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5 questions to ask before investing in graduate school

Considering graduate school? These questions can help you evaluate the financial benefits and tradeoffs of investing in a graduate degree. 
Whether you’re finishing a bachelor’s degree or considering going back to school after years in the workforce, pursuing a graduate degree is a life-changing decision that can advance your career. It can also come with a hefty price tag.
Here are some questions to consider before making this investment.

1) Is a graduate degree required for your dream career, or can you take other paths to enhance your skills?

A graduate or professional degree is mandatory for some careers, such as practicing medicine or law. However, in other fields, such as computer science, your work experience may be more important than your education. If you’re unsure of the requirements needed for your target career, the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good starting point to learn more about education and career progression.
If a graduate degree isn’t essential, consider other ways to achieve your goals. Could you develop specific skills through free online courses or by pursuing a graduate certificate program? If you’re interested in computer programming, would a programming boot camp meet your needs? Could you expand your network—and in turn, discover more work opportunities—by joining professional organizations and using social media sites such as LinkedIn?
It’s good to explore your options. And this doesn’t necessarily mean graduate school will be ruled out. These steps may reinforce that graduate school is the best choice for you.

2) What are the total costs of a graduate degree program?

The cost of graduate school can vary widely, based on the degree you’re pursuing and the institution. When evaluating a program, consider tuition and program fees, as well as upfront costs such as admissions tests and application fees.
If the school is in a different city, you might need to make adjustments to your budget to account for the difference in cost of living.

3) Are there funding opportunities besides loans to cover the cost of the program?

There are many ways to help fund your education. Among them are:
  • Scholarships offered by educational institutions: Browse the school’s financial aid website and the academic program website to learn more about scholarship opportunities specific to graduate students.
  • Scholarships from other organizations: Many corporations, foundations, and professional organizations offer financial assistance to students. Scholarship search engines, such as cappex.com or scholarships.com, can help you to identify scholarships that best fit your background and academic path.
  • Fellowships: The government and private organizations sometimes fund research of a specific subject.
  • Assistantships: Many academic institutions employ graduate students as teaching assistants or research assistants. In exchange, you receive a stipend that can help cover your education costs.
  • Employer tuition benefits: Some employers provide tuition reimbursement. If you’re employed, check with your Human Resources department to see if your company offers these benefits.

4) What are the opportunity costs of pursuing a graduate degree?

It’s important to consider what you could miss out on while in school. If you plan to reduce your work hours or leave your job, calculate the income you’ll forgo while completing your degree. If you plan to hold off on making contributions to a retirement account during this period, that can have a long-term impact on your finances.
Keep in mind: if your graduate degree leads to a significant increase in your salary, that could offset these opportunity costs

5) What is your projected starting salary after graduate school?

On average, people who have a master’s or other advanced degree earn more than people who hold only a bachelor’s. However, these gains vary widely depending on the field.
The average salary of someone in the U.S. with a master’s in mechanical engineering is 25 percent more than someone with a bachelor’s in that area, according to payscale.com, which provides salary, benefits and compensation data. Yet, earning a master’s in communication leads to an average salary increase of only 6 percent.
To help estimate your earning potential after graduate school, explore sites that provide salary data, such as payscale.com and glassdoor.com. These sites allow you to tailor the results based on experience level and opportunities in your region. On payscale.com, users can also search by degree to compare the average salary of someone with a bachelor’s vs. an advanced degree.
Getting a feel for your starting salary can help you to determine how much student loan debt you can comfortably take on. A good rule of thumb is to avoid borrowing more money than the projected earnings for your first year after graduation.

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