Graduate school requires a significant investment of both time and money. While there are affordable options at brick-and-mortar institutions and through online programs, some two-year, full-time graduate programs can cost more than $100,000. Doctoral and professional programs can cost even more and require more years of study.
But experts say an advanced degree provides a return on that investment both professionally and personally. A graduate degree can open the door to higher-paying jobs or a faster track to management and executive roles. It can also provide valuable opportunities for professional networking and personal growth.
“Deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree really is partly an educational and an intellectual interest decision, but it’s a big financial decision, and people really should not take that lightly,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a national advocacy group focused on the advancement of graduate education and research. “They should be good consumers and they should ask questions of the program they’re considering.”
As potential applicants weigh whether the investment is a worthwhile one, here are three benefits of graduate school that experts say should factor into their decision:
— Potential for higher earnings and career advancement.
— Chance to build a professional network.
— Opportunity for personal growth.
Potential for Higher Earnings and Career Advancement
Those with graduate degrees often earn more.
The median usual weekly earnings for full-time workers over the age of 25 with bachelor’s degrees was $1,334 in 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Weekly earnings went up to $1,574 for master’s degree holders, $1,909 for those with a doctoral degree and $1,924 for workers with a professional degree.
In some cases, a graduate degree can help someone bypass an entry-level position and start in a more advanced role, says Suzanne Barbour, dean of the graduate school at Duke University in North Carolina.
“So you command a higher salary, you have more responsibility and your timeline of rising to the top is a little bit shorter,” she says.
There’s also a correlation between advanced degrees and employment rate. The higher the degree, the lower the unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
“Even at times of high unemployment, they keep their jobs,” Ortega says. “So it’s not just the salary earnings, it’s that graduate degree holders are less affected by the vagaries of the effects of unemployment rates.”
Ortega adds that employers value those with graduate degrees because they often demonstrate characteristics needed for promotion and they possess skills that are transferrable across different settings.
“Employers say they have problem-solving skills, they’ve demonstrated their perseverance and they have higher-order communication skills,” she says.
Chance to Build a Professional Network
Graduate programs are typically hyper-focused on a specific discipline, training students for their eventual career in that field or allowing them to develop new skills for their current field. Graduate students are typically working toward a common goal with other like-minded students.
These types of relationships are sometimes overlooked, Barbour says, but they’re a key component of graduate education.
“These people tend to be the kinds of colleagues that you connect with and can call on going forward for the rest of your career,” she says. “You make a lot of really good friends in undergraduate, but it’s not the same sort of professional connection that can ultimately benefit your career.”
Many graduate programs also offer students the opportunity to complete hands-on projects and gain real-life work experience related to their career.
Dan Moshavi, dean of the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University in California, calls these “experiential activities.” For example, students in the SDSU business school often work on consulting projects with actual companies. Through these opportunities, students form professional relationships both inside and outside the classroom while adding valuable experience to their resume, he says.
“Imagine somebody who was not an undergraduate business major, doesn’t have business experience, but has now come back to get an MBA, they can now point to something very tangible on the job market that says, ‘I’ve actually done this kind of work for this kind of company,'” he says. “And that’s helpful in terms of enhancing their own employment opportunities.”
Opportunity for Personal Growth
A lot of “soft skill development” happens in graduate school, Moshavi says. On top of learning the content, students hone their skills in critical thinking, interpersonal communication, leadership and collaboration, he says.
“Working with teams, working with others, I don’t care what profession you’re in, there’s usually some element of that,” he says. “Learning how to manage the issues that have come along with working in teams, like conflict management, like giving and receiving feedback, those are essential skills that will benefit people throughout their careers.”
While graduate education includes a lot of collaborative work, it also encourages independent thought and affords students the ability to challenge traditional ways of thinking, Barbour says. Students experience a professional environment where they can learn to disagree with others in a civil manner while still having constructive conversations, she says.
Students also sharpen their independent study and research skills, which help foster a curious mind. All of that ise attractive to employers, she says.
“I think probably the most important thing you get out of graduate school — it’s important to get the discipline-specific stuff, don’t get me wrong — but you learn to be a lifelong learner,” she says. “You learn how to learn independently and you learn the value of staying current, being connected and being up-to-date on the latest developments in your field.”
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