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Should You Go to Graduate School?

Alison Green

Thinking about going to graduate school?

Before you get too far in your planning, make sure that grad school makes sense for you and your specific career aspirations -- and that your investment of time and money will pay off in the ways you hope. Too many new college graduates turn to grad school because they're not quite sure what else to do or because the tough job market makes them think any additional credentials will be helpful. Neither of these are sufficient reasons for grad school, and they can in fact make a job search more difficult rather than easier.

First, let's talk about when grad school is a good idea. Grad school makes sense when you're going into a field that requires or significantly rewards a graduate degree, and when the program that you would enroll in has a high track record of graduates getting jobs in their field.

But you shouldn't go if you don't know what you plan to do with the graduate degree afterward. And you certainly shouldn't go to grad school out of a vague idea that it will make you more marketable. Not only will it often not make you more marketable, it can actually hamstring your efforts to pursue the career you want.

Sound counterintuitive? The problem is that if you go to grad school even though you don't plan to go into a field that requires or significantly rewards advanced degrees, the following is highly likely to happen:

-- Employers will think you don't really want the job you're applying for, since it's not what you went to school for. They'll assume that you'll be dissatisfied and leave as soon as something in the field you studied comes along. That concern can end up being a reason they don't hire you for the same job you might have been a strong candidate for before you got your graduate degree.

-- While you're in school, you won't receive full-time work experience. That means that when you finish your program, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more seasoned and thus more competitively positioned than you.

-- You'll often rack up significant student loan debt. That debt will then limit your job prospects by requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need, in order to pay back those loans -- and without actually increasing your earning power. When the job market is already tight, having a whole range of jobs that you'd otherwise be interested in end up off-limits to you because they won't pay enough to pay off your students loans is a tough spot to be in.

So if you've been thinking about grad school, what does all this mean for you? Well, the next step should be to find out whether the career path you want to follow truly requires or rewards graduate degrees. If you're not sure, start talking to people who do the type of work you want to do. Find out from them how useful a graduate degree will be. You might hear that it won't have the payoff you're looking for or that work experience will be just as or more valuable. Or you might hear that the graduate degree will be very helpful, in which case you should move to the next set of questions: Are there certain programs or schools that will help you the most? Are there some programs or schools that won't help you much at all? If you enroll in a lower-ranked program, will it still provide the benefits you're looking for? These are the questions you want to get solid answers to before you start making decisions.

And if you don't know what you want to do with the graduate degree once you have it, that's a sign to drop the grad school plans for now. There are much less expensive and time-consuming ways to figure out what you want to do for a living: internships, talking to people in your network and just trying out jobs that sound interesting. Grad school shouldn't be one long and expensive career counseling session. Instead, get out and start working. If you eventually realize you want to pursue a career path that requires more schooling, you can get it then.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

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