Should I Go to Grad School? Here’s What to Consider

Mandy Sleight picture
Mandy Sleight
Updated June 11, 2021

Whether you’ve graduated from undergrad or you’re close to it, the looming question likely on your mind is should I go to grad school? You should consider many factors when choosing whether grad school is right for you, including how you’ll pay for it and whether future earnings make it worthwhile. 

Here are four things to consider when thinking about going to grad school — and three reasons you should skip it:

First, How Much Will Grad School Cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost for tuition and fees for the 2016-2017 year (the most recent year for which data is available) was $18,416 to get a master’s degree in the U.S. Public school tuition and fees averaged $11,617 while private institutions' average cost was $24,712. 

The cost for a master’s degree doesn’t end with tuition and fees, however. There is also the cost of application fees for each institution you apply to. 

There is also the cost to take the GRE or GMAT exam, costing an average of $205 and $275, respectively. Test prep to prepare for entrance exams could also cost $100 or more, depending on the course and study materials.

Should I Go to Grad School?

The choice of whether to go to grad school and if you should go right after undergrad is not one to make lightly. Given the cost of grad school and the time commitment, you should weigh your options carefully before making a decision. 

Consider some of these factors when determining if you should go to grad school and when:

  • Greater earning potential.
    The amount you could earn from a bachelor’s to master’s degree varies by your major and employment, but data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states the average weekly earnings with a bachelor’s is $1,248 and a master’s is $1,497. This difference amounts to almost $13,000 more per year, which may make it worthwhile to pursue a master’s degree.
  • School choice matters.
    With concern over grad school costs, some may choose cheaper schools to save on tuition and fees. However, data suggests graduating from certain schools may provide higher salaries. For example, an MBA program graduate from Duke University makes an average annual salary of $135,397 while a Stanford University graduate can make an average of $159,544.
  • Can you afford it?
    How will you pay for grad school? Education is an investment, but if you can’t afford it without going into debt, it might not be the best choice. If your employer is willing to pay for grad school or you are eligible for tuition reimbursement, it might be a worthwhile investment, especially if it will lead to advancement in the workplace.
  • Does your field warrant an advanced degree?
    Depending on what you want to do as a career, you may not need or get the ROI from a master’s degree. Business, education, healthcare, social service, and STEM careers typically pay better with a master’s degree than a bachelor’s. But computer network architects, systems software developers, airline pilots and copilots, and petroleum engineers only require a bachelor’s degree to earn a median salary of $100,000, according to BLS data.

Will you earn more? 

Data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) shows that the higher your level of education, the more you’re likely to earn over a lifetime.

Type of Degree Lifetime Earnings
Less than high school$885,000
High School$1.06 million
Some College$1.37 million
Bachelor’s $1.76 million
Graduate degree $2.19 million

Top 5 Occupations, Master’s Degree

Here are some of the top earning careers with master’s degrees, according to BLS data:

OccupationAverage Salary
Chief Executive Officer (Master’s in Business Administration) $197,840 
Nurse Anesthetists (Master’s in Nursing Anesthesia)$189,190
Financial Manager (Master’s in Finance)$134,180
Information Researcher (Master’s in Information Technology)$126,830
Software Engineer (Master’s in Software Engineering)$110,140

Top 5 Occupations, Doctoral Degree 

Here are some of the top earning careers with a PhD, according to BLS and Payscale data:

OccupationAverage Salary
Physicist (Physics PhD)$128,950
Computer Science Researcher (Computer science PhD)$126,830
Nurse Practitioner (Nursing PhD)$117,670
Economist (Economics PhD)$108,350
Senior Research Scientist in Biotechnology (Immunology PhD)$106,784

Best Outlooks for Grad School Jobs

BLS and Payscale data show the following careers with a master’s in computer science pay the most:

Computer ScienceAverage Salary
Software architect$125,328
Software developer$107,510
UNIX system administrator$103,273
Security engineer$99,834
DevOps engineer$99,604

U.S. News & World Report put together a list of the best healthcare professions, and here are the highest paying jobs:

MedicineAverage annual salary
Oral and maxillofacial surgeon$208,000

3 Reasons You Should Consider Skipping Grad School

Grad school is not for everyone, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of getting a master’s degree before committing. Here are three reasons you should consider skipping grad school:

1. Your degree has a low return on investment.

It will take time and money to complete your master’s degree, and you may miss out on much-needed income if you decide to go full-time rather than work while going to grad school. 

If the costs outweigh your return on investment, or it won’t make much difference if you keep your bachelor’s or get a master’s, it may not be worth going to grad school.

2. Your professional field doesn’t require a master’s. 

If your chosen career field requires a master’s degree to get a promotion or a raise, it might make sense to pursue grad school. But if you don’t need the degree to move up or further your career, it probably isn’t worth it to attend grad school.

3. The loans are too overwhelming.

For many students pursuing a master’s degree, student loans are a fact of life. According to data from the NCES, 60% of master’s degree graduates have student loan debt. Though some MBA programs are more affordable than others, 51% of MBA graduates incur debt from student loans. Depending on the type of master’s degree, cumulative student loan debt is between $55,200 and $75,100.

In a recent survey of older millennials who took out student loan debt, the average amount was $21,880. If you have to take out student loans, and it seems overwhelming to pay them off, grad school may not be worth it.

There is no perfect time to apply to grad school, which is why some undergraduates don’t go right after graduation. With an average cost of $18,416 for a master’s degree, plus the cost for application fees, the GRE or GMAT, and lost income if you don’t work while going to grad school, only you can determine if graduate school is worth the cost. 

Tuition reimbursement, future promotions, and higher earning potential may be factors that make grad school a worthwhile commitment of your time and money.

Answering your questions about going to grad school 

How can I calculate grad school ROI? 

The best way to calculate grad school ROI is to weigh the costs of attending, including interest if you are taking out student loans, compared to your future lifetime earnings potential with a graduate degree. 

Consider the lost earnings (and retirement plan contributions) if you go to school full-time as well as the time commitment for your chosen grad school program to determine if the return on investment makes graduate school worth the cost.

Is going to grad school worth it?

Only you can decide whether grad school is worth it. Consider all the costs required throughout the entire program and if it makes sense to leave the workforce during that time. 

If you can earn more than it will cost, it may be worth it to pursue a master’s degree. But if it has a low return on investment or your chosen career path doesn’t require it, going to grad school may not be worth it.

Should you go to grad school right after college? 

Whether you should go to graduate school right after undergrad is another choice you will have to make for yourself. Some people are disciplined enough to take a break and then return to grad school while others need to move from undergrad directly to graduate school or they won’t go back. 

If the cost of grad school is a concern, it may be a good idea to work and save to pay your tuition or find an employer who will pay for you to go to grad school or has tuition reimbursement.

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