Should You Go Back to School? 4 Factors to Consider Before You Do

The numbers of Americans with master’s degrees and doctoral degrees have doubled since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With more and more American adults attaining higher education, you might be wondering: should I go back to school for another degree? 

Maybe you feel like your career progress has stalled. Maybe you're looking to change fields. Maybe you want to increase your salary.

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Key Takeaway: Think carefully about these questions

  • Would an advanced degree further my career goals?
  • How would an advanced degree affect my pay?
  • How would I pay for an advanced degree?
  • What kind of degree program would I attend?

Would an advanced degree further my career goals?

A degree won’t have the same effect on every person or every career. 

You’ll need a professional degree to become a doctor or a lawyer, and becoming a college professor will probably require a PhD. But for other careers, getting a graduate or postgraduate degree may not be necessary or even helpful.

For example, if you're a newspaper reporter looking to advance your career, a master’s degree in journalism may not be helpful to you. But a master's in political science could help you specialize as a political reporter.

Part of your decision-making process should also include how much work experience you have. If you graduated with a bachelor's degree less than a year ago, a master's in business administration probably isn't for you — yet. Those degrees are typically meant for students with at least three years of work experience.

If you're not sure where returning to school fits into your long-term goals, try talking to someone with a career similar to the one you want.

“Request informational interviews at companies you think you’d like to work for," suggests Frankie of Frank Money Talk. "Ask them about your plans to see if they can provide a reality check. They could save you years and tens of thousands of dollars.”

How would an advanced degree affect my pay?

Earning a bachelor’s degree increases a person’s lifetime earnings by about $1 million, compared to high school graduates, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report also found that earning a master's degree adds another $400,000 to a person's lifetime earnings, compared to someone who earned only a bachelor's degree. And earning a doctoral or professional degree increases lifetime earnings even more.

But just like career goals, getting an advanced degree won't affect everyone's pay the same way. 

For example, a study by Poets & Quants found that students who earned MBAs concentrated in finance economics and business and marketing doubled their salaries.

On the other hand, graphic designers who earn graduate degrees only increase their salaries from about $42,000 to $52,000, according to data from CareerBliss.

Before you pursue further higher education, think about how much an additional degree would increase your pay versus the cost of the degree. 

“Use government sites such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics to evaluate whether you are entering a growing career field,” Frankie says. “Use employment sites to estimate what income can be expected based on experience."

How would I pay for an advanced degree?

The cost of a graduate degree varies depending on the college you attend and your course of study, but the average is $30,000 to $40,000 per year, according to Peterson's, a leading educational services company.

Make sure when you’re calculating your potential costs, you’re not thinking only about tuition.

“There are supplemental costs such as books, parking and commuting,” Frankie says. “There are time commitments away from family. There are late nights and potentially unbalanced work/school/life balance.”

Also don’t forget about any current student loan debt from your undergraduate degree you may be paying off. If that’s an issue for you, consider refinancing or consolidating your existing loans with one of the top student debt companies before getting another degree.

Once you have a good idea of what your costs are going to be, think about where you’re going to get the funds to pay for those expenses. Keep in mind that if you’re going to quit work or reduce your work hours, that will eat into your available income. 

“Don’t forget about grants and other financial aid specific to re-entry students,” Frankie adds. “Also speak with your employer about tuition assistance or reimbursement.”

What kind of degree program would I attend?

You don't just have to decide on your field of study. Depending on what school you want to attend, there are usually lots of options for types of programs.

One option is the traditional full-time student experience. If you're currently working full-time, this will require you to leave work or cut back your hours for at least the duration of the graduate program.

If a full-time program isn't an option, some schools offer executive programs meant to accommodate students who are working simultaneously.

Another option is earning your degree through online courses, which offer the most flexibility. 

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