Grad school can be a great career advancer for some, but it's not the answer for everyone. Here's how to know if graduate programs are worth it.

My parents both have graduate degrees. My husband’s parents both have graduate degrees. At some point, I assumed I would earn a graduate degree.

I turn 30 this year, and I still have no intention of going to grad school.

Whether we can’t afford to go back to school—or an advanced degree just isn’t as valuable as it used to be—graduate school enrollment is starting to dip among millennials.

In my case I realized the cost of a degree would far outweigh the salary increase I would gain, but that’s not true for everyone. Despite a slowing enrollment trend, graduate school is absolutely a great opportunity for many industries and professions.

If you need help deciding whether or not to go back to school, read ahead for a simple breakdown.

The benefits of grad school

Most people go back to grad school for a simple reason – a master’s degree is often the key to a higher salary. For others, it’s the chance to step into management and expand their role.

But a large portion of the population goes back to grad school because they’re unfulfilled in their current role and want to try something different. Grad school gives them the chance to pursue what they’re really passionate about and earn an advanced degree in the process.

When grad school is right for you

When you have financial help

About 60 percent of employers provide tuition assistance for workers who attend grad school. Tuition reimbursement reduces turnover and increases productivity.

Tuition assistance programs vary with each employer, just like 401k matching programs. Companies can pay for as much as an entire degree or as little as one class a semester.

Ask your HR department if they offer a tuition program and what you need to qualify. Each firm has their own eligibility requirements, which will usually include a minimum amount of hours worked. Some ask that you get a degree in a field related to your current job. My old employer offered tuition reimbursement to employees who had a 3.0 GPA or higher.

You should also apply for scholarships, grants and financial aid. You might qualify for a full ride depending on your salary.

When there’s a guaranteed raise

Some jobs automatically provide salary increases to employees who earn a graduate degree. For example, many teachers go back to school because they can get a higher salary with a Master’s degree.

On average, teachers with a Master’s can earn $7,000 more than those only with an undergraduate education. Some school districts also offer stipends or grants to help fund a teacher’s education. This is usually only typical with unionized positions, so ask your boss if an advanced degree will get you a raise.

When grad school is a bad idea

When it’s an expensive decision

Following your dreams is a noble goal, but not at the expense of your financial future. Grad school costs between $30,000 and $40,000 a year on average, depending on what kind of university you choose.

Since the average current undergraduate has more than $30,000 in student loans, going back to school can lead to double the debt load.

When it’s not necessary for your career

When I was a newspaper reporter, only a few of my colleagues had Master’s degrees. I envied the extra piece of paper they had on their walls, though I knew I would never go back to school to get a Master’s in journalism.

Journalists don’t get better jobs because they’re educated. They get better opportunities because they’ve proven their work in the field by breaking stories, winning awards and providing solid content to their readers.

While some graduate schools provide students with lots of valuable networking opportunities, they’re often not necessary to further your career.

What to do instead

If you aren’t sure if grad school is right for you, there are other options you can explore.

Find an internship

Getting work experience can be a decent substitute for grad school, especially since it doesn’t cost anything. If possible, look for a paid internship so you won’t rely on credit cards to pay your way.

Take on more responsibilities at work

When I was working at a nonprofit, I primarily handled all the marketing and communications tasks. After a couple years I wanted to do something different, so I asked my boss if he could teach me how to write grants. It was a win-win. The organization got someone else to help with grant writing, and I learned a valuable skill.

If I wanted to pursue a career in the nonprofit world, I didn’t have to go back to school. I could have just learned on the job for free, with solid mentors to guide the way.

Look for alternative opportunities

You don’t have to go to grad school in order to get an education. For example, software companies often offer 10-week bootcamps that teach aspiring developers the latest software language.

The bootcamp is free in exchange for students agreeing to a lower salary for at least two years. This type of apprenticeship gets you in the workforce faster than grad school and for less money.

Websites like Udemy and General Assembly also offer affordable online classes that can give you a head start on whatever you’re interested in.

Start doing what you’re passionate about

Since I’ve been freelance writing for a couple years now, I often get questions from other people on how they can get started. I always tell them to just start writing.

If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a coder, code. Obviously you’ll need to expand your knowledge at some point, but diving headfirst into an activity is always the best way to figure out just what you need to learn.

So many jobs don’t require a grad degree to prove you’re capable. If you want to be a wedding photographer and don’t have any experience, tell everyone you know you want to be a wedding photographer. Be willing to shoot your first couple weddings for free.

Post your availability on Craigslist, create a website on Squarespace and start a Facebook page. Once you have a few weddings under your belt, you can start charging. You can use this strategy with writing, graphic design, baking and more.

Summary

Grad school can be a great career advancer for some, but—as more and more millennials are discovering—it’s not the answer for everyone.

Instead, try getting an internship, asking your current employer for more responsibility, or start a side hustle (for which you don’t need experience).

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Zina Kumok
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