Do you have some vague plans to go back to school at some point and get some more education? Can’t go wrong with another degree, right?
Well, no. In fact, that’s actually a pretty dangerous assumption.
Getting an expensive degree without knowing exactly what you’ll be getting out of it is a quick way to rack up debt that won’t necessarily help you achieve your goals. So, before you (possibly) get yourself in a lot of trouble, here are five questions to consider before applying to school, again.
1. What Are the Requirements, and Do They Seem Interesting to Me?
First things first, are you even interested in additional studies? You never want to get a graduate degree solely because you don’t like what you’re doing now or because you don’t know what you want to do next.
This means doing some serious self-reflection and figuring out what concrete evidence you have that you will like what you’re learning in the programs you apply for. Take the time to look at class descriptions and syllabi. Do they excite you? Or is just looking at them making you cringe? If you can’t make a compelling argument for why you would at least enjoy the next year or two, that’s a pretty big red flag.
2. What Exact Outcome Do I Hope to Achieve by Attending This Program?
Your undergraduate years are a great time to explore your interests, as are your first few years of employment. Doing a master’s degree generally is not. The program is too short, and you really need to be spending your time focusing on your goal, which you can’t do if you don’t know what it is.
Maximize your chances for achieving your goal by knowing exactly what it is before you go get a graduate degree. It’ll allow you to tailor the experience to your needs and use all the resources available to you to their fullest extent. This will also help you gauge which program is right for you.
3. What Evidence Do I Have That These Outcomes Are Realistic?
Look beyond marketing materials. Assuming you know what you want out of a master’s degree, ask to speak with alumni, and comb through outcome surveys for the programs you’re interested in. You’re trying to see how likely it is for you to attain what you’re being promised.
Numbers certainly help paint a picture, but speaking with alumni is even more valuable in understanding how the program played a part in helping students reach their goals. If you speak with a few people who felt they were left fairly unsupported in terms of next steps, that should be a red flag.
4. Do I Need This Degree to Do What I Want to Do?
Ask yourself if you really even need another degree to do whatever it is you want to do. Is a master’s in community health necessary to work at that nonprofit you admire? Do you need an MBA to launch that clean tech startup you’ve been dreaming about? Maybe. Maybe not.
Do your research about what the perception of graduate education is in your field. Pop on LinkedIn and see how others have gotten where you want to go. You may find out that you do indeed need to pursue additional education, or you may find that getting some more work experience would be just as valuable. It’s important to find out which before you dive in.
5. How Much Is This Going to Cost, How Am I Going to Pay for It, and Is it All Worth It?
Finally, you really want to be thoughtful about how much graduate school will actually cost you, and how exactly you plan on paying for it. Sure, education is invaluable and all, but that doesn’t take away the reality of needing to find a way to afford it.
Understand your loan options and what financial aid is available. Ideally, come up with a few different strategies for paying back them back, because sadly you can’t always count on all your current options being available when you graduate. Some people rely heavily on the assumption that after 10 years of employment at a nonprofit they can have their loans forgiven by the government, but even this is up in the air and can change based on the whims of Congress.
In addition to that, you should always think about your expected salary after the degree to see what the return on your investment is—really ask yourself, is this financially worth it? Will this be enough to repay my loans? While it feels unfair to weigh tuition (and education) against a salary, it’s the realistic and responsible approach to take.
In the end, the most important thing is to decide how you will evaluate whether or not a master’s degree is worth the time, commitment, and tuition. For some, the chance to study something exciting is enough. For others, it’s only worth it if there’s a concrete career path at the end. Either way, figure out what makes sense for you before applying.
Photo of open book courtesy of Shutterstock.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author