How to Decide Whether or Not to Attend Graduate School

To go to grad school or not to go to grad school, that is the question for many graduating college students -- especially during a recession. I wish I could give you the absolute right answer, but I can't.

The decision is personal and different for everyone. What I can do is provide you with the right questions to ask to make the right move for you.

First, here are what I consider to be the no-brainer decisions:

No-brainer No. 1: If you receive a full scholarship and you want a graduate degree, go for at least one year. I was fortunate to receive a graduate school scholarship from Rotary International, and I'm grateful I received a master's degree at no cost. Free education is an offer not to be missed.

No-brainer No. 2: If you're sure about your career direction and need a graduate degree to get there, then grad school makes sense. This is the case for students who are positive they want to be lawyers, doctors, professors and other degree-requiring careers. If you're worried about massive student loans, particularly in the current economy, consider your state school and programs that will offer you scholarship money. Or, take some time to work and save, then go to grad school a few years from now.

No-brainer No. 3: If you don't want to go, don't go. Lots of students tell me they feel they "should" go to graduate school or they're pursuing an advanced degree to "keep their options open." Graduate school requires a huge investment of time and money, so don't go if you're not committed.

Assess Reasons for Grad School

If you're still unsure how to proceed, here are three questions to help you make the best decision.

Why are you considering graduate school?

Education is a wonderful, valuable endeavor and a worthy goal in itself, but in my opinion, it should not be a default decision because you can't think of anything better to do. If you want to keep studying and you can afford it, then by all means go to graduate school. But if the cost will put you into significant debt and you're unsure whether it's the right move, then consider working for a few years and see how you feel in the future.

What are your career plans after graduate school?

If you have no idea what you'll do after grad school, then don't go. If you're not sure where the degree might lead, ask several people in your desired career field for their advice. You can also seek out people who've earned the degree you're considering and ask what path they've taken after graduate school. When in doubt, get more information.

Covering the Costs

How will you pay for it?

While many students are opting for grad school as a way to "ride out" the recession, I'm concerned about how these students plan to pay back those student loans. Even when the economy improves, $100,000 to $200,000 is a lot of debt to carry. Making the decision should involve putting together a realistic budget for how you'll live during graduate school and a strategy for how you'll pay back your loans afterward.

One final tip: I do think it's a wise move to take any graduate school admissions tests while you're still an undergrad. You're in test-taking mode when you're still in college, so go ahead and take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or any other test that you think you might need. Your scores will be good for several years, so there's really no down side to having them under your belt. Good luck!

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