Is Grad School Worth It?

I’m all about the back-to-school vibes that come with September. The fresh smell of new school supplies. The promise of a clean-slate semester. Meeting new classmates. I love it all! A nerd from an early age, I’ve always been into school. So it should come as no surprise that after college I considered pursuing a graduate degree.

Why Consider Grad School?

There’s this common rationale that gets thrown around often these days: since a college degree is considered a basic requirement for a middle class life, a graduate degree will set you apart. Like all of us, I want any competitive edge I can get. So back in 2012, I started exploring my options,. I took the GRE, researched a bunch of schools, and even applied to a few programs. I’d already had a taste of grad school having previously completed a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School for a semester while working full-time, and I was excited about it.

The High Cost of Grad School

But then I saw the price tag, and did a double-take. Wha-what? What about financial aid? Didn’t being a broke 20-something with an already sky-high mountain of undergrad debt get me a discount for this thing? What about those nerdy academic scholarships from my undergraduate days? How could I get someone to fund my graduate degree? And if I couldn’t, would this investment in my (even) higher education pay off?

Well, friends, it’s been 6 years since I started asking those questions, and I still don’t have the answers!

So I sat down with my friend (who also happens to be a Bossed Up Bootcamp alum and Bossed Up Certified Trainer), Maggie Germano. Maggie’s a financial coach who specializes in helping women improve their relationship with money, so they can feel more in control of their lives.

Here’s how our conversation went…

Emilie Aries: When women are struggling to navigate a career change, many of us consider grad school to make that transition easier. Do you find that strategy effective?

Maggie Germano: It definitely depends on the industry. Some fields require that you have a higher degree in order to work in them at all. Others prefer it, but it’s not required. Some don’t actually need it at all!

I would recommend starting to apply and interview for jobs in a new career first to see how far you get. There are also great opportunities to get additional training that doesn’t require going to an actual university. You can take courses and/or get certifications that will bolster your experience, while costing a lot less.

If you’re going back to school because you’re afraid to make a change, or you don’t know what else to do, I don’t think the investment will end up being worth it.

EA: Is going into debt just a given for grad school? Do you know of any good options for financing grad school?

MG: I think that we think it’s a given that going to grad school means going into massive debt. But honestly, it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are opportunities to get your grad school paid for and even make money while you’re there. Depending on the type of program you’re looking for, some universities will give you a free ride and even pay you a stipend while you attend.

I have two friends who found those opportunities. One went to Oxford for International Relations and the other went to Texas A&M for English. Look for and prioritize schools that will provide these opportunities to their students.

If you don’t have that option for whatever reason, there are other avenues you can explore. Find out if your state offers grants to grad students. Search Sallie Mae for funding and fellowship opportunities. See if you can get an assistantship or other job on campus. Basically, look for any and all opportunities to reduce the amount of debt you’ll accrue if you go back to school.

EA: What should folks consider before taking on debt to extend their higher education?

MG: Consider whether or not this advanced degree will actually advance your career. Will it help you to earn significantly more money? We invest in our education with the assumption that we will end up earning more money to pay it back – and then some. That is the promise we’ve been given. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Make sure you do your due diligence before making this big decision. I would also advise that you make sure this path is what you truly want! If you’re feeling lost and confused about what you want to do with your life, that’s probably not the best reason to go back to school. Get clear on what you want before making this decision.

EA: I’ve heard that because so many folks have an undergraduate degree, a second degree is necessary to stand out. Do you agree?

MG: In general, I disagree, but that could be because I live in Washington, D.C., where it feels like almost everyone has multiple degrees! I actually think that the job force is becoming so saturated that depending on your field, a Masters Degree might not help you stand out at all.

Of course, there are some fields where you must have a Masters or PhD, but that is not true everywhere. In fact, I only have a Bachelors and have found that my work experience and networks have helped me advance a lot more than additional schooling would have.

There are also many growing, in-demand fields out there where you can teach yourself skills without any formal schooling and become highly valuable in the marketplace, too. Think about graphic design, development, and coding! Get experience and make connections, and then see if grad school still makes sense.

EA: Women out-earn men when it comes to the number of degrees we hold, and yet gender wage gaps persist in many industries. Why do you think that is?

MG: Women want to be 110% qualified for jobs when they apply. Men, on the other hand, apply for jobs when they are only 60% qualified. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why more women are getting advanced degrees.

Unfortunately, society and industry hasn’t caught up with what women are achieving. Sexism and discrimination are still abound, so women are still being offered less, even if they are more educated and experienced.

We need to keep pressuring employers to pay fair and equal wages. Women also need to advocate for themselves at work and negotiate higher pay, no matter how uncomfortable that can feel.

EA: Got any other advice for women considering taking on grad school debt to advance their career?

MG: Make sure that this is truly what you want to do, not what you think you should do. If you want to go back to school and need to in order to pursue your passion, don’t let anyone like me stop you! But if you just think it’s a natural next step in your career journey, but you’re not that sure about it, it might be best to hold off.

I would also advise you to try to keep working while you’re in school. Going back to school not only potentially puts you more into debt, but it also takes you out of the workforce and stops you from earning money. This slows down your retirement savings, which can hurt you down the road. So if you can continue working (and contributing to retirement) while you’re in school, I recommend doing that!

To learn more about Maggie Germano and Money Circle, a safe space for women to come together and talk about their financial questions or struggles, visit www.maggiegermano.com

LIKE THIS POST?

Then you’ll love our FREE job search checklist!

Download yours now: