For many of us, the first 20-plus years of our lives are dominated by study. We spend so much time in school preparing for our professional lives, and it becomes easy to think that another course, certification, or degree will be the thing to propel a career forward. It’s important to zoom out from the idea that education is always the answer when deciding if a grad degree is the right move for you. Seeing a bigger picture allows you to evaluate the merits of such a large investment of time, money, and resources.
There isn’t a hard-and-fast way to determine if grad school is right for any one person. It’s about gathering as much info as you can and challenging assumptions.
Reflect on past experiences
First, consider your undergrad work and the lessons you learned in that time. Did you appreciate certain courses or styles of teaching more than others? Were you all about the campus life, 100-percent focused on school, or juggling studying with work and family obligations? What would you like to replicate from that time, and what is best left in the past? Reflecting on these questions will inform your decision to return to school and the type of programs for which you might apply.
Look forward to the future
We often get more excited about study than what comes after, so researching your post-degree career path will be essential for you to move forward. There are a number of places to get information about your future job prospects. Start with schools that offer your program of study. Their admissions team should have information about the career paths of graduates and also have alumni for you to chat with to learn about their journeys. When connecting with schools, you can also find out about their curriculum, professors, job placement opportunities, and class audits.
You can also learn more about your future path by looking at job descriptions. Notice if the job descriptions you’re most excited about require a graduate degree. If you haven’t seen many with that requirement, start there to learn more about what jobs you might get with the degree you’re interested in. You can also base your online searches solely on roles that require your proposed degree to see what jobs come up.
Meet with people who have the career you’re aiming for
Never underestimate the importance of informational interviews. Talk with people who have the jobs you hope to get down the road and get their perspectives about their roles and how a degree may help you reach your long-term goals.
Inquire about the differences they see in future prospects for people with or without a graduate degree. There are some industries where the market is so saturated with degrees that the pay has not increased proportionally. Remember that studying a topic is not always the same as doing the work in that field, so get a clear understanding from those who have real-world experience in your desired field of study.
Read more: 48 Useful Informational Interview Questions
Test the waters by getting some experience
What exposure have you had to the degree you’re interested in pursuing? It’s time to test your assumptions about what study and the future will look like.
I once worked with a client who made a career change from television production to physical therapy. It was a complete 180-degree shift, and she took small steps to ensure she was making the right move. She started with identifying her strengths, then started to take the prerequisites for a physical therapy degree to ensure the vastly different area of focus was of interest. Next, she started to volunteer at a hospital working with those who were going through physical therapy themselves. It helped her to understand her future clients, their struggles, and the environment that physical therapists work in. These steps were essential in her confirming and reconfirming along the way that she was making the right decision.
Examine your strengths
For that same client, we started with strengths to look at her natural tendencies and the work that lit her up. We used the CliftonStrenghts assessment, which is a fantastic and low-cost option. And there are many ways you can discover your strengths on your own. You could start by creating a daily or weekly journaling routine to see what lights you up at work, what brings you down, and what you could take or leave. You’ll start to see themes there. One of my favorite ways to examine strengths is to take your resume and reorganize the bullets in order of what you enjoyed most. Identifying your strengths can help to evaluate both your potential program of study and your future job prospects.
Consider the cost
Finally, consider the full big picture when it comes to costs. Are you ready to foot the bill, apply for financial aid, or get your organization to cover the costs? What costs are incurred beyond tuition? Will you lose income during study? Depending on your field, you may get through a program tuition-free if you do research for the school, or you might find that a company has a scheme to pay for your schooling in exchange for staying at the company for a set amount of time.