Confession: I never thought I’d go to grad school. I really didn’t see the point. I had a good job coming out of undergrad and I figured I’d stay on that track forever.
But a few years later I found myself burnt out, bored, and climbing the wrong career ladder. I needed a change—a bigger change than just finding a new job in the same industry. I needed to completely change directions. So after endless hours of research, I found myself back in grad school. It was an experience that I loved and I’m so thankful for, but it also landed me in over $100k of student loan debt.
While I’m completely happy with the outcome, making the decision to leave a secure job, take on that much debt, and move across the country from everyone I knew (including my boyfriend) was terrifying. The extensive research and soul searching that I did before applying was the only thing that comforted me as I made the big move and signed those loan documents.
If you’re considering going back to graduate school, here are some questions that will help you figure out if you’re making the right choice.
1. Why do you want to go to grad school?
This is an obvious one to start with, but I’ve met so many people who never really asked themselves why they actually wanted to go to school. Even once in school a lot of people didn’t really have a great answer for this (and I’m not talking about the perfectly crafted answer that you wrote on your application essay). So really think about the real answer for why you want to go to grad school.
If you head back to school because you hate your job, know that hating your job and hating your career path isn’t the same thing. If you’re frustrated with your job and need a change, start by looking at what other options exist. Is it the actual work that you’re doing that you dislike, or are you in a company that isn’t the right fit for you?
A question that helped me realize I was on the wrong career path: Did I want the job my manager had? Did working toward that excite me? Unfortunately, the answer for me was no. And that was a clear sign that I needed a big change.
2. What’s the end goal?
It amazed me how many people in my grad program had no idea what they wanted to do when they graduated. To be fair, I didn’t have it all figured out, but I had started to do research. I went to school knowing the general direction I wanted to head in and where I hoped to be once my two years were done.
Because going back to school can be such a big investment, both from a money and a time perspective, it’s important to at least have an idea of what the end goal is. A great way to start identifying your end goal is to interview people who are in the career you think you’d like to work toward. Invite them to coffee or to have a quick chat on the phone and ask them questions—so you can be sure this is the right path for you to take.
3. What’s the job market like?
When going back to school you definitely want to choose a career path that you love, but you also want to choose a job market that is doing well. Heading back to school for a degree in an industry that is struggling will make your job search unnecessarily difficult.
To get an idea of what the job market looks like, use the informal interviews mentioned in step 2 to ask what getting hired in an certain industry looks like. They’ll hopefully be able to clue you in as to whether there are a lot of opportunities for someone just starting out, or whether it’s going to be a bit more difficult.
You can also ask the schools you’re planning to apply to for career information. They should be able to give you stats from recently graduated classes about how many found jobs, how quickly they found them, and the average salary information.
4. How long will it take to pay off?
When you start dealing with large sums of money and student loans, it can be easy to become desensitized to the amount. It starts to not really feel like money and all too often, the reality of paying off those loans comes as a total shock post-graduation.
To help ease this shock and make sure you’re making a fully informed decision about going back to school, calculate how much your loan payments will be each month after you graduate. To do this, estimate how much you will need to borrow (each school should publish the estimated cost of the program) and use a loan calculator like FinAid Loan Repayment Calculator.
And a bonus tip: Once you have your monthly loan payment amount, you’ll be able to estimate how much more you would need to make in order to keep the same lifestyle. Add your current monthly income to the monthly loan payment amount. The total is after-tax income you’ll need to make once you graduate. Knowing this will help you figure out if the salary in your new career path is going to leave you in a better or worse position, financially.
5. Are you in the right financial place?
If you’re like most people, you’ll likely come out of grad school with some student debt. But heading back to school while you’re already in debt? That can be a really stressful situation. While in school you’ll have so many different opportunities: trips, conferences, or even just grabbing a meal with your new classmates. If you don’t have a financial cushion to help support you while in school, or you go to school already in debt, it will be harder to take advantage of all the new opportunities in front of you.
When you’re considering grad school, be sure to take a look at your current financial situation to decide if it’s the right time. If you’re in debt, or don’t have much saved, what can you do to be sure you’re on solid financial footing when you go back to school? It may mean making lifestyle changes, like cutting back on spending, moving to a cheaper place, or earning more on the side, before you start school. This way you’re able to fully enjoy the experience while there.
6. Can you commit fully?
There may be no perfect time to go to grad school, but there may be time where committing to, and getting the most from, your program is difficult. You may not be in the right financial place, or you may have too much going on in your personal life to get the most from your program.
If you’re making this big of an investment in yourself, make sure you’re giving yourself the full opportunity you deserve! Make sure you can commit fully to everything your program has to offer. Grad school can be a transformative experience and can jumpstart your career in a new and exciting direction, but only if you give yourself the space and time to do so.