Expert Tips to Help You Evaluate Graduate Degrees
Deciding on whether or not to enroll in a graduate degree program -- as well as choosing a specific field to study -- can be difficult. There are many factors that go into making this choice, not the least of which is how much people can earn when they graduate. The good news is, depending on the field, investing time and money into a graduate program is a solid idea financially: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who complete a master's degree earn an average weekly salary of $1,401—up from $1,173 for those with a bachelor’s. If they continue on to complete a doctoral degree, they can earn even more, as the agency reports these workers on average are commanding $1,743 weekly salaries.
In addition to information about salary and career paths, this guide provides a look at factors that go into the graduate school decision, as well as helpful resources to investigate graduate schools.
The ROI of a Graduate Degree
Since graduate degrees typically come with a high price tag, the return on investment simply can not be ignored. In this section, we explore how students can choose career paths to leverage their advanced degrees and earn higher salaries than they would if they ended their education on the undergraduate level.
|Career Path||Entry-level Job & Mean Annual Salary||Mid-career Job & Mean Annual Salary||Late-career Job & Mean Annual Salary|
|Information Technology||Web Developers:
|Computer and Information Research Scientists:
|High School Teachers:
|Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals:
|Health Care||Physical Therapist Aides:
|Legal||Paralegals and Legal Assistants:
|Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators:
One major motivator for attending graduate school is the ability to increase earning potential and eligibility for higher-level jobs. The chart below illustrates how increased education can lead to advanced job opportunities and salaries in different occupations. For example, those in the nursing field can begin their career as a registered nurse at $73,550 per year, and as they increase their education, they can become a nurse practitioner making $107,480 annually and then a nurse anesthetist earning $164,030. Similarly, health care workers with lower-level degrees can get entry-level positions like physical therapist aide, where they earn an average of $27,910 per year, and as they continue their education to the graduate level, they can move up to positions like exercise physiologist and physical therapist, where they can make annual salaries of $50,310 and $87,220 respectively.
Choosing the Right Graduate Program
How can a student know if a graduate program is the right choice for their needs and goals? Although every student is different, the following do’s and don’ts can assist students no matter what degree program, school, or occupation they’re considering.
- Do research professors and get to know them.
- When looking at graduate school programs, prospective students should investigate the areas of expertise of the faculty to determine if these topics align with their own interests. In addition, meeting the professors will give them an idea of how easy they are to work with and how much they’re willing to make themselves available to students. Since graduate students are required to work so closely with faculty, it’s important to find out if the relationship will be a positive and productive one.
- Do get to know students and alumni.
- Talking to professors is a good step toward finding out what it’s like to attend a school, but in order to get a fuller picture, a prospective student should also make an effort to speak to current students in a program, as well as alumni. These are the people who will share the realities of what it’s like to attend a school from a student’s perspective, and alumni can give a look at how completing the program impacted their job options.
- Do consider finances.
- Since graduate school is such a huge financial investment, students should consider how much the tuition costs at each school they’re thinking about, where the money to pay for it will come from, and what their earnings will realistically be after completing their degree. Finding scholarships and grants can help decrease the financial burden and help students lower their dependence on loans.
- Do think about the school’s behavior.
- When evaluating a particular school, students should think about how they have been treated during the application process. Was the program department welcoming or did they treat candidates like they were just a number? This is important because if the experience is bad before enrolling in a program, it is not likely to improve.
- Do compare schools.
- Doing a side-by-side comparison of schools can help students judge each one based on their merits and find the one that stacks up with what students really want. Making a spreadsheet and updating it throughout the process is an efficient way to keep track of important information about each school.
- Don’t make reputation the most important factor.
- Although many students believe that they have to attend a top-tier school in order to get the best bang for their tuition bucks, it’s only helpful if the school has programs that meet their career needs. Employers are more concerned about attracting job candidates that have the right training than they are about whether or not they attended a top school.
- Don’t forget culture.
- Is a program highly competitive or more casual? Are there activities on campus that people in a specific field can participate in? Although graduate school is not as socially-driven as undergraduate life, people should still think about the intangibles that will provide a good or bad experience during their time there.
- Don’t gloss over out-of-classroom requirements.
- For many students, graduate programs require much more than work inside of the classroom. Students should look at factors such as required research, labs, and internships in order to evaluate whether or not all of the program expectations can be incorporated into their lifestyle.
- Don’t forget outside responsibilities.
- People who have outside responsibilities like children and full-time jobs should really think through how much time they will have to devote to every aspect of their lives. Will job performance or home life suffer because of graduate school? Or will there not be enough time to get schoolwork done because of outside expectations? In order to get the most out of earning a graduate degree, students need to have balance.
- Don’t ignore intuition.
- Although following intuition is not the most logical way of choosing a graduate program, when students have an inherently bad feeling about a school, even though it sounds good on paper, this should not be ignored. Sometimes the subconscious mind is able to pick up on a problem before we are consciously aware of it, so people should keep in mind that they may be having these negative feelings for a reason.
Students can reap many benefits from attending graduate school—but only if they’re ready. People who are on the fence about whether or not it’s the right time to go back to school should ask themselves the following questions.
- Are you passionate about the field you want to study?
- Are you ready to be challenged academically?
- Will earning a graduate degree help you advance in your career?
- Will earning a graduate degree help you transition into a new career?
- Have you researched what graduate school is like?
- Have you done a cost-benefit analysis of a graduate degree to determine if it makes sense financially?
- Have you researched graduate school funding sources?
- Will going to graduate school increase your job prospects?
- Have you done everything to meet the prerequisites to get into the program you're interested in?
- Does your family support your decision to go back to school?
Expert Advice on Choosing a Program
Dr. Jacob Easley II
Dean of the Tuoro College Graduate School of Education
Dr. Louis Primavera
Dean of the Tuoro College School of Health Sciences
Director of Graduate Admissions at Barry University
- Are the programs offered by the colleges or universities well regarded? The answer to this question can be found by having discussions with professionals who work in that field. The student can talk to their professors and others who they might know who work in the profession of interest.
- How will they pay for the program? For example, do the programs of interest offer financial support? Full-time graduate work is often possible only if scholarships and/or assistantships are available. Making a proposed budget for the expenses the student can anticipate will help in deciding what financial support the student will need and where they can get that support. Discussions with financial aid personnel at the potential colleges or universities will often be helpful. This can be done, in-person, by phone and/or email.
- Does the program offer exactly what the student wants? Will it provide the qualifications to work in the field they are interested in? If the student is pursuing a degree that leads to professional licensure or certification, they must make sure that it will qualify for that licensure or certification in the place they plan to live after they complete their degree.
- If the student is going to consider a program that requires them to move, what housing and other living arrangements are available? Does the school offer dorms to graduate students? Is there a meal plan available? What is available to support quality of life while they are a student? Discussions with students currently attending will help in providing answers to these questions.
Additional Reading & Resources
Graduate school is a huge step, so those considering an advanced degree should get as much information as possible before making it. The following are some additional resources that prospective graduate students can use to understand exactly what they’re signing up for when they enroll in a grad school program.
- 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Paying For Grad School: In this article, Forbes warns people of the common financial mistakes that graduate students make.
- 5 Things You Need to Know About Graduate School: Students who want to go to graduate school can get an idea of what it’s like from this article from U.S. News & World Report.
- 7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School: This article provides a look at what graduate school is like by comparing undergraduate and graduate studies.
- 10 Working Parents Reveal How They Juggle It All: While this Glassdoor article provides advice for working parents who are juggling the office and their family life, graduate students with children can also use this advice to attain school-life balance.
- 50 Things Only Grad Students Will Understand: The life of a graduate student is discussed in this article.
- ABA Law Student Podcast: The American Bar Association’s Law Student Division provides insights about law school in this podcast. Topics such as using legal technology, coping with depression, and dealing with student loans are discussed.
- Admissions Straight Talk Podcast for Grad School Applicants: Those who are interested in attending graduate school can get pointers from this podcast.
- Hello PhD: This podcast gives a comprehensive look at what students should do before, during, and after a doctoral program.
- How to Apply to Graduate School: In this video, Carla Trujillo, Graduate Division Diversity Program Director at University of California, Berkeley, provides advice for hopeful graduate students going through the application process.
- Mentally Preparing for Graduate School: This article from Northeastern University is designed to help prospective graduate students mentally get ready for graduate school.
- Preparing for graduate school: The University of California offers advice to future graduate students on this page.
- Rock Your Research with Chris Jones: Doctoral students receive advice from past and current Ph.D. students in this podcast.
- Should I Go to Medical School? 7 Questions You Should Ask First: Those who are considering medical school can get some information to help them make their decision on this page.
- The 5 Virtues of Successful Graduate Students: The Chronicle of Higher Education describes the characteristics grad students need to be successful in this article.
- The degree debate: Should you get a master's or Ph.D.?: In this article, USA Today weighs the pros and cons of getting master’s and doctoral degrees.
- The Inside Scoop About Law School: This YouTube playlist on the LegalEagle channel includes information on getting into a prestigious law school and being successful once there.
- This is Grad School: In this podcast, two doctoral students talk about the realities of graduate school.
- Tips for Dealing with Stress: Attending graduate school can be a rewarding experience, but also a stressful one. In this article, Duke Graduate School offers advice on how to handle the stress that comes with being a grad student.
- Use These 5 Strategies to Pay for Graduate School: U.S. News & World Report outlines strategies for paying for graduate school in this article.
- What I Wish I Knew in Grad School: Current and Former Students Share 16 Tips: In this article, Psych Central Associate Editor Margarita Tartakovsky discusses the hard lessons she learned during her time in graduate school.