Graduate School: Should You Enroll?

graduate school

By Hillary C. Wright

When my friend and fellow student at Campbellsville University Emily Stivers graduated with her bachelor’s degree, she had no doubt in her mind of the next step: obtaining a master’s degree. “I knew it would be really beneficial for me to get additional schooling,” Emily said. “There are a lot of jokes about English majors having trouble getting jobs that relate to their fields, and I have seen firsthand that some of those jokes are all too accurate.” Emily was an English major, but had decided that it alone was not sufficient education. “At the beginning of my last semester at Campbellsville,” Emily said, “I realized that I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I applied to the University of Kentucky and got into their Library Science program.” After working a couple of part-time jobs during the first part of grad school, Emily was able to secure a job as a user experience librarian at Spalding University in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. “Being able to complete courses online and work full-time really helped me out financially and I didn’t have to worry about taking out loans, [and] I already had some sense of job security before I graduated, which was a huge blessing,” she said.

Graduating the same day as Emily in 2010, I, too, faced the inevitable question of attending graduate school. Many of my friends like Emily were working and getting their master’s degrees and I almost instantaneously became envious of their educational conquests. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree was a milestone, but I felt I could accomplish more. “MBA” would look great after my name, I thought, or a master’s degree in communications would make my resume stand out from the crowd, helping me land my dream job. I met with my professors to discuss prospects. I researched several schools with interesting graduate programs. Yet, after all of that, I had decided to wait and try to begin a career in public relations or journalism.

A few years later, here I am working as a legal assistant at a law firm while also freelance writing, and the question is puzzling me again. Nevertheless, this time I was prepared with what to consider. What kind of master’s degree would I get? How would I pay for it? Emily’s experience and others alike had inspired me, but grad school is a investment that requires tremendous thought before a decision is made, one that only offers the hope of boosting a career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of someone with a master’s degree is $243 more than someone with a bachelor’s degree. But is it really worth it?

Kathy Caprino, president and founder of Ellia Communications, who also writes a blog for Forbes magazine online called “Career Bliss,” and leads The Amazing Career Project*, a career coaching program, said that going to grad school is not necessarily the right decision in all cases. “I’ve seen people earn a master’s degree thinking they wanted a certain change in their career, only to find that, had they done thorough research before going to grad school, they would’ve realized the whole direction wasn’t in their best interest.” Caprino advised that you should figure out what you want. “You must gain clarity on where you are now and where you want to go, including your values, needs, standards of integrity and the passions and talents you want to draw on as you move forward in your life and career,” a step she says many fail to take, with repercussions to follow. My ultimate dream job is to become editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine, and later teach journalism and English at the university level. (I know—it’s a bit much.) While I may be able to substitute experience in place of grad school in the first part, I can’t ignore it with the latter.

Caprino also recommends conducting extensive research to see if grad school would help to reach my goals, something I did a lot of. “Find people who are successful in the field and understand their trajectories—how they got there.” This is where networking has been important and having a LinkedIn account has been essential. I have connected with several people in my field that I met while in college and also on LinkedIn who have provided me with insight into their career paths.

One of the main reasons for me being hesitant to go after another degree is an obvious one—the cost. I had already amassed thousands of dollars in student loans that I couldn’t imagine taking on any more. The Project on Student Debt, an independent nonprofit aimed at making higher education more affordable, released a report in late 2012 showing the average student loan debt to be $26,600, just slightly under the amount of the loans I took out for my undergrad studies. The two exemplary programs that I was interested in would both set me back around $22,000 in additional loans, only increasing my burden. I was also uneasy about the time and dedication it would take to complete that coveted extension of my education and whether or not it would actually further my career. I would be studying and writing papers almost non-stop, trying to work around my crammed work schedule while trying to fit in a social and personal life.

While graduate school and beyond is obviously mandatory in the areas of medicine, law, politics and education, other professions may have employers that may prefer master’s degrees, and others generally just require a bachelor’s. After many weeks of observation and investigation, I came to the conclusion that in many cases, experience can trump any education beyond a bachelor’s degree. So the impossible question remains, but this time, I am confident to say, “Not now.” Perhaps in the future and perhaps not. Either way, it will be on my own terms.

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*For more information on The Amazing Career Project, visit www.amazingcareerproject.com or www.elliacommunications.com .

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About Hillary

HilaryHillary C. Wright is a legal assistant at a law firm in Lebanon, Kentucky. She is also a freelance writer whose work has been seen in local and area newspapers and on online publications including Glass Heel and Career Girl Network. She enjoys writing about women, gender and millennial issues as well as hard news stories. Email her at hcamillewright@gmail.com, connect with her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter @HillaryCWright.

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