Should I Go to Grad School? 4 Steps to Help You Find Out

August tends to be a transitional month. Maybe it’s a relic from our time in school, but as summer comes to a close and vacations end, I always start to wonder what the next year will bring.

The same thing also seems to be on many of my friends’ minds as I have been getting a lot of questions lately about whether to go to graduate school. Partly friends come to me because I went to grad school, but also they come to me because I’m an expert in higher education finance.

I have always been public about my decision to go to grad school, what my total debt is ($60,966), and how I repay my loans ($542/month; combination of Income-Based Repayment and 10-year Standard). For me, grad school was worth it. But whether it’s worth it depends on your personal situation. The decision to go to grad school should never be taken lightly.

After going through the whole process personally and also with my knowledge of our higher education and financial aid system, here’s the advice I give my friends:

Should I Go to Grad School?

If you can, take time off and work between undergrad and grad school.

Because the job market has been so rocky the past few years, many undergrads decide to go directly to graduate school in hopes that the job market will be better once they graduate and that the extra credential will help them land a better job. After being a student for your whole life, it is a good idea to spend a couple of years in the workforce if you can. Ideally, in the field that you think you want to enter. When I graduated from college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was able to work at a law firm where I discovered that I actually didn’t like the work. I had a complete misperception of the career. Even if the job you land is unrelated to what you want to pursue as a career, it gives helpful perspective and experience in the workforce that will be essential for deciding on a career path later on and what grad school and grad school program will be best for you. It will also help you decide whether grad school is even necessary to get you where you'd like to go.

Research academic programs and financial aid options before applying.

Make sure grad school will be a good fit with what you want to accomplish. Look at what courses you’ll be taking, how much flexibility you have to take electives, what your research opportunities with faculty will be, and what your internship/fellowship options are. Before applying, make sure you know how much the school will cost and what their financial aid options are. Don’t be afraid to call the admissions or financial aid offices to talk about financing options—the institution’s website won’t always be transparent. As a rule of thumb, most master’s programs and professional degrees (especially terminal programs that don’t lead to another higher degree) will cost you. In some instances, master’s degree programs will have tuition remission if you work for the university in some capacity. Reputable doctoral programs are fully funded—in some instances not only will you get full remission, but also a stipend for doing research. Be aware of these options as you research schools as these will be the best ways to keep costs down. My master’s degree was a one-year program and I got a grant. That helped me keep costs down and I was only out of the workforce for one year.

Be realistic about your career prospects and trajectory.

Originally when I was going into higher education, I thought I would work as a student advisor in some capacity. I researched open job descriptions in metro areas I was considering living in to get a better idea of how much money I would make (public colleges and universities are usually transparent about salary ranges). I knew full well that I probably wouldn’t end up making that much more than I had made at the law firm, but that I could grow into the job. I also knew that I could enroll in income-based repayment (IBR) and base my loan payments on my salary. This was like an insurance policy on my student loan debt, helping me realize that I could work in a job I liked while not being impoverished by my debt.

Come up with a plan to manage student loan debt before enrolling.

If you are taking on debt for grad school, be sure to research your options. In most instances, federal loans are available to you at varying interest rates up to the full cost of attendance. Private loans are also available. Develop a realistic budget for when you are in school and figure out the amount of loans you are comfortable taking out. In terms of repayment, federal loans come with flexible repayment terms. You default into a 10-year repayment plan, but you can change your plan to an income-based plan, graduated repayment, or consolidation plan which may be much more affordable to you on a monthly basis. Be honest about your total debt and monthly repayment costs—develop a post-school budget based on what you think a conservative estimate for your starting salary will be. Know your options if you are unemployed for a longer-than-anticipated amount of time (for example: IBR, deferment, and forbearance). Always understand what would happen in a worst-case scenario so you’d be prepared if it ever happened. Also look into Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If you work for the government or a non-profit, some qualifying federal loans are eligible for forgiveness after making 10 years of payments. Loan debt doesn’t have to be scary if you plan on the front end how exactly you are going to tackle it.

Some of my friends are going to have a lot to think about as they make the decision whether to apply to grad school within the next year. It’s a nervous and exciting time that requires a lot of thought and honesty about what you’d like to get out of grad school. If you’re applying during this next cycle, good luck with the process and I hope this advice puts you on solid ground when it comes to making such an important decision.