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Graduate School: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

By Tsion Tesfaye

If there’s one thing the recession has taught young adults, it’s that BA+MA does not necessarily equal employment. This doesn’t mean you should scrap plans for graduate school, but it does mean that you need to be more selective about which programs you choose.

A study conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce compared median earnings for graduate degree holders to median earnings for terminal bachelor degree holders across 15 academic disciplines. The study found that graduate degree holders earned an average of 38.3% more than those with only a bachelor’s degree. Last month, the National Association of Colleges and Employers published a salary survey of data they analyzed from 400,000 employers.  It found that in many fields, average starting salaries fluctuate by more than 20% between master’s and bachelor’s degrees.

Check out this chart from the survey:

MastersvsCollegeBut we all have the friend who went to grad school and left with lots of debt and no direction – particularly during the Great Recession.  The trick here is to be discerning about which graduate degrees to pursue, to compare the post-graduate employment rate among different schools, and to figure out which schools will open doors to the type of career that you want.  Universities who have a successful record of accomplishment for securing employment for students are eager and happy to share that information. There is no uniform way that schools display this information, so you have to dig a little for it. You can sometimes find information about employment and internship statistics by clicking the “prospective students” tab on a school’s website or searching through their career center’s website. Some states have a “council of higher education” website where statistics about graduate employment by university is consolidated.  You can find a list of state education departments here.  If this information is not readily available on the school’s website, give the school a call. Caveat: If this information is too difficult to find, consider it a red flag.

Before you begin browsing, ask yourself an important question:

What are my strengths?

This question’s a little different than asking,  “What do I want to do?”  Knowing what you want in a career is only half of the puzzle. What specific talents do you have to offer an employer after graduate school?

Take Suzie, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and thinks she should go to graduate school. She thinks she wants to work for a non-profit in the future. One summer, she helped a nature conservancy organization raise over $10,000, and really believes in this work.  However, Suzie’s parents have said from the time she was little, they always knew she’d be a lawyer. Suzie applies to law school.

Suzie is about to make a mistake because she is basing a major life decision on something her parents told her when she was 12.  Law school is expensive and the decision to attend should be based on a serious consideration of debt load, employment prospects, strengths and passion.  Better steps? Figure out which non-profit management programs employ their graduates successfully in the fields that Suzie is interested in, and which programs offer strong financial aid help.

The take-home? Evaluate your strengths and look carefully at what graduate programs have to offer. When done right, graduate school can be a very smart investment.