Careers & Business

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Deciding if graduate school is right for you

Graduate school has long been a place professionals turn to when looking to give their careers a boost. But the recent recession left many professionals wondering if graduate school would help or hurt their chances of finding a more challenging or fulfilling job.

As is typically the case during an economic downturn, graduate school applications increased during the recent recession, when job opportunities for new graduates were scarce, forcing many to seek shelter in graduate programs. But such shelter isn't always available, nor is a graduate degree for everyone. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, graduate schools received 4.3 percent more applications for entry into master's and Ph.D. programs in 2012 than in 2011. Despite the apparent growing interest in graduate programs, the number of students who began graduate studies decreased between 2011 and 2012, suggesting that perhaps graduate school is not for everyone, even those who go through the arduous application process.

Much of the reason for that decline in enrollment can likely be traced to the cost of graduate school; costs have grown larger during the recession, when even colleges and universities felt the sting of a sagging economy. During the recession, many schools were unable to devote as much funds to incentives such as assistantships and merit-based scholarships as they were during those periods when the economy was thriving. As a result, even those applicants who were accepted to graduate school may have found their respite from the recession was likely to be anything but, forcing them to accept large amounts of debt in order to earn their advanced degrees.

Determining if taking on such debt was ultimately worth pursuing an advanced degree was a decision each individual had to make on his or her own. But more than just finances come into consideration when professionals are deciding if graduate school is the right way to further their careers.

* Career ambition: Many people pursue an advanced degree out of intellectual curiosity, while many others do so in an effort to resuscitate their careers or facilitate a transition to a new career. Ask yourself if your career has reached a plateau and the next logical step is an advanced degree. If a graduate degree aligns with your career goals, then you likely won't regret pursuing such a degree regardless of the cost. On a similar note, if a graduate degree is required in another field you want to transition into, then the cost of that degree likely won't be too much of a hindrance. But if a graduate degree isn't necessary for your career but more of a shortcut to furthering that career, then the cost of pursuing the degree might not be worth it, and it could be something you grow to regret when loan payments come due.

* Family: Family also comes into play for many professionals who are weighing if an advanced degree is right for them. Graduate degrees are not easy to come by, and the work required to earn such a degree is considerable. Professionals with families must consider the impact their pursuits of advanced degrees may have on their families. Many professionals pursue advanced degrees part-time, which means they may not earn their degree in two years like full-time students will. Professionals with families must decide if the graduate degree is worth a three- or four-year investment and the sacrifices that will need to be made during those three or four years.

* Location: The right graduate program for you will not necessarily be close to home. Unlike younger students or recent college graduates, professionals often have established ties within a community. This includes a network of friends and fellow professionals. Leaving that life behind to pursue an advanced degree likely won't be easy,  so professionals considering such a pursuit should weigh the impact such a move may have on their quality of life and if that sacrifice is worth pursuing the degree.

An advanced degree can be a great way for professionals to advance their careers while satisfying their intellectual curiosity. But such pursuits come at a cost, and those costs should be considered before the application process even begins.