person sitting at home looking at their laptop and holding a pen
Ivan Pantic/Getty Images

During times of economic weakness or uncertainty, many graduate programs see their applications swell. There are already signs that the economic strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will drive the same kind of increased interest in graduate school.

While weighing the costs and benefits of attending grad school is always challenging, the pandemic and the economic uncertainty it’s fostered make your decision even more complicated. I’ve been through that decision-making process myself while considering business school and now, as the Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online, I have the opportunity to regularly consult with folks who are thinking about getting an advanced degree.

Here, I lay out five things to consider to help you with your decision.

1.
The Golden Rule of Grad School

The most important thing to remember when contemplating graduate school—anytime, including in the age of COVID—is this rule:

Going to grad school just because your job prospects aren’t good or you don’t know what you want to do with your life is a recipe for disaster. You must have a plan—even a high-level one—if you are to make the most of the money and time you will spend getting that advanced education. Being unemployed and rudderless is stressful and expensive, but being unhappy in a career you fell into while having to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student debt is even more stressful and much more expensive. Don’t let near-term pain lead to long-term misery.

If you do have a plan, then it’s important to take into account how that plan might be affected by what’s going on in the world.

2.
Post-Degree Prospects

Part of coming up with a plan is talking to those who have traveled the path you’re considering. So be sure to do your due diligence by seeking out and speaking with others who have both earned the degree you’re interested in and work in a job similar to the one you’d like to have.

As you have these conversations, keep in mind that while it’s always important to consider the prospects of the field or industry you expect to enter after grad school and demand for the kind of job you hope to get, it’s doubly important now. Is the industry you’re interested in likely to be hiring talent in a post-COVID world? Or will it be slowly shrinking as a new normal takes hold?

One easy way to get a sense of the prospects of the sector you’re interested in is to check the stock prices of publicly traded companies in that sector. Since stock prices reflect investors’ bets about how a company or industry is likely to do in the future, they’re often good indicators of where trouble looms or opportunity knocks.

For example, this chart tracks the performance of stocks and funds that invest in commercial real estate; as of December 2020, the index was down more than 7% from the beginning of the year. Conversely, this chart shows how the tech sector has performed. It’s up more than 45% over the same period, showing investors’ confidence that the industry will grow substantially in the near future. As a potential graduate school student, you’d likely rather be training for a job in the tech sector than in real estate (though keep in mind that these things can always change in the longer term).

3.
Networks

I have always preached the value of networks. Much of what you pay for when going to graduate school is the opportunity to make connections with people who can be helpful to you, and you to them, well after graduation. Every job I’ve had in the last 20 years came from connections out of my MBA program and I’ve likewise had the pleasure of helping my classmates find jobs and customers.

Building networks is easier in the context of a full-time, in-person program because being in the same room with peers in both academic and social settings makes it easier to forge strong bonds. Obviously, the pandemic has made such relationship-building more difficult. Therefore, if you have a strong desire for those face-to-face connections, you should consider if the program you are applying to will be back to a “normal” mode of delivery by the time you start. If not, it might be worth waiting. Stay in contact with the school’s admissions department to keep up to date on return-to-campus plans and be sure to understand the school’s rules regarding deferring admission to a later term if they decide to keep things remote.

Keep in mind, though, that the network benefit may not be a significant consideration for everyone. If you plan to stay in the same job with the same organization, for example, then a part-time online program with less socialization might be just fine. You may be more interested in gaining skills to progress where you are versus making connections that might take you elsewhere.

Even so, if given the choice between two programs that are identical in all ways, except one has a strong network—in-person, virtual, or both—and the other doesn’t, always choose the one with the stronger network. Even if you don’t think it’s important today, it might be tomorrow.

4.
Money

Let me say something that might be controversial: Many degrees are not worth what students pay for them. This is not always because of the degree program itself (although it sometimes is); overpaying for a degree can also be a function of a mismatch between a student’s goals and the educational experience they enroll in. But whatever the reason, too many people are spending way too much money for way too little benefit.

While the financial aspects of a graduate degree have always been important in “normal” times, they’re particularly relevant now. Why? Because there’s a chance you’ll graduate into a weak economy and see your earnings depressed—and not just when you take that first job. These studies both show that college students who graduate into a recession suffer long-term earnings reductions relative to those who didn’t graduate in a downturn. (While these studies focused on undergraduates, it’s reasonable to suspect the same dynamics would affect graduate degree earners.)

While I wouldn’t suggest you make a decision to go or not to go to graduate school based on predictions about macroeconomic trends (if you were good at that, forget grad school, you can make billions in the stock market!), I do think that you should consider that your earnings potential could be lower than the median number the program you attend touts. Given the shock COVID has given to the world economy, it would be especially prudent to consider these possible downsides.

There are also more personal risks to consider these days. Are you relying on a spouse or partner to help support you financially? How secure is their job in the age of COVID? Do unexpected medical bills or the need to care for a loved one present other challenges? You can’t eliminate all risks. But go into your grad school decision with eyes wide open about not just the good that could come of it, but the bad too.

Speaking of the bad, let’s talk about debt. Unless you’re paying out of pocket, your grad school decision requires a detailed financial analysis since debt will likely be part of the equation. While all debt can be insidious, student loan debt can be particularly so. For some reason, when it comes to education, most people can talk themselves into borrowing exorbitant sums to get a degree, ignoring the market value of that degree upon graduation.

So do the math—yes, literally make a spreadsheet—to be sure you can earn enough to make that debt worth it. And ask yourself whether where you get the degree matters. This is particularly important in the context of the sad fact that many professions that require advanced degrees don’t pay very well at all. 

Teachers and social workers are the most prominent examples. Both careers almost always require an advanced degree to progress professionally, and taking out loans to satisfy that requirement can lead to financial hardship. In fact, according to research by the Council on Social Work Education, an average social worker graduates from a master’s program with $46,591 in debt—while the median salary for a social worker is $50,470 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Student debt that is about 100% of the annual income you could expect well into your career is risky and incredibly stressful. It’s especially so when the prospects for significant increases in earnings are low (as they are in teaching and social work). If where you go to grad school won’t have a significant impact on your career progression, don’t spend for a brand name when a less expensive degree will do.

5.
Non-Degree Alternatives

If the timing for grad school is just not right once you weigh all the factors noted here, don’t assume that means you’re dead in the academic water. There are many non-degree programs that are typically shorter and less expensive than a degree and can still help you advance in your career. At Harvard Business School Online, the organization I lead, we offer just such programs, as do many other institutions. 

Non-degree alternatives are a great way to dip your toe in the graduate school waters. You can, with less risk, explore concepts that are new to you to see if you like them. Certificates can also be cited on your resume—or in your application to a job or a degree program you might later decide to pursue, helping you stand out in what might be a competitive selection process. And because so many of these programs were designed “natively” to be online, in a COVID world they allow you to keep getting educated while waiting for in-person programs to restart normal operations.

Graduate school can be an exceptionally smart way to advance your career and find personal fulfillment. While the global pandemic has introduced complexities into the decision-making process, they become much less daunting when you face them head-on. Considering the pros and cons through these five factors will set you up to make the best choice for your career—whether or not grad school is a part of it.