When considering whether to attend graduate school, it’s wise to reflect on your reasons for continuing your education and to think critically about whether they justify pursuing an advanced degree, experts say.
“Be skeptical of your own motivations and desires,” recommends Chris Cornthwaite, who created Roostervane, a career website, after completing a Ph.D. degree in religious studies that he felt he could not use.
Grad school requires a significant investment of time and money, and opportunity costs are frequently involved, such as wages lost by leaving the workforce to study. That’s why potential grad students should be clear on their purpose for enrolling, according to experts.
Cornthwaite encourages potential grad students to question prevalent cultural assumptions about colleges and universities. “A lot of people are so socialized to believe that grad school is the thing to do if you’re smart and then that being a professor is the thing that you do that will make you uniquely happy,” he says.
Joy Williamson-Lott, dean of the University of Washington Graduate School, says that although “some people deride the life of the mind,” there is merit in the intellectual exploration that occurs at the graduate level. Unlike college students, who focus primarily on absorbing information that is already available, grad students typically conduct research and contribute to knowledge within their field, Williamson-Lott adds.
“Graduate education ensures that the United States, and the individuals in it, remain competitive in today’s knowledge-based economy,” she says.
Here is an overview of some of the best and worst reasons for attending grad school, according to experts.
The Worst Reasons
A Desire to Continue the College Experience
People who enjoyed their bachelor’s program sometimes incorrectly assume that a graduate program will be similar, experts say.
“A poor reason for someone to choose graduate education is because they loved undergrad and they want to continue being a consumer, rather than a generator, of knowledge,” Williamson-Lott warns.
School Is Where You’re Most Comfortable
Academic high-achievers often reflexively head to graduate school, since they feel confident in an academic environment, says Jennifer Polk, founder of the career coaching firm From PhD to Life, which caters to Ph.D. students and alumni. “This is the environment where you were praised and where you fit in so you’ll keep going, (but) that’s not a great reason,” she says.
College professors sometimes encourage their top students to pursue graduate degrees. But students shouldn’t assume that grad school would be a good fit for them simply because of the endorsement of a mentor, even if that mentor is someone they admire, Polk adds.
Dissatisfaction With Your Job Prospects
Someone who is unemployed or unhappy at work should not head to grad school simply as a means to escape that predicament, says Mike Nietzel, president emeritus at Missouri State University.
“They are likely to take on more debt and they may not have a clear enough path where that additional investment in graduate school is going to pay off,” he says.
Grad school should not be used solely for career exploration, and it’s not a viable tactic for postponing major life choices, experts warn. Getting a grad degree is “a really expensive way to figure out what you want to do or to delay getting a real job,” Williamson-Lott says.
A Guarantee You’ll Advance at Work
Although a grad-level credential is beneficial or mandatory in some fields, grad degrees don’t always lead to advancement within the workplace, experts emphasize.
A master’s degree was once a common steppingstone up the corporate ladder, but it doesn’t have the same cache it once did in many industries because of the heavy emphasis on work experience and hands-on skills, says Liz Ryan, CEO of Human Workplace, a human resources consulting firm. It is often harder to enter the HR industry through a high-level position versus a lower-level role, Ryan says.
“Getting a (master’s) degree in HR on top of no HR experience would almost be like the worst career choice you could make,” she says.
The Best Reasons
Commitment to a Field Where a Grad Degree Is Useful
“There are certain professions (and) certain occupations where the entry-level credential is not a baccalaureate degree but a graduate degree,” says Nietzel. “For individuals who are convinced and determined that this is what they want to do, not only is graduate school a good choice, it’s a necessary choice for them to pursue.”
That’s true in the U.S. for doctors, lawyers and many other professions. Most professional researchers have doctorate degrees in their fields as well.
An Interest in Scholarly Innovation or Service
Prospective grad students may intend to make some kind of original contribution to society or to serve a worthy cause through their research activity, Williamson-Lott says.
For example, she says, a recent graduate of a developmental psychology doctoral program felt compelled to conduct research on “the relationship between emotions and mental health” after the suicide of a friend.
The conviction that it’s essential to find the answer to an academic question can be a worthwhile rationale for grad school if “something moves you and something has impacted you in some way, and you want to make sense of it,” Williamson-Lott says.
Marketability in Your Field
If you lack a graduate credential that employers within your industry frequently describe as either a plus or a requirement in job ads, or if you need to gain new skills to switch industries, then grad school could be a great call, experts say.
Having more career options means that a person is more likely to find a job that’s satisfying both personally and financially, Williamson-Lott says. “It is about money, but it’s also about autonomy and freedom.”