This post is sponsored by Lexington Law.
As a higher education administrator, I had students asking me all the time about graduate school. And then as a career coach and leadership trainer this was probably the most frequent topic of discussion. “Is getting my masters worth it?” While I think the answer is a personalized choice, there are things that are helpful to think through.
I personally went straight from undergraduate to graduate school and noticed this becoming a trend around the recession. Many people were having a hard time finding jobs and opted to continue their education in the hopes of adding more credentials. While this panned out for some, it also caused a discrepancy between the levels of work experience and the academic credentials. Companies were then in a unique situation as they were hiring people in their mid-twenties who potentially never had a job before. They had several years of school but never a full-time role.
It also put some people in more debt because they weren’t earning money after their first degree and immediately started pilling on more loans with their advanced degree. If you’re currently working or about to graduate and thinking that an additional degree might be in your future; it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before moving forward.
I’m a huge believer in professional development and the power of education but a formal degree may not make sense for everyone. It’s best to be prepared so you can make more conscious choices about your career and your financial future. Let’s go over some key points to consider.
Why do you want the additional degree?
Getting an advanced degree may be helpful for your career, especially if it is a qualifying factor for positions. In my roles a masters was the minimum qualification and without it, it would have been extremely difficult to get hired. So, I knew that going straight from undergrad to graduate school was the right path for me. During that time, I also landed a few internships to ensure I had practical experience along with my degree. But before you jump in and register for classes, you want to have a clear understanding of why you want this degree and how it will help you meet your goals. Will it help you:
- Advance your current career within your industry
- Give you leverage or provide an alternative skill set for a new industry
- Expose you to faculty, students, and research that you won’t be able to get anywhere else
A graduate degree is different from undergraduate because you go in with a specific major or focus area. And it’s not easy to change your major or program like it might have been for your other degrees. Having a very clear goal of why you want to move forward and what you’re looking to get out of it is important. You spend a lot of hours on papers, team projects, presentations, and potentially comprehensive exams not to mention the money. You also have access to faculty and other resources, and you’ll get much more out of it if you know why you’re there and have a clear goal.
What advice has your mentor or supervisor given you?
If you haven’t spoken with a mentor, supervisor, peer, or someone you admire and trust; now is the time to do so. While at the surface it may seem the only way to get ahead is to get another “piece of paper,” but you may be missing something. The best way to figure it out is by having a conversation. Try asking:
- What skills, knowledge, experience was most beneficial to get you to where you are today?
- How will an advanced degree help my current goal of (x)? Is there a particular program or school you suggest that I look into?
- Other than an advanced degree, is there a training program or courses that you think would be helpful to my career?
- Looking back, is there a degree, knowledge set, or experience that you wish you took advantage of?
- What are some things I should be aware of if I pursue an additional degree that I might not be thinking about?
At the end of the day, the decision is yours, but asking people you admire will help you think through various scenarios and things you might be missing.
What will your salary be post degree?
Grad school could be 1,2 or 3 years depending on the program. If you’re shelling out money or taking out a loan, you need to have a pulse on what you’ll be making when you’re done. If you’re changing industries and your salary might be lower from what you’re getting now, will you be able to afford to pay your loans back?
Even if your salary increases and you’re in an expensive program, how long will it take for you to pay back the loan. And how will this change your lifestyle? Check out sites like Payscale and Glassdoor to see the average salaries of people within your industry of choice, location, and level of education and experience. You want to equip yourself with this knowledge, so you’re not blindsided with your new salary post degree.
What will graduate school cost you?
As you’re going through the research process, one of the most important factors is to figure out the cost. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news but graduate school costs more than the tuition itself. The average tuition is $30,000 (public), $40,000 (private) and that’s just the beginning. You also need to think about:
- Standardized tests/test prep: Many schools require a test for admission which can include the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, or LSAT. As of now, the GRE costs $205 and many people take it more than once. You may also want to take a prep course or get a tutor and the costs for those programs varies and could be hundreds, if not thousands.
- Application fees: Each application comes with a fee of about $50-$85 per school. That means you have to have the cash on hand which can be a year before you start a program. These fees you don’t get back whether or not you’re accepted.
- Pre-requisites: Depending on your program, you may need to take additional course work. This could be a business or A&P course that you were not able to take as an undergraduate. Some schools require that these classes are taken in person and at a four-year university which can be much more expensive than a community college. You might have one class or several to take before you can even apply.
- Housing, food, rent, utilities: If you’re planning to go to a school in a different location from where you currently live; you’re going to need to add in living expenses. This cost may even be higher from what you’re paying now depending on the location and type of housing available. If you’re going from living at home or living alone to needing roommates, this can be an adjustment.
- Books: Your book budget might be less than your undergrad where you had to pay over $125 for a science text that you’ll never use again. But, you’ll need books nonetheless. You also may want to buy new books because you’ll be making edits and noting areas for a potential thesis and may use them as a go-to resource beyond the program. So, depending on the class, you might be splurging for a new book versus used.
- Extraneous expenses: If you’re going full time, you’re most likely going to meet new friends and want to participate in social activities. This could be nights out with friends or late-night study sessions with caffeine on hand. This may be additional expenses than you’re used to. You also might need to commute from your apartment and take public transportation or pay to park your car. As someone who commutes and had to pay for a monthly parking spot, it adds up quickly. The good thing is that your gym membership might be included with your tuition and fees.
Proactive steps for paying for grad school
After looking through all of these areas, you may now either be thinking… grad school is for me or I might hold off because of the costs or lack of interest. If you’re still on board with going but feeling overwhelmed with how you’re going to pay for it, here are a few ways to bring down the costs:
- Go part time and have employer pay: Many companies pay for their employees to go to school (or take a few classes) as long as it relates to their current job or a position within the company. This can drastically cut down on costs. You just want to be clear if you have to stay with your organization for a certain amount of time after they pay the bill. They may contribute to your education and then require you to stay for two years.
- Assistantship/Fellowship: Some departments and offices have students work directly with them. This could be teaching a class or working with students in some capacity. It is usually a 20-hour work week in exchange for a per diem and full-time tuition. You can get an even better deal if you live in the dorms as you’ll get living expenses paid for as well. Ask the admissions office as well as do research on student facing departments (admissions, student life/activities, counseling) to see if they offer this option.
- Work for the school: Another option is to work full-time for the school you’re intended to get the degree from. Many institutions offer a certain dollar amount towards continuing education for their employees. You just want to pay attention to how much that is, what you’ll owe, and how much you’ll have to pay in taxes. You’ll be taxed on this benefit at a very high rate, so you don’t want to be blindsided by your take home pay or what you owe come tax time.
- Take out loans: If you’re still coming up short and need to take out a loans, take the time to understand as they can be different from undergraduate. You also don’t want to take out more money than you’ll need even if it is enticing. Whereas an undergraduate, you’re eligible for grants and scholarships, they’re not as readily available for advanced degrees. Proactively talk to the financial aid office and ask them specific questions about your loan options before you move forward.
What happens if you can’t afford to back your loans?
Not to scare you, but you do want to be aware of what happens if you’re not able to pay back your loans. Even though you’re doing all this research on future salaries and where you might be in a few years, taking out loans is a big decision and can impact your future. If you are 270 days late on making a payment, you are considered in default of your loan. Defaulting on your student loans can have a major effect on future purchases or lifestyle choices by lowering your credit score. Lower scores make it harder to get other loans (car, home) or to even sign an apartment lease as landlords want to be assured that you can pay the rent.
Before taking out a loan (or additional school loans), pull your credit report to see where you stand. You want to be smart about this and not put yourself in a position where your score gets lower. As you review this report, you’ll not only want to check your score but also check for inaccuracies. If you find inaccuracies or are looking to increase your credit score, the professionals at Lexington Law can provide you with personalized assistance to repair your credit.
If you’re still thinking about continuing your education, congratulations on wanting to advance your career and your skill set! But before you start taking tests and filling out applications, take the time to talk with mentors and people who you know, like and trust for advice. Once you have the information, you’re looking for to make an informed decision, look into your finances and think about the budget you’ll need to actually pay for school.
But, you don’t want to get yourself into even more debt while you’re trying to advance your career or lower your credit score. So, it’s important to get a real time gauge on where your credit score currently is and repair it right away. Especially before you might be taking out more loans. Can you honestly say you know your credit score? The professionals at Lexington Law will work with you to review your score and report, identify areas for improvement, and discuss repair options.