The COVID recession has hit young people particularly hard. According to the Brookings Institute, the unemployment rate for young adults nearly tripled from spring 2019 to spring 2020, leaving nearly 1 in 4 unemployed.
As Forbes pointed out in April 2020, higher education enrollment increased during previous recessions, but that pattern may not hold during the COVID recession. In Fall 2020, enrollment numbers dropped at the undergraduate level by 2.5%. However, graduate enrollment increased 3.9%.
It's easy to see why some are choosing to head back to grad school. A graduate degree can translate into higher earnings, lower unemployment rates, and more job opportunities. But is grad school worth it, particularly in the COVID-19 era?
Types of Graduate Degrees
When weighing graduate school, prospective applicants need to consider the differences between graduate programs. At the graduate level, students can pursue a master's degree, a professional degree, or a doctorate. While a one-year accelerated master's program might offer a career boost in one field, other jobs require a six-year doctorate.
A master's degree provides advanced training in an academic discipline. Graduate students can earn a master's degree in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, or the hard sciences. Some of these degrees train students for specific careers, while others do not lead directly into a career path.
A first-professional degree trains graduate students for specialized career paths, and they are often required for licensure. For example, law schools grant first-professional degrees that meet the requirements to practice law as an attorney. Degrees earned at medical schools are also first-professional degrees.
A doctorate is the highest degree in academia, and they are often required for academic and research careers. For example, a liberal arts doctorate often leads to opportunities as a tenure-track professor.
In other fields, a doctorate provides practice-oriented training. For example, a doctorate in education, nursing, or psychology prepares graduates for licensure and practice in those fields. These degrees are essentially professional doctorates, training graduates for specific careers.
Not every grad school program fits neatly into one category. Business, engineering, nursing, and public health programs, for example, offer both academic and professional training. Your field of study and the type of degree both play significant roles in determining whether grad school is a solid investment.
What to Do Before Applying to Grad School Programs
Graduate school can pay off — or it can mean high student loan payments without much added opportunity for career advancement. Prospective grad students should consider these questions before submitting applications to grad school programs.
Ask if you need a graduate degree to reach your career goals
In some fields, professionals need a graduate degree to qualify. For example, many healthcare careers, academic jobs, and research roles require a master's degree or doctorate. Similarly, in fields like education, a graduate degree helps educators advance into management roles, like principal.
However, in other careers a graduate degree isn't necessary. Many business management roles, for example, hire professionals with a bachelor's degree and related work experience. In other roles, a professional certification may provide the desired career boost while taking less time and financial commitment than a graduate degree.
Consider earning potential and job growth in your field
The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median salaries and projected job growth for hundreds of career paths. You can check out the highest paying or fastest growing jobs to help you make a strategic decision about earning an advanced degree. You can also look at field of degree data to learn more about employment and earning potential in different fields.
Take statistician, for example, which requires a master's degree for entry-level roles. The BLS reports median earnings of over $92,000 per year with much faster-than-average projected job growth between 2019-2029. Meanwhile, survey researchers also need a master's degree, but the BLS projects a decline in jobs.
Weigh the cost of grad school against the potential benefits
Enrolling in an expensive graduate program and going into debt to enter a field that offers low salaries might not make sense. In those fields, prospective students should look for funded graduate programs. Many academic doctoral programs, for example, fund doctoral students through assistantships and fellowships.
In other disciplines, applicants can seek out more affordable programs, research scholarship and grant opportunities, or work while attending grad school.
The Pros and Cons of Grad School
When considering whether grad school makes sense for you, it's also important to be realistic about the pros and cons of grad school. Earning a graduate degree requires a significant commitment of time and money, so prospective applicants should carefully weigh the benefits and costs.
Pro: Increased Earning Potential
Professionals with graduate degrees earn more over the course of their careers than those with only bachelor's degrees. According to 2015 data from the Social Security Administration, completing a graduate degree translates into an extra $1.5 million in lifetime earnings for men and $1.1 million for women.
The BLS backs up that data. In 2019, BLS data showed that professionals with a master's degree earn nearly $13,000 more per year on average than those with a bachelor's degree. A professional degree translates into even higher earnings: the equivalent of nearly $32,000 per year more in wages. A doctorate offered the highest increase, adding more than $33,000 each year compared to professionals with only a bachelor's degree.
Con: Loss of Income
Entering grad school can mean leaving the workforce for several years. Many full-time programs encourage students not to work while completing their degrees, and grad program duration can range from as little as one year to more than six years. During that time, graduate students lose out on salary and career advancement opportunities.
However, students can limit the loss of income by continuing to work while enrolling part-time, or they can choose a program geared toward working students.
Pro: New Career Opportunities
In certain fields, professionals need a graduate degree even for entry-level positions. If your career goals include working as a nurse practitioner, school principal, mental health counselor, clinical social worker, or college professor, you'll need a graduate degree. In other fields, employers prefer job candidates with a graduate degree, though it isn't required. For example, many supervisory and management careers prefer a master's degree.
Keep in mind that a graduate degree doesn't guarantee a job in any field.
Con: Cost of Graduate Tuition
Attending grad school can mean signing up for major monthly student loan payments, and for some fields, that could cancel out the increased earning potential.
The average cost of grad school tuition and fees grew to over $19,000 in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2017 Urban Institute report found that professional programs cost even more, with some programs exceeding $50,000 per year in tuition and fees. Prospective students should carefully weigh the cost of grad school against the increased earning potential in their specific field.
COVID-19 and Grad School
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a lot of uncertainty into the job market, and the economic recession may last longer than the pandemic, prompting many professionals to ask: Is it the right time to invest in a graduate degree? Is now a good time to go to grad school?
The answer will likely depend on your current career, your field, and your goals after grad school. In some fields, the pandemic has created significant challenges for educating students.
In disciplines that rely on internships or practicum training, safety protocols may make it hard to complete graduation requirements. In March 2020, a number of nursing programs shut down their clinical training programs. Online training programs may work well for some fields, but they are less effective for others.
Similarly, graduate programs that rely on travel to conferences or research sites may also be more difficult. History grad students, for instance, can't visit international archives to conduct dissertation research.
However, a graduate degree can help candidates stand out on the job market during a recession. Even in times of low unemployment, professionals with a graduate degree reported lower unemployment rates than those with a bachelor's degree. In 2019, professionals with a bachelor's degree reported a 2.2% unemployment rate. That number dropped to 2% for those with a master's degree, 1.6% for those with a professional degree, and 1.1% for those with a doctorate.
In the end, is grad school worth it? The ultimate answer depends on the student. By carefully considering the options, prospective applicants can make the best choice for their unique circumstances.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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