Determining whether to go back to school for an advanced degree can be a very difficult decision as there is no simple rule to help you make that choice. Each person’s life, career goals, and situation is different. That said, this article will help you focus on a few of the main factors that you should think about when considering pursuing a graduate degree.
Why Pursue a Graduate Degree?
The most obvious reason is to earn a higher income. Those with a master’s degree have been shown to earn about $1,300 more each month, as compared to those with bachelors’ degrees. Similarly, those with professional degrees have been shown to earn about $6,500 more each month.
The next most common reason is to open up new career paths. With your current training and skills, you may be limited in how high you can rise in your field. Developing your educational credentials can open up new opportunities, especially if you want to redirect your career path or move into a specialized area of your field.
Which Degrees Should You Consider?
Master’s degrees are available in many fields, the most recognizable one being the Masters of Business Administration (or MBA). Also available are professional degrees, such as an attorney’s Juris Doctorate (or JD) and the physician’s doctor of medicine (MD). Beyond these degrees lies the Doctorate of Philosophy (or PhD) degree, which can be awarded in a variety of disciplines.
For attorneys, there is also a specialized degree called a master of laws (or LL.M.) degree, which is extremely valuable for career advancement. LL.M.s are granted in certain legal specialty practice areas, like taxation. Foreign-born attorneys, however, typically opt for the LL.M. in United States law because it can open many doors in terms of litigation and transactional work related to international business.
When is a Degree Not a Good Idea?
Again, the first consideration is financial. Taking on a large debt load without having a clear idea about how it will produce a financial return for you is generally a recipe for regret. Additionally, if you will have to take a leave of absence from your job, losing a steady paycheck is something that will require a lot of planning.
Degrees can even harm you, as strange as it sounds. Keep in mind that, as you educate yourself, you may become “overqualified” for some positions. You may be turned down when you submit applications for job openings on that basis.
Essentially, getting an advanced degree is not always beneficial. You need to have some sense of where the degree will take you, what it will cost you along the way, and whether the cost is worth it.
Steps to Take
Keeping this advice in mind, here are some steps you can take to get things started:
- Visualize your ideal career path. What do you ultimately want to do? What parts of your field are most interesting? What organizations would you like to work for? What positions would you like to hold? You don’t need to plan out your entire life, but a clear sense of direction of how you might like the next 5 years of your career to play out is very helpful.
- Do your research. Read up on the credentials you need to obtain your desired positions, if any (looking at the bios of people in your field that you might like to emulate is instructive). Then, read up on educational institutions that grant them.
- If a degree makes sense, how can you obtain one? Does your current employer offer tuition assistance? Will you need to take out loans? How long will it take to repay them?
The more carefully you answer these questions, the better. Don’t be too intimidated by the process. Life cannot be entirely planned out, and our goals change as we grow and learn more about ourselves. It’s okay to head in a direction that you think is correct, and then change course a bit later on. Just make sure that you are realistic about your true goals and the costs of attaining them, and you’ll be well on your way.
Chelsea Wilson is currently the community relations manager for Washington University School of Law’s online LL.M. Degree program, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Master of Laws degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world.