There are lots of reasons to consider getting a master’s degree, including the potential for higher earnings and long-term career growth. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, having a master’s degree could boost your earning power by hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your career.
That doesn’t mean grad school is right for everyone. A lot depends on your situation, such as your chosen field, your finances and other personal commitments.
How do you determine if grad school makes sense for you? Start by answering the following questions:
Why do I want a master’s degree?
This is one of the most important—and, in some cases, most difficult—questions. It requires you to make an honest assessment of where you are now, where you want to be and what it might take to get there.
If you’re considering an advanced degree because you enjoy your work and want to build on existing knowledge and skills, a graduate program could be a smart choice. The same is true if you want to make a career change and are interested in a specific field.
But if you’re not sure what you want and are looking to buy some time while you decide, it might make more sense to wait. Get some additional work experience, or take a single course in a subject that intrigues you. That way you can explore your options without making a major financial investment.
Will a master’s make a difference in my field?
A master’s degree is required for many jobs in fields such as healthcare and education. In other fields, although not required, an advanced degree can open doors to higher salaries and more opportunities.
On average, individuals with a graduate degree earn 28.4 percent more than those with a bachelor’s degree in the same field, according to a 2015 report on “The Economic Value of College Majors.” That wage premium varies significantly, from 22.9 percent for arts majors to 63.3 percent for those with graduate degrees in biology and life sciences. For business graduates, the wage premium is 33.3 percent.
Salary is just one of many factors to consider when deciding on grad school. Think about what motivates you, the type of work you enjoy and your professional goals. Then, do your research so you can make a more informed decision.
Will my employer help cover tuition costs?
One of the most cost-effective ways to finance an advanced degree is to take advantage of the tuition assistance programs that many employers offer. If you accept a job offer after graduation, find out if your company has a tuition benefit. Ask about the types of courses that are covered, reimbursement procedures and other details. Be sure to get a copy of the policy from the human resources department for easy reference.
At some companies, this benefit doesn’t kick in until you’ve worked there for six months or more. If that’s the case, you may still be able to submit your grad school application and ask that it be kept on file until you’re ready to begin taking classes.
Can I afford it?
Cost can be a factor, especially if you took out loans to help pay for your undergraduate degree. There are several ways to keep expenses down. Ask about scholarships and financial aid. Check out course requirements. If you’re looking at programs in the same subject area as your undergraduate major, you might be able to get credit for some of your higher-level bachelor’s degree courses.
Investigate online or hybrid programs, which tend to be less expensive than those offered exclusively onsite. Also, consider attending part time so you can continue to work and, ideally, benefit from your employer’s tuition assistance program.
What about my schedule? Can I commit to taking graduate courses now?
Earning a master’s degree requires a pretty significant time commitment. Full-time programs typically take one to two years. Part-time programs tend to be less intense but take longer. Only you can decide what might work for your schedule. The good news is that online and hybrid options give you more flexibility than ever. Online courses can often be taken anytime, anywhere.
Here again, think about your reasons for considering a master’s. If the benefits have the potential to be substantial, you might decide that the sooner you start, the better.