Questions To Ask To Learn if Graduate School Is Worth It

Is grad school worth it for you?

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Is graduate school worth it? It’s a tricky question, and the answer is highly subjective. Returning to school can be worth the time and expense, especially when it results in increased pay and better jobs.

Between 2009 and 2020, post-baccalaureate (which includes master’s and doctoral programs) enrollment increased by 10%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES projects that enrollment will be another 6% higher in 2030 than in 2020. Should you join those going back to school? Let’s look at graduate school's benefits, whether the financial cost can be offset, and other questions to ask before diving in.

Key Takeaways

  • A third of employers have raised educational requirements over the last five years.
  • Not all jobs require a master’s degree, and at least 25% of bachelor’s degree holders earn more than the average of someone with a master’s degree.
  • If you decide to pursue a graduate degree, various financial aid options are available.
  • Studying during a recession grants you the lowest opportunity cost for your career.

How Will Graduate School Help My Career?

In the past, you may not have needed a graduate degree to advance your career. This was true whether you were seeking a new position or simply looking to move forward with your current company. While recent trends are moving toward graduate education, that doesn’t necessarily require returning to school for career success.

Graduate School Can Advance Your Career

If you’re looking to advance or change careers, getting your graduate degree may be a helpful stepping stone because requirements for jobs are evolving. A 2021 Career Builder survey found that 33% of employers have raised educational requirements within the last five years, with 33% of employers hiring workers with master's degrees for positions previously held by those with bachelor’s degrees.

If you’re looking to get ahead in a career field—even if, in the past, the career only required a bachelor’s degree—you might consider getting a graduate degree. Positions requiring a master’s degree include guidance counselors, nurse practitioners, and physicians’ assistants, among many others.

Some careers rely more heavily on soft skills such as networking, and graduate school provides an opportunity to meet new people in your chosen field, allowing you to build a bigger (and better) network.


Between 2019 and 2020, over half of master’s degrees obtained were in the fields of business, education, and health professions and related programs, according to NCES.

Graduate School Can Help You Earn More Money

Much of the time, earning a master’s degree will earn you more money. On average, those with a graduate degree will earn $3.2 million over their lifetime, according to a 2021 Georgetown study. Those with a four-year degree will make, on average, $2.8 million.

Not All Careers Require Graduate School Education

Although the average worker earns more, factors such as your undergraduate degree and  profession can influence how much you’ll make with a graduate degree. The Georgetown University study found that 25% of bachelor’s-degree-holding workers earned more than half of workers with either a master’s or doctoral degree. According to the study, the top five highly paid undergraduate majors were:

  • Architecture and engineering
  • Computers, statistics, mathematics
  • Business
  • Physical sciences
  • Health

Will My Pay Increase Offset Grad School Debt?

Any pay increase you’ll receive depends on your career field and occupation. Some careers are highly paid without a graduate degree, while others increase only after you’ve acquired further education.

NCES’ most recent study states that students' average total loan balances add up. Here are the average cumulative loan balances from a public university:

  • Postbaccalaureate certificate: $51,100
  • Master’s degree: $54,500
  • Doctorate, research degree: $92,200
  • Doctorate, professional degree: $142,600


Loan balances are higher at private nonprofit and private for-profit schools.

To determine whether the financial cost is worth it, compare your increased earnings against the debt you’ll incur. For example, suppose you need $30,000 in student loans to get your graduate degree. You currently make $50,000 annually, but your salary will bump to $70,000 after you’ve completed school—a $20,000 per year difference. Your break-even point is when your increased earnings outweigh your debt. In this example, you’ll have earned an additional $40,000 over two years—making your break-even point roughly one and a half years after completing your course.


Factor into the equation how many years you plan on working after completing the degree. If you plan on retiring soon, you may not be able to meet your break-even point.

What Financial Aid Options Do I Have?

Graduate school can be costly, but consider scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and government and private loans if you want to return to school. Your income, grade-point average, location, or background may influence your financial aid options.

Regardless, fill out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form offered by the U.S. government. This can help you figure out what solutions are available to you.

What Is the Broader Economy Like?

Whether you enroll in a full-time or certificate graduate program, there’s always an opportunity cost, or the “cost” of passing up work advancement or opportunities. Generally speaking, your opportunity cost is the lowest during a recession. This is because jobs are more restricted during a recession; there’s less growth, which means fewer opportunities you’ll miss out on while obtaining your degree.

Do I Want To Go to Grad School?

After factoring in the changes in career and income you’ll see with a graduate degree, consider questions that are less concrete but can have a large effect on your daily life:

  • Can you afford to go to school?: If you stop working, can you continue to make mortgage payments and shell out for daycare?
  • Are you willing to live on a slimmer budget?: The student lifestyle is notoriously frugal, especially if you’re not working during this time.
  • Can you shoulder the additional strain of studying?: If your life is already full of family, you may be unable to withstand the increased pressure of a graduate degree.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, returning to graduate school is a highly personal decision. To determine if it’s worth it, factor in the financial changes it’ll make.

Beyond that, you’ll also want to consider how it will affect your life and if you’re prepared to accommodate the extra stress of studying. Finally, don’t ignore the broader economic market—be sure to time your return so your opportunity cost is as low as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long does it take to graduate from grad school?

The time to finish grad school depends on your chosen degree and whether you’re attending a full-time program or a part-time evening program. Typically, it will take you about two years to graduate. Getting a doctorate can take up to 8.2 years from the start of undergraduate to completion. However, it’s also possible to complete accelerated postbaccalaureate certificates or degrees in under a year; check with the school to learn your options.

How do you get into grad school?

The requirements for graduate school admission vary based on the school and degree. Graduate programs may require a recommendation letter or ask you to take tests such as the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT), or Medical Admission Test (MCAT). Many applicants may take preparation materials and courses such as LSAT prep courses.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Postbaccalaureate Enrollment."

  2. CareerBuilder. "Not Enough Educated Workers—Why This Matters to You."

  3. National Center for Education Statistics. "Graduate Degree Fields."

  4. Georgetown University. "The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings."

  5. National Center for Education Statistics. "Trends in Student Loan Debt for Graduate School Completers."

  6. Northcentral University. "How Do You Get a Doctorate Degree?"

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