Should You Go for That Advanced Degree?

Jolene Pilgrim
16 Jan 2019

Remember when we were young and impressionable with mothers and fathers who dreamed of having a house full of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals they called children?  While we’re pretty sure half the inspiration behind those dreams was the ability to get free medical or legal advice via their progeny, it’s a fact of life that higher education in America has a certain appeal that garners instant respect.  Whether flirting with someone at a bar, or networking during social events, the simple statement that you’re a doctor, “ have a masters”, or even are “working on your Ph.D.” puts you into a nearly mystical social circle reserved for those who are smart enough to figure out the encrypted password.

The reality of advanced degrees, however, is that modern higher education has become more accessible and those extra letters behind your name aren’t are tough to obtain as they may have once been.  Sure, you’ll need to shell out some extra tuition money and probably spend a few extra years in a classroom or interning, but gone are the days when an advanced education was attainable only to a few.

As the saying goes, however, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.  While the idea of obtaining a post-graduate degree may awaken the inner child seeking approval from their parents, there are real-world costs and implications of devoting resources to graduate school.  Here we delve into the pros and cons of more education and offer advice and anecdotes to help assess whether you should go for that advanced degree or whether your time, money and energy are best suited for other pursuits.

Not All Degrees are Created Equal

Starting with the simplest consideration first; before running straight from your bachelor’s program into a masters, doctorate, or other graduate program, candidates should take some time to evaluate their focus of study.  While some advanced degrees allow you to qualify for niche professions, others may be more akin to icing on the education cake. Sure, everyone loves to go straight for the whipped cream cheese and sugar topping, but there isn’t a lot of substance there.

Postgraduate degrees in generic fields such as English, history, math, or philosophy aren’t going to qualify you for many professions outright.  These types of educational pursuits can be rewarding, but they often aren’t necessary to attain a job or build a career in a specific field. In short, before setting out back to school for 3+ additional years, evaluate your area of study and do some research into which positions require that specific certification.

Potential Upside for Your Chosen Career

This brings us to the next consideration when it comes to choosing to pursue more education.  Before you sign on the dotted line for that student loan, work up the numbers to determine what will be the benefit on your short and long term career.  

For some professions, this analysis will be fairly simple.  If you aim to score a position as a doctor, you’ll need medical school, a Ph.D., and residency in order to make it happen.  Similarly, lawyers require a JD in order to sit for the bar exam in most states. For some professions, such as finance or banking, advanced education in the form of a business school degree may give you a leg up initially when it comes to title or pay but might not make a difference long term when compared to hard work and on the job education.

As with any important decision, before you set off on the postgraduate school path, evaluate your potential upsides and whether that degree is needed or if there may be another, less traveled route, that will see you get to the same career destination.

What Will it Cost

We’ve all seen the news reports and studies when it comes to education costs over the last several years.  To put it plainly, college and postgraduate schools are expensive and the overall financial impact of attaining any type of higher education continues to rise.  The average young person with a post graduate degree will enter the workforce with over $100,000 of student loan debt. That’s a staggering number for someone looking to start of their life and career with dreams of a home, family, and a dog named spot.

Before making the decision to go for that advanced degree, put together the real world costs of attending an additional three or four years of school.  While tuition will make up the bulk of your calculations, other items will also contribute to your potential debt load. Many graduate schools ask students to pledge that they will focus on their studies and not hold outside jobs during the school year.  Summer months will often be spent in unpaid or low paid internships which are important in helping to secure post-graduation employment. Costs for housing, food, health insurance, and transportation will all need to be factored into the overall price of your advanced degree and should be used to help balance the overall costs versus return of additional education.

Make a Conscious Choice

Perhaps the best piece of advice we can leave with you when it comes to whether you should add a few more letters to your title is to be an active and conscious participant in the choice to stay in school.  In times of economic downturn when employment prospects look bleak, young graduates often choose to stay in school in order to defer payments on student loans or simply because they believe they lack additional options.  

With the kind of monetary and personal investment that goes into headed back to school, it’s important to do so with eyes wide open.  Use the factors we’ve laid out above to help decide whether that masters really is a great idea for your personal and professional goals.  Whichever route you decide, your parents will still be proud of their successful, smart, child. And, hey, as a plus, if you decide not to grab your Ph.D. and become a doctor, after all, you can rest comfortably knowing you won’t be asked at the next family get together to examine that bunion on your aunt Edna’s big toe.

Jolene Pilgrim