Whether you’re looking to start a new career or jump start your current one, chances are you’ve considered going back to school. But depending on the industry you work in and what you’re looking to get out of an advanced degree, that may or may not be the right course of action.
If you’re on the fence about going back to school, we’ll help you work through the decision. Here are some important things to consider before making your choice.
Questions to consider before going back to school
Going back to school isn’t a decision you should take lightly – especially since it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Here are some important questions to ask yourself beforehand.
Why do I want to go back to school?
Before you start filling out grad school applications, you should know exactly why you’re going back to school and what you think grad school will accomplish.
Make a list of qualities you want in a career and reference that list when talking to professionals in the industry you’re considering. For example, what kind of hours do you want to work? Do you need flexibility in your schedule? Are you comfortable traveling frequently?
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, or if you just graduated with a bachelor’s degree, you should probably spend some time in the workforce before going back to school. Having a few years of real-world experience will give you a better sense of what you really want in a job.
Do I need a full degree?
In some cases, you don’t need an entirely new degree to switch careers. You may be able to get by with a professional certificate or just a handful of classes. If you’re trying to start your own business, then learning from and networking with professionals at conferences may be a better use of money than going back to school.
Find a mentor with your dream job and ask them what kind of education you need. You should ideally find a hiring manager, because they can share what they look for in a prospective candidate.
How much will it cost?
Going back to school usually isn’t cheap, unless you have an employer who is willing to pay for your expenses. Once you know what kind of degree you’ll need, you can start comparing total costs.
If you do plan to keep working, ask your employer if they’d be willing to pay for some of your classes. Some may offer full tuition reimbursement, while others will help you pay for textbooks.
If you’re older, you may be reluctant to move for graduate school. Look around your area to see what programs are available. If you can’t find any local programs, research the best online or virtual options.
If you don’t have a related undergraduate degree, you may need to take some prerequisite classes to qualify for graduate school. Factor those classes in when calculating the total cost.
If you’re going to quit your job to attend grad school full-time, you’ll need a way to pay for living expenses. Graduate students are still eligible for federal student loans, but interest rates are generally higher. Graduate students are also less likely to qualify for grants, but may still qualify for scholarships.
Some graduate students can get an assistantship, which will cover part of their tuition. However, if you’re still working part-time or full-time, then you may not have the bandwidth to take on a teaching assistant gig.
For specific careers, you may be able to find programs that will cover your tuition. For example, Teach for America provides its alumni funds that they can put toward their graduate degree.
How much will my salary increase?
If you’re taking out loans to pay for school, you should know if your future salary will be able to support that debt load. First, use the official loan simulator from the federal government to figure out what your student loan payments will look like after you graduate.
Then, compare that payment with the average entry-level salary for your future job to see if you’ll be able to pay back those loans. Use sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.com to see what the average salary is for an entry-level position.
Make sure to look at salaries for your specific city and state, if possible. States like California and New York will have higher starting salaries than states like Iowa or Kentucky. You should also talk to real professionals, who can tell you if those average figures are off the mark.
Do I need a graduate degree to advance in the workplace?
A graduate degree is necessary for promotion in some industries, but not in others. For example, if you’re a software engineer, getting a graduate degree won’t help you as much.
Again, talk to your boss or other professionals and ask if going back to school will help you get promoted.
Talk to other people in the industry
One of the best ways to gain information about a possible career switch is to talk to people who are working in the industry you want to be in. They can tell you if you’re making the right choice and can point out aspects about the job that you wouldn’t have considered.
For example, the average salary for your profession might be heavily swayed by those who work 60 hours a week. If you want to only work 40 hours a week, your salary may be lower than you realize.
If you don’t know any real people you can ask, make a post on a related forum on Reddit. For example, if you want to become a physical therapist, visit the physical therapist subreddit and see what users have to say about the industry. They may be able to explain if it’s hard to get a job right now and what the job security is.