether you need an advanced degree to pursue your career. Wannabe lawyers, doctors, architects, etc. aren’t getting there without more schooling, but most professions don’t require more education to get started.
The best way to determine what is required is to look at some resumes on LinkedIn, read a few job postings and ask an expert. Had I delved deeper into the political realm, I might have learned that most of the skills you need in politics are best learned on the job. And I probably would have figured out that an internship and a bigger network of associates would be more valuable than my degree (at least in my early years).
Is this really the field of study that I want to work in? Imagine how awful it must be to spend $120k on a law degree only to discover that you hate being a lawyer. It’s a reality that way too many people, in a variety of professions, confront every day.
Before you commit tens-of-thousands of dollars and years of your life to studying for a career in law, politics, business, etc., you might want to get some hands on experience. Find an internship or pick up an entry-level job. It probably won’t take longer than six months or a year to figure out whether you love the work or would be better off doing something else, and you’ll pick up some valuable skills along the way.
Must it be done now? For careers where advanced study isn’t a requirement, such degrees rarely become a benefit until you hit your “mid-career.” Most employers are not going to pay a staff assistant or a junior account representative more because they have a master’s, but that changes as you climb the ladder.
Also, many large employers, like the federal government, offer tuition assistance as an incentive to foster talent and hold on to current employees who have proved that they can do the work. So if there’s a chance that your employer might pay for your master’s/law degree/MBA a few years down the road, why should you pick up the tab for it now? And, trust me, post-graduate course work is becomes more valuable once you have some experience under your belt and can apply what you’re learning to your every day work.
Can I really afford it? A master’s degree should help you grow professionally and earn more financially. So how do you figure out if grad school is a sound investment?
Use websites like The Glass Door to figure out what people in your chosen field really earn. (It’s probably less than you imagined.) Then, use this LearnVest calculator to figure out how much it will cost you to take out all of those student loans and how a graduate degree will affect your earning potential.
Considering cost is an important component because while it’s easy to assume that you’ll reap financial rewards, if you turn out to be wrong you could be shackled to a life-altering amount of debt with the same caliber of job you had before. Then, you wind up postponing other dreams (having kids, buying a home, etc.) because you don’t have the money.
Bottom line, don’t put yourself in debt for another piece of paper without knowing if and how it will benefit your career.
I’ve made a decade’s worth of personal and professional decisions based heavily on paying back my $100k+ in loans. That is not a life that I want other young women to be living. Because while I’ve made the best of it through hard work, sacrifice and planning, many people who are in the same boat have not been as lucky. (I mean, I had to go on a game show to even make a dent in my debt. If that’s not luck, what is?)
So I’m curious, how many of you ladies made the decision to attend grad school? Do you think it paid off? What advice would you offer? Leave your thoughts in the comments.