Thinking about an advanced degree

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Thinking about returning to school to pursue a master’s degree or even a doctorate? While an advanced degree has the potential to improve earnings, it won’t necessarily guarantee a big impact on a career trajectory or salary prospects.

Is an advanced degree your next move?

Before committing to a graduate school program, consider investing time in some independent research. Ask questions of yourself to determine your motivation and goals, and then start looking into the career paths and programs that interest you. Graduate school involves a significant commitment of time, energy and money, so it’s not a decision to make lightly.

Take a personal inventory

If considering grad school, one of the biggest questions to ask yourself is, “why?” What will an advanced degree provide? It may be necessary for career advancement or a complete career change. It may be to increase your earning capacity. Or, it may offer an opportunity for in-depth exploration of subject, including access to advanced tools or research, that expand your scope of knowledge.

While there isn’t a single correct answer to why, some answers may give you pause. For instance, using grad school to postpone career decisions or attending because others expect it may not be enough to set you up for success. It’s important to know how an advanced degree will fit into your career plans before assuming the associated expenses and demands.

And speaking of expenses, ask yourself how you’ll finance the experience. If planning to attend full time, think about how you’ll cover tuition while coping with the loss of income from a full-time job. If taking out student loans, consider how borrowing will add to any existing debt load.

If full-time costs are an issue, explore options to attend part-time while working, but be sure to adjust your timeframe for completing your degree. Alternatively, if the degree would be valuable to a current employer, investigate any available tuition reimbursement programs to ease the burden.

Finally, consider how long it will take you to recoup your expenses and begin earning a positive return on your investment. If debt will take decades to repay and the thought fills you with anxiety, it may be wise to review other options for getting ahead.

Research grad school and career options

Once you know what you want out of grad school and have an idea of your career path, start researching programs to find the right fit. You will want to be specific about the area of study to pursue, as well as the jobs for which you will gain qualifications and experience.

Consider talking to individuals in your chosen field of study. You may find that work experience trumps an advanced degree, and ample opportunities may be open to you without that extra piece of paper. If a degree is required, however, this is a chance to gain insight to what individuals found valuable about their grad school programs and to learn which programs have solid reputations for your line of work.

As the options narrow, do some digging on your schools of choice. Read online reviews, ask for student survey results, inquire about opportunities to observe classrooms, and investigate how programs will fit into your life – if you’re working while attending, online coursework could be a lifesaver. And, of course, get the lowdown on the application process, from required forms and exams to important deadlines and logistics.

Set realistic expectations

As you wrap your head around returning to school, whether it’s after a brief spell or a decades-long absence, set some realistic goals for yourself. Build in extra time to complete your degree, especially if your priorities and family life have shifted since your first go-around. By charting a clear path, you’ll have a better chance of staying focused and coming away with the education and opportunities you crave.