Americans are more educated now than they have ever been. In 2018, 21 percent held a master’s degree, with 3.2 percent completing a professional degree and 4.5 percent finishing doctoral studies. That’s a graduate school completion rate that has doubled since 2000.
Graduate degrees offer better opportunities for career growth and increased earning potential. Even in entry-level positions, graduate school increases average salaries. A class of 2019 new hire with a bachelor’s degree in business administration can expect average earnings of $57,133. With a master of business administration (MBA), that figure soars to $84,580. If you think grad school is the right move for your career, the following questions can help you select the right program while maximizing earning potential and minimizing stress.
What do I want to do?
One in five Americans leave their jobs because of a toxic workplace. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has even argued that abusive jobs are a leading cause of illness and death. If you’re stressed or overwhelmed at work, you may be desperate for a path out. That can lead to impulsive decision-making. Don’t fall in love with the first master’s program you find. Dig deeply to assess what you want to do next.
Even if you love your current job, it’s important to think critically about your next step. There may be a degree path that allows you to stay in the role you enjoy while learning more and opening doors to future advancement.
As you contemplate what you want to do, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What jobs do I think I would enjoy?
- Which tasks do I like most and least in my current job?
- Will the program I am considering enable me to pursue the career I want?
- When I envision the life of my dreams, what does it look like? What am I doing?
- How much money do I need to make to feel secure? Will the degree I am considering make it easier to attain that salary?
- What specific factors motivate my desire for a new career? Will the job I have in mind meet my expectations, and how do I know?
- Would a graduate program help me earn more at my current job? What has the career trajectory been for other employees with advanced degrees?
Will I enjoy the schoolwork?
Endless studying, late nights spent on homework, and challenging lectures can be stressful. They can also be fun. The right program engages your brain in meaningful ways, encouraging you to think about the world’s problems and envision yourself as part of the solution. You might not always relish homework or challenging projects, but you should be able to see value in the work you do.
If you hate every second of school, it’s going to be more difficult to motivate yourself to do the work. And if the work includes a megadose of material you hate, you may find yourself burned out before you embark on your new career.
Make sure you understand the work the program requires. Some important questions to ask include:
- What sort of assignments will I be doing? Essays? Presentations? Group projects?
- What specific classes must I take? Do I find the topics of these classes interesting?
- Would I be interested in learning about these topics even if they weren’t degree requirements?
- What is easiest and hardest about school for me? Does this program present work in a way that works with my learning style? Or will I spend most of my time doing things that frustrate me?
What do I need to do to enroll, and how long will it take?
Enrolling in grad school can take time. You may need to take admission tests like the GRE or GMAT, fill out detailed applications, gather recommendation letters, answer essay questions, and more. Rather than developing a vague notion of what enrolling might look like, gather a list of the admission requirements from each school you are considering. Put important deadlines in your calendar, and plan ahead. It may take time to find the documents you need, apply to take standardized tests, and fill out paperwork. Don’t rush things, because doing so may mean you get rejected on your first attempt.
If you’re in a hurry to start school, you may want to compare application and enrollment timelines. If two schools offer equally good programs, consider choosing the program that makes it easier to apply and start classes. We each only have a limited number of days in our life, so the sooner you can get on the path to the future you desire, the better.
Does the school have a quality program?
A degree is not just a piece of paper. It’s evidence that you have a specialized set of skills sharpened through hard work and challenging courses. So don’t just choose the fastest or most convenient route. Select a school that offers exceptional courses with industry leaders. Ask to see syllabuses for several classes, then weigh whether the material is likely to serve you well in your future career.
Some other questions to ask include:
- What do recent graduates say about the program?
- Do you know people in your chosen field who attended this school?
- Is the program accredited? What is the leading accrediting body in my field of study?
- Who teaches the classes? What training and skills do they have?
- What does the school do to ensure students are well-prepared for the working world?
- Are professors accessible and eager to help?
- Does the school offer resources to support struggling students? What about enrichment opportunities for students who want to learn more about their chosen industry?
What is the school’s industry reputation?
A rigorous program isn’t enough. Choose a school that industry leaders already know and respect. The best schools actively nurture relationships in fields related to the degree program, because doing so can help students excel in their careers. Some questions to help you understand how well-respected the program is include:
- Do local businesses regularly hire students from this program?
- What does the school do to cultivate relationships with employers?
- Have any luminaries in the field graduated from this school?
- Can you get internships or summer jobs at companies with which the school has strong relationships?
- Does the career services office offer quality advice based on current norms and standards?
What are my employment prospects?
You could probably find dozens of degree programs that would stimulate your mind. Ultimately, however, most people return to school because they need a better job. Don’t focus on how intriguing the classes seem without considering how and whether they prepare you for the future. Ask pointed questions about post-graduation employment, including:
- What percentage of students are employed within six months of graduating?
- What percentage of students are employed in their chosen field?
- What is the average salary of a recent graduate in this program?
- Have I chosen a degree that prepares me for a growing field? Or is the industry in decline?
How much will it cost, and what aid am I eligible for?
A degree is an investment in your future. Like any investment, however, it’s only possible if you can come up with the money. Ask about the school’s estimated cost of attendance—tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Then explore any additional expenses specific to your situation—childcare, transportation, lost wages from taking time off of work, or paying for grocery delivery and other time-saving services.
Almost all students are eligible for some form of financial aid. At SNU, we are committed to helping every attendee fund the costs of their studies. Our Financial Aid Office can help you find grants and scholarships you might not have even realized you were eligible for. We’ll work with you to understand the cost of any loans you choose. We can even help you fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
What is my expected return on investment?
Get the most out of your education by looking at the total value of the program—not just its cost. Degrees that offer a chance at higher earnings in growing fields are worth more than those that offer more modest earnings. One way to look at the return on your educational investment is to consider how many years it might take for your earnings to offset the total expense of going to school. If the average employee in your chosen career will quickly earn more than the total cost of going to school, then you’ve chosen a sound option.
Does the school offer flexible scheduling that accommodates my lifestyle?
Returning to school as an adult demands some flexibility. You may have kids who need you, a job to worry about, and endless responsibilities on top of that. Schools that cater to adult learners tend to offer better options for the demanding schedules of people in the working world. At SNU, students can learn on their own schedule and terms via our exceptional online classes. We think that your extracurricular commitments are valuable and that your experiences in the real world enable you to bring insight and wisdom to your coursework. (They may even earn you 30 hours of college credit.) We help you integrate school into your life rather than demand that classes disrupt everything you’re already doing. Contact us to learn more about how we support returning students.