Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Grad School: To Go Or Not To Go?

Tips for answering that thousands of dollars question.

By Robert Kallick

Grad School  To Go Or Not To Go?

With graduation day looming on the horizon, you probably feel a mix of emotions. On one hand, you're excited to finally be done with school. Then again, you're apprehensive about leaving the familiarity of your campus and heading into the workplace. For those with graduate school aspirations, there are even more elements to factor into this confusing time.

Whether or not to go straight to graduate school or to work in your chosen field for a few years after undergrad is a difficult choice. There are pros and cons on each side. Going directly to graduate school is a tempting proposition for many reasons—it increases your knowledge in your field of interest, as well as bumps up your earning power. Plus, it puts off the inevitable job hunt. But if you choose work over school, will you really ever go back?

Pros and Cons

Carrie Oleynik, Communications Specialist at Towson University's College of Business and Economics says, "If grads decide to take a few years to gain experience within a given field, they may be at an advantage. Pursuing graduate school opens new doors—but how will you know if it's the right door without knowing what's on the other side first?"

On the flip side, Ron Mitchell, CEO and cofounder of career mentoring platform GottaMentor.com says it can be more difficult to wait. "There are higher opportunity costs the longer you wait," he says. "If you go to grad school directly out of college, the trade-off is an entry-level salary ($30-$50k). But if you go to grad school after working for three or four years, that trade-off now becomes $50-$75k."

Mitchell also warns that your plans to go back to school after working for a few years may never come to fruition. "Working can be fun," he says. "The independence it provides is great, the money is great, and oftentimes, the work is great. It can be a very difficult to walk away from a great job to go back to school."

Don't Rush It

Christopher K. McGrath, Vice President of DecideBetter.com, says if you are not 100% certain what you want to do, you shouldn't rush into a graduate program. "One of the most common mistakes students make is to assume that they know what they want to do for a career before they even step foot into the job market," he says. "College is a time for discovering who you are and what your professional interests are. But that does not mean that you will come out of it with your career goals firmed. In fact, most college graduates do not have a finalized career path mapped out upon graduation."

McGrath advises students to consider spending some time in the workplace to get a better sense of what their long-term goals are.

It's also vital to keep as many career paths open to you as possible. "If you believe that you are closing off a particular career path that is of interest to you by not going to graduate school immediately, that should be a consideration," McGrath says.

Similarly, he warns that students might close off options by going right back to school and avoiding the work world. "One thing that may be an option is to concurrently pursue both options," he advises. "If you apply to the top graduate programs while simultaneously pursuing great opportunities for your potential time off, you will keep your options open."

Do Your Homework

Mitchell says, "Most individuals that choose to go to grad school directly from undergrad make that decision with too little information. Graduate school sets you on a path to a very specific professional career. If you don't have a variety of professional experiences, how do you know that you want to move in that direction?"

Along with researching your field of interest and gaining experience, Mitchell also advises students to take a serious look at their finances. "There is a very high switching cost once you make the decision to attend graduate school," he warns. "These programs are very expensive, and the debt service on student loans often determines which careers a student can pursue."

McGrath agrees that finances come into play when making this decision. "The last thing you want to do is to increase your mountain of college debt by adding the costs of graduate school, only to not pursue a career in the area you are trained in," he says.

It's important to be certain about the field of study you decide to pursue, but it's also vital that you understand the financial burdens you may take on while out of school. "Once grads begin working, they become entangled in many financial matters, including renting an apartment, buying a car, increasing credit card debt, and more," McGrath states. "By the time they get around to going back to school, they realize they cannot afford to have no income."

Kristen Fischer, author of Ramen Noodles, Rent and Resumes: An After-College Guide to Life advises students to see if they can get their graduate degree without racking up major debt. "See if you can swing it for free," she says. "Explore teaching assistant positions where you can get the degree at little or no cost."

Mitchell believes working for a few years can help you save money and get into a top graduate program, even if you have a less-than-stellar academic record. "Working for a top company in your field may increase your chances of being accepted to a top graduate program," he says. And if your field of study requires significant research experience or specialized work experience, taking a few years to prepare is a great move.

Application Requirements

Regardless of when you decide to go back to grad school, you will have to contend with the application requirements, including entrance exams. So, is it better to take the exams right after completing undergrad or does it make sense to wait?

Again, there are pros and cons to both. Taking entrance exams right after undergrad can be a good move because the material will still be fresh in your mind. After a few years of working, you will have to spend more time preparing.

"You will find it much easier to process the data if you take the exams directly after you graduate because it is more closely related to the way in which you process data as an undergraduate student," Mitchell says.

"The most popular graduate program entrance exams (e.g. GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.) do not test your professional acumen like certifications (e.g. bar exam, CPA exam, etc.). They test an academic skill set, which includes reading comprehension, mathematical word problems, and general logic. Although data has proven that these types of questions are predictive of success within graduate programs, the thought processes are not generally utilized in real-world professional environments. In the professional world, you learn to process data much more quickly with more variables and less data. You are also confronted with more human interaction problems. As you spend more time in a professional environment, you retrain your brain to process information differently." Therefore, it is helpful to take entrance exams while you are still in the right frame of mind.

However, if you're going back to school in a different area than what you studied during undergrad, it might be wise to take some time to improve your GRE scores by studying or taking a prep course.

Figuring it Out

Clearly, there are many advantages and disadvantages to both sides of this tricky situation. According to Oleynik, here are a few things to consider before making your decision:

  • What most interests you? If you love to learn and desperately want to learn more, then you should go to graduate school immediately after undergrad. If you want to see what your given field is like first, then you should start working and then consider a graduate program.

  • How will a graduate program help you in the long run? Some fields don't require or need graduate studies in order to advance. Research that issue before making your decision. However, if you are going to grad school because you eventually want to teach, then go for it!

  • How much do you love your area of study? If you want to pursue an area that you don't have a passion for, then graduate school is a bad idea. It's very time consuming, and you have to be ready to make personal sacrifices.

  • What are the pros and cons for the particular program you are considering? Make a list, and include everything from the location to what graduates of the program are doing today.

  • Are you ready? Again, graduate school is a huge time and financial commitment. Unless you are ready or in a position to be able to make some major personal sacrifices, graduate school might not be the best decision. If school was something that you never enjoyed (but managed to get through anyhow), then graduate school is probably not for you.

Robert Kallick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice