Why Go to Graduate School? The Best and Worst Reasons

When considering whether to attend graduate school, it’s wise to reflect on your reasons for continuing your education and to think critically about whether they justify pursuing an advanced degree, experts say.

Grad school requires a significant investment of time and money, and opportunity costs are frequently involved, such as wages lost by leaving the workforce to study. That’s why potential grad students should be clear on their purpose for enrolling and whether the investment will be worth it, according to experts.

“I would encourage others to consider graduate school if it will help them develop the skills that will help them grow in their careers,” Kasia Kalata, an MBA student at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago in Illinois, wrote in an email. “I would not simply apply to graduate school because others are getting their degrees and you think you should too.”

Joy Williamson-Lott, dean of the University of Washington Graduate School, says there is merit in intellectual exploration at the graduate level. Unlike undergraduate students, who focus primarily on absorbing information, grad students typically conduct research and contribute to knowledge within their field, Williamson-Lott adds.

“Graduate education ensures that the United States, and the individuals in it, remain competitive in today’s knowledge-based economy.” Here are some of the worst and best reasons for attending grad school, according to experts.

The Worst Reasons to Attend Grad School

A Desire to Continue the College Experience

People who enjoyed their bachelor’s program sometimes incorrectly assume that a graduate program will be similar, experts say.

“A poor reason for someone to choose graduate education is because they loved undergrad and they want to continue being a consumer, rather than a generator, of knowledge,” Williamson-Lott warns.

School Is Where You’re Most Comfortable

Academic high achievers often reflexively head to graduate school, since they feel confident in an academic environment, says Jennifer Polk, founder of the career coaching firm From PhD to Life, which caters to Ph.D. students and alumni.

“This is the environment where you were praised and where you fit in so you’ll keep going, (but) that’s not a great reason,” she says.

College professors sometimes encourage their top students to pursue graduate degrees. But students shouldn’t assume that grad school would be a good fit for them simply because of the endorsement of a mentor, even if that mentor is someone they admire, Polk adds.

Others may feel unsure of their next step, so graduate school allows them to delay making that decision or entering adulthood, says Christopher Lee, a writer and lecturer at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California–Los Angeles.

“Resist those thoughts,” Lee wrote in an email. “Don’t act out of anxiety. Pause and reflect on what you need.”

Dissatisfaction With Your Job Prospects

Ideally, students will have a job lined up before they complete their undergrad program. Those who don’t may be tempted to pursue graduate studies and delay the job search.

Grad school should not be used solely for career exploration, and it’s not a viable tactic for postponing major life choices, experts warn. Getting a graduate degree is “a really expensive way to figure out what you want to do or to delay getting a real job,” Williamson-Lott says.

Instead, students should “get clear on the root cause of their unhappiness and what they would need to be successful in their job search and future career,” Kalata says. “Then they can decide whether graduate school makes sense for them given the big investment in time and money.”

A Guarantee You’ll Advance at Work

Although a graduate-level credential is beneficial or mandatory in some fields, grad degrees don’t always lead to workplace advancement, experts emphasize.

A master’s degree was once a common step up the corporate ladder, but it doesn’t have the same cache it once did in many industries because of the heavy emphasis on work experience and hands-on skills, says Liz Ryan, CEO of Human Workplace, a human resources consulting firm. It is often harder to enter the HR industry through a high-level position versus a lower-level role, Ryan says.

“Getting a (master’s) degree in HR on top of no HR experience would almost be like the worst career choice you could make,” she says.

The Best Reasons to Attend Grad School

Commitment to a Field Where a Grad Degree Is Useful

Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but he felt his career prospects in that field would be limited without an advanced degree.

“So grad school was always the plan,” says Lee, who earned a master’s in health management and policy at San Diego State University in California. “Otherwise, I’d be stuck working a typical office job. So the main pro was that it would open up career options and pathways to more interesting roles, ideally with higher pay.”

The same is true in the U.S. for doctors, lawyers and many other professions. Most professional researchers have doctorate degrees in their fields, as well.

An Interest in Scholarly Innovation or Service

Prospective grad students may intend to make some kind of original contribution to society or to serve a worthy cause through their research activity, Williamson-Lott says.

For example, she says, a recent graduate of a developmental psychology doctoral program felt compelled to conduct research on “the relationship between emotions and mental health” after the suicide of a friend.

The conviction that it’s essential to find the answer to an academic question can be a worthwhile rationale for grad school if “something moves you and something has impacted you in some way, and you want to make sense of it,” Williamson-Lott says.

[Read: 3 Ways Graduate School Pays Off]

Marketability in Your Field

If you lack a graduate credential that employers within your industry frequently describe as either a plus or a requirement in job ads, or if you need to gain new skills to switch industries, then grad school could be a great call, experts say. Lee says in some cases, his master’s degree gave him a leg up over other candidates who had more years of experience but no master’s.

Kalata works in marketing and communications for Braven, an organization that helps first-generation college students navigate higher education and land their first jobs. She says she believes an MBA will help her be more well-rounded in her role.

“I knew that I wanted to develop skills that would allow me to have a bigger impact in my career and propel my growth,” she says. “After chatting with several students and alumni and weighing the pros and cons, I decided that the MBA was the best fit for me because it would allow me to develop the most transferable skills of all graduate programs.”

Having more career options means that a person is more likely to find a job that’s satisfying both personally and financially, Williamson-Lott says. “It is about money, but it’s also about autonomy and freedom.”

Choosing the Right Graduate Program

While deciding whether to go to graduate school is important, so is choosing the right school and program, experts say. After attending the University of Chicago for her bachelor’s degree, Kalata says she was attracted to the school’s MBA program because of its flexible schedule and the quality of its professors.

“Look at the differences in the programs you’re considering and talk to the students and alumni of the schools you’re interested in attending,” she says. “You’ll get to hear their experiences, including the most exciting parts and the most challenging and how it’s helped them in their careers, and have the opportunity to ask questions.”

Students should make a list of “nonnegotiables” and research the programs that check all their boxes, Kalata says.

“For instance, if students are interested in the social sector, they should ensure that the program has access to classes, centers, clubs, etc. that will allow them to gain exposure in that field.”

Searching for a grad school? Get our complete rankingsof Best Graduate Schools.

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Why Go to Graduate School? The Best and Worst Reasons originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 07/09/24: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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