3 Things to Consider Before Entering Grad School

Consider these three things when you ask yourself, "Should I get a master's degree?"

As I write this, the other document open on my computer is my 51-page master’s thesis, the culmination of four years of part-time study that I pursued at the same time as I held down a full-time job, got married, bought a house, and welcomed my first child into the world. Soon, I will graduate with my degree. 

I remember graduating undergrad feeling a desire to find long-term stability. It can be exciting to step off the dais with your degree in hand to face a future without restrictions, but I wanted my feet firmly planted someplace. When I was offered the opportunity for funded, part-time study that allowed professional aspirations to unfold simultaneously, I accepted without thinking twice.

Now that I’m near the end of that four-year journey, there are a few other perspectives I would have been well-served to consider. When I find a time machine, these are the questions I’ll go back to ask my undergrad self. 

1. Why do you want to pursue a master’s degree?

What do you hope to achieve by obtaining your master’s degree? Is this what you want, or are you striving to meet someone else’s expectations for you? Are you unsure about your career path and hoping a masters program will buy you time for discernment while opening some new doors? How will a graduate degree change your future? Perhaps you want to be eligible for a promotion in your field, or maybe you want to excel in your current career path. Perhaps the area of study is personally fulfilling. Take some time to identify what you actually hope to get out of earning your degree. 

For me, graduate school was a way to find a stable occupation — being a student — while I tried out a couple of jobs and explored long-term professional goals. The promise of a degree also provided credentials to boost my resume. Given the part-time nature of my study, it felt like a low-risk, high-reward opportunity, and I’m glad I did it, but it would have been better had I made an intentional choice.

2. Can you achieve that goal in other ways?

Sometimes, having a degree does not matter as much as other assets you might bring to a career path. You may be able to land a job in other ways, such as overall experience, specific skill sets, or personal connections. 

Volunteering, for example, is one way to gain experience, explore a field, and expand skills — and to do so in a way that benefits others. Your current employer may even allow (or encourage) volunteer opportunities, either in direct service or by offering your time and professional skills to an organization serving those in need. 

Volunteering has helped me grow professional experience and connections. It has also helped me build my resume while I figured out “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” It gave me an unexpected opportunity to discover that I felt excited about graphic design and marketing, a field I hadn’t pursued with my undergraduate education. 

Professional development is another way to obtain knowledge required for a job without necessarily paying the time and money needed for a graduate degree. Without formal study in graphic design, I relied on free trainings accessible online through my local library to round my knowledge of design principles and how to use design programs. I do enjoy my area of study for the degree I’m earning, but I do not need a graduate program to read, write, and discuss an area of interest. You do not need to be in a classroom to learn. Podcasts, articles, video tutorials — there are a plethora of ways you can teach yourself new skills necessary for your career aspiration. 

Lastly, surround yourself with experts in your field. Networking can help you collaborate on ideas, ask questions, and stay current with best practices. Community-based professional networks, social media groups — there are many ways to interact with those who can help you excel. And your contacts may even open a door to your next job.

3. What is the cost of obtaining a master’s degree?

There will always be a graduate school out there willing to enroll you. But it can come at a cost.

While in the program, you need to make ends meet by finding a job or taking out loans. If you take out loans, the cost of tuition is not the total cost you will pay: interest will build and compound, increasing your investment. After you graduate, living with the monthly payments imposes a lasting cost as well, one that may impact life far into the future. If the job you obtain by having a degree can be reached in other ways, that could be an unnecessary cost. 

When I finished my undergraduate degree, I thought I had to look at my options in life and choose “all the above” — both part-time graduate study and full-time work. Even if your employer contributes to your education, or if you are offered funding, investing in a graduate program involves an opportunity cost. Because of the demands of work, school, and eventually family, I had to say “no” frequently: No to outings with friends. No to doing home repairs myself, and paying to have things done instead. No to taking long runs on a regular basis. No to last-minute weekend camping trips. No to freelancing gigs, networking opportunities, and professional development. My free time was limited.

So, what do you actually want to do with your life? Ask yourself if graduate study — especially the monetary and opportunity costs — fit with your lifestyle expectations.

Don’t forget to trust God

Facing a decision like graduate school is a process of discernment — of gathering insights and perspectives and making a judgment. Some of that data comes from human sources, and some comes from the divine speaking within us. 

Consider reaching out to professors you know or to those already employed in your intended field. If you do not have existing contacts, it can be nerve-wracking to put yourself out there and make a cold-call to talk about someone’s job, but a brief introduction and simple request to chat could have a high payoff. Ask what skill sets they use on the job, and what they did to attain them. What do they look for in an employee or colleague? To what extent does a degree matter to them? 

Pay attention to yourself in these conversations. Do they drain you? Do you leave energized? These insights and reactions can signal how an opportunity might be touching your deepest desires. 

Finally, don’t leave God out of the conversation. Remember to spend time in prayer and trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. We all have a calling — a unique way God is calling us to participate in His work in the world. As St. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission.” 

God’s will for our lives unfolds in a more complicated way than a plan we can document, but investing time and energy into discernment can illuminate our deep desires and lead us more directly to that will. That requires prayer and reflection, which will clarify your insights and movements of your heart. 

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