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When is Grad School Worth it? We Asked Experts for Their Take

A graduate student studies in her living room

Looking to advance your career, change positions, or dig deeper into your passion? Chances are you’ve considered graduate school.

But how do you know if—and which—grad school is right for you? First, figure out at the basics: full- or part-time, on-campus or online. When you know where you’re at, you can figure out where to go next.

Here’s some insight from higher-ed experts and current graduate students to help you get there:

Weigh the Investment

If you’ve looked for a job recently, you’ll be familiar with the terms “master’s degree preferred” or “required.” They’re common on job postings nowadays, says Lauren Tabbara, director of graduate academic programs at American University’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

“I think a lot of students are finding now that the master’s degree is becoming the new bachelor’s,” she says.

So how do you know if it’s worth the investment? One thing to consider is the higher earning potential. Professionals with master’s degrees, on average, earn about $500,000 more over the course of a career than those with undergraduate degrees, according to Jason Garner, director of graduate admissions at AU’s Kogod School of Business.

“We do see a pretty significant jump in salaries when we compare undergraduates and graduate students,” explains Garner. “Those jobs tend to pay more and be more competitive—particularly if they’re master’s degree preferred or required.”

But it’s not all about the dollar signs. A lot of benefits can come with a graduate degree, Garner says, like job availability, job satisfaction, and work-life balance.

There’s also the price tag of the degree itself. When choosing a school, you need to consider the full package, Tabbara says. For instance, a school might cost less outright, but will it provide the resources and experiences you need to get a higher-paying job?

Find Out What Employers Are Looking For

Employers typically know what they want in candidates. Look at job postings for positions and employers in your field to find out what you need to be competitive.

Right now, employers want graduates with professional skills and experience to match, Tabbara says. It’s not just about coursework anymore—employers want students with hands-on experience who can hit the ground running.

“We’ve heard from our students that the professional skills they’re gaining as part of their degree is what they’re really using out on the job market,” Tabbara says.

In addition to being a researcher and teaching assistant, Charles Ingulli, CAS/MS ’20, works as assistant director of AU’s Design and Build Lab, a student-centered fabrication space. He credits the latter for the leadership and soft skills that will help him throughout his future career, from time management and delegation to conflict resolution and more.

Working Backwards from your End Goals

Start with what you want to achieve, then find the right path to get you there, Garner recommends. What are you passionate about? What degrees can help you reach that goal?

Once you know where you want to go, you can figure out what you need: credentials, skills, and whatever you need to make that happen.

“When you come into your master’s program, you should really have that end goal so you can find the best program to fit your needs,” Tabbara says. 

For Haneen Abu Al Neel, SIS/MA ’20, she didn’t have a specific goal in mind. She applied to grad school to surround herself with professors who had experience in her areas of interest and who had worked at human rights organizations and think tanks.

“There was a little ambiguity around my next steps, and I thought being around experts would really help clarify that confusion, which it did. I know a lot of people go in with specific goals. Mine was just talk to as many professors as I can and come out with a better idea,” Abu Al Neel, a student in the ethics, peace, and human rights program, says.

Location, Location, Location

Look at where you want to live, what schools are there, and what it can offer you as a grad student.

“Ask yourself what type of experience beyond my coursework can I gain by being in the city that I’m in for graduate school,” Tabbara suggests. “This goes for internships, externships, and job opportunities upon graduation.”

Take AU, for example. Regardless of your field or program, from chemistry to arts management, human rights, or business, you’ll be able to find an experiential learning opportunity thanks to the university’s strategic location in DC.

Through her program’s practicum, Abu Al Neel put her purpose into practice at the US State Department. She dipped her toes into the pool of DC politics and got hands-on experience working with an actual client.

Because of that real-world experience, filled with late nights and tight deadlines, she can now say “I know what it means to actually work in DC.”

Expanding Your Professional Network

Think about who you want to surround yourself with for the next few years, both in terms of your fellow students and the faculty and advisors who will shape your journey. Then get insights from community members.

Grad school is a great way to expand your professional network. Not only did Abu Al Neel develop strong relationships with faculty, she also joined the Social Enterprise Association, a professional-focused student group that hosted networking events, and speakers who shared their practical experience in human rights.

“It seems like everybody at SIS is two degrees of separation from who you need to talk to get to the next step in your career,” Abu Al Neel says.

Program and class size can also be important, Garner says.

“Small class sizes at the graduate level gives you a lot of access to your faculty and advisors and to the different student resources we offer. It gives you access to faculty that you might not have in a class of 300 or 400 people.”

Close connections to faculty are something Ingulli, a master’s student in statistics, often utilizes. From research projects and grading advice, to floating jobs and conference opportunities, Ingulli’s advisor is deeply invested in his success.

“My advisors are very much involved in my actual course work and major. They coach me along,” Ingulli says.

When it comes to career advancement, putting your purpose into practice, enhancing your professional network, and more, a graduate degree can make all the difference.