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Should I Go to Grad School During an Economic Downturn?
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Should I Go to Grad School During an Economic Downturn?

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The world is in a suspended state of animation due to the coronavirus pandemic. The economy is in turmoil. No one can predict what will happen next week, let alone next year. With all of this uncertainty — and if you’re staying home a lot, possibly with extra time on your hands — you may be thinking about how to better position yourself for life after COVID-19. 

Perhaps going to graduate school or getting a master’s degree has crossed your mind. If so, you’re not alone. Many people consider enrolling in grad school during a financial downturn, or in times of tumult.

In addition, if you’re in the job market, double-digit unemployment isn’t super encouraging. As such, higher education and graduate programs might seem like a more sensible path right now for bachelor’s degree holders. Or maybe you’ve lost your job or been furloughed, and you’re considering ways to level up your skills. Alternatively, you may be thinking about switching career paths or pursuing an advanced degree to take advantage of up and coming employment trends. Employment in master’s level occupations is expected to grow by almost 17% by 2026 — the fastest of any education level. Doctoral- and professional-level employment is estimated to rise by 13% — faster than the 7% projected for all occupations.  

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Enrolling in a Grad Program

Before you pony up for a Master’s or PhD, which often comes with a steep price tag, take some time to contemplate how this decision could impact your life. 

Ask yourself these questions to help in your decision-making process:

  • Do you really need a graduate degree for my career goals? Could further work experience get you to this next level?
  • What is the opportunity cost of taking yourself out of work for the grad or master’s program?
  • How will you pay for your graduate education? Will you need to take on student loan debt?
  • What is the income potential for the degree you’re considering? Is it a significantly higher salary for the investment?
  • Do you have a lot of time to dedicate to your studies? Do you need to be a full-time care-giver for children or elderly parents, or do you have other responsibilities that could conflict with your grad school studies?
  • Is your program designed to be online or in-person? Full-time or part-time? What’s actually feasible for you?
  • What might the economy be like when you graduate?

So, is now the right time for you to go to grad school? Getting real about the answers to these and other questions can help you decide. Here’s some food for thought to help you weigh the pros and cons.

Going to Grad School: The Pros

Here’s one compelling reason to get an advanced degree: It can help you uplevel your skills and income potential. If you yearn to gain new know-how and possibly change careers, now may be a great time to consider grad school. 

In addition, getting a professional or graduate degree may make you more marketable in your chosen field than an undergraduate degree alone, especially if you work in a competitive career. Technology, business, and engineering, for example, often have more applicants than openings, so having advanced credentials can help set you apart from other college graduates. 

Going to grad school can also help you transition to a more “recession-proof” industry. While the dust has yet to settle from the coronavirus pandemic, it will likely be several years (if ever) before jobs in retail, hospitality, and other service industries are restored.  

Of course, no industry is 100% recession-proof, but there are certainly some that are faring better than others. For instance, the technology and medical fields are currently growing. If you’re considering changing careers, research roles, and industries that are slated to expand, or that have historically provided some job security during uncertain times.  

Going to Grad School: The Cons

Grad school has its downsides, too. One big dilemma is the potential financial hardship. Depending on the program, the average graduate degree program can cost upwards of $30,000 at a public university, and $40,000 at a private school. 

The thought of paying for a graduate degree can be overwhelming, even more so during challenging economic times. Will you have to take on student debt? Do you already have outstanding student loans from your undergraduate program? A general rule of thumb is that your first year’s salary out of grad school should amount to more than the debt you’re taking on, so be mindful of this when you’re running the math. Grants and scholarships can help offset the cost; it pays (literally!) to look into your options.

However, if your field doesn’t require an advanced degree, or if it isn’t likely that you’ll be rewarded with a higher position or additional pay for your time commitment, a full graduate degree program may not be worth the time and expense. There may be better (and more affordable) options, including professional development courses or certifications.

Keep in mind too, economic downturns often drive graduate school admissions up. Translation: the application process will likely be more competitive. You’ll need to make sure you stand out from other applicants. At a minimum, that means you’ll need a 3.0 GPA. Of course, the higher your GPA, the more likely you’ll get in. You may also need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), so be sure to factor that in as well.

Finally, if you’re in a care-giving role — meaning you have young children or elderly parents who require your attention — you’ll need to consider that, too. Graduate studies are intense and time-consuming, and taking on homework and lectures on top of your existing family obligations can leave you stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed. If striking a balance between family and going to school is important to you, online classes might be easier and more convenient (and right now, safer!) than attending in person.

Making the Right Grad School Choice for You

Downturn or no, going to grad school is a major decision, so it’s important to carefully weigh your options. Seek out whatever resources and guidance you need to make the best one for you. Gather information from the schools you’re interested in, talk to others who’ve gone to grad school, and if applicable, discuss it with your family to make sure they’re on board. 

In the end, this is about your future, and you need to make sure you’re at peace with your decision. If going to grad school helps you achieve important goals such as a better career and income potential, it could end up being one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.