Is Grad School Worth It?

It’s the ultimate stress-inducing question that almost every college grad faces: Is graduate school worth it? There are certainly a lot of benefits.

For one, there’s about a 30 percent difference in average annual salaries between those who hold graduate degrees and those who hold a bachelor’s degree. According to the United States Census Bureau, those who hold master’s degrees or higher earn an average salary of $55,242 compared to those with a bachelor’s degree, whose average salary is $42,877.

But while this may seal the deal for some on the question of grad school, it’s not necessarily the right path for everyone.

I’m currently in a full time graduate program working on a master’s in Public Policy. In the end, I felt it was the best choice for me because I’m interested in public service and felt I needed more solid skills in quantitative research and analytical skills to give me an edge in the workforce.

Before I applied, I weighed the decision as to whether graduate school was the right option for my career interests and goals, whether I could afford it, and what program I thought would best equip me for the workforce. I know that it was the right decision, but this may not be the case for everyone.

So here’s what to consider when deciding on graduate school for a government career:

When Graduate School Pays Off

  • Depending on the field, advanced degrees can pay huge dividends. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce has an interactive tool that allows you to see future earnings by potential areas of study. Engineering, social work, IT, law, and public policy all seem to have high returns in government. MBAs can also be highly valuable depending on where you’re aiming. Some degrees that are more research or liberal arts based may not make you as competitive, so it’s important to weigh your options.
  • Advance your career. A grad degree can open up a wide array of career opportunities and can lead you to higher pay categories in government. There are many pathways programs in government for entry-level professionals. A graduate degree can grant you access to more high-ranking positions, and you’ll also be eligible for competitive programs like the Presidential Management Fellows Program.
  • Upgrade your education. Whether your knowledge of your field is outdated, or you feel that you could improve on your skills for the workforce, an advanced degree can help get you there. A graduate degree can further your education, research opportunities, and make you more knowledgeable on the skills and subject matter of your interests.
  • Work on advanced projects. Getting a master’s means becoming a “master” of knowledge in your field. While college helps you learn how to learn, a graduate program is where you not only learn, but also become a producer of knowledge. You gain improved skills, knowledge, and attain opportunities to work on highly advanced projects, which definitely builds your readiness for the workforce.
  • Gain access to advanced equipment, databases, and tools. The great thing about being in school, especially grad school, is the access to free resources! As a grad student, I have unlimited access to computer labs, research from the library and online sources, knowledgeable professors, and a career center with free counseling. Additionally, there are always government agencies on campus recruiting students, so this can really give you a leg up to a government career.
  • Build a solid network. In terms of social life, college is about networking. But let’s be real, it’s more about making drinking buddies and life-long friends. Grad school is where you can make some real professional contacts. Your cohort could be your future coworkers or hold connections to places you may want to work. The grad school network definitely gives you an edge because you’re part of an elite segment of the population entering the workforce together, so you can help each other out.

When Graduate School Ain’t Worth It provides a succinct list of considerations when grad school may not be the best decision. When deciding, it’s important to have a strong picture of long-term and short-term goals. If you find your goals fit little of the criteria for reasons to go, grad school may just not be the best move for you right now. Whatever your rationale, be honest with yourself as this decision is not to be made lightly:

  • You have no idea what you’re doing with your life. If this is the case, going to grad school should be among the last things you do. A graduate education can be a highly useful tool to help you accomplish what you want to achieve in life, but it will definitely not resolve any confusion you have about what to do after you graduate. Instead, it may be a better idea to take a year or two off from school and travel, gain work experience, and volunteer. Grad schools look for work experience in their candidates anyway, and they definitely can weed out the candidates who are just going to grad school because they don’t know what else they need to do in life.
  • You’ve always had a casual interest in a particular subject. Grad school should not be based on the notion, “Gee, I think research on Indigenous populations is cool.” If you have a strong research in a particular subject, grad school is a great way to advance your knowledge in the subject. But if it’s a casual interest, as in something you just read about in the news and think might be interesting, this doesn’t necessarily make grad school a solid choice. Graduate school exposes you to a vast array of research opportunities and your ideas and interests may easily change. Unless you’re sure you want to dedicate your life to academic research on a certain topic, there are many less expensive and time-consuming options to pursue some research interests here and there. Remember, grad schools look for solidified research interests and how you’d use graduate school to contribute to research all while advancing in your career.
  • You’re having difficulty in the job hunt. While grad school can be a great tool to enhance your career opportunities, going to grad school for a job search is not the best approach. There are plenty of college grad entry-level positions available in government. It’s also important to realize that once you complete grad school, you will find yourself in the same position again: looking for jobs. Graduate admissions prefer to see some work experience and employers also place a great deal of weight on your experience, not just your education.
  • It costs A LOT. This is probably the number one deterrent for those considering grad school. Is it affordable? That’s why it’s extremely important to consider your options, your future goals, and solidify exactly where you’re aiming in your career before considering grad school. If you still feel unsure about your future and are not sure about where you want to work or what you want to study, it’s definitely not worth the steep costs and likely student debt to waste time to “figure it out.”

Talk to your peers and family members when deciding. It’s a big life decision and has a lot of long-term consequences down the road, both negative and positive.

Are any of you considering a graduate program right now or are in a graduate program? What are your thoughts about graduate school? I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips in the comments below!


For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial

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Mark Hammer

1) We’re slowly getting there, but many undergraduate and graduate programs are not particularly good at preparing students to create their own jobs. Not that it *should* be students’ obligation to do so, but I think many here will echo the sentiment that, apart from explicitly “professional” programs/degrees (business school, nursing, law, etc.), there is a tacit assumption that one is being trained to eventually replace the people who taught us. Teaching is a noble avocation, but the facts are that there are very limited opportunities to be that person, and many of us aren’t cut out for it. How many graduate programs include a practical course in consultancy or simply a seminar on applied issues that might help graduates expand their career horizons beyond the two choices of academia or barista?

2) Societally, we have a problematic disconnect between the social institutions of retirement, family life, and higher education. We think of them in silos, but they are linked. The social institution of retirement is predicated on entering the work-force, and beginning family and professional life, early enough that one can accumulate enough resources to withdraw from the labour force at some later point, and still live an acceptable life. While there are many lines of work that permit one to be valued and valuable in later adulthood without having to be physically robust, there are widespread societal expectations that one would be, and should be, doing something *other* than going to work when you’re 70. Having a late point of entry into adult family and professional roles, by virtue of tacking on several (or more, in my own case) years of graduate school, will inevitably have an impact on the likelihood that one will be able to retire at something approximating a normative age. Even where retirement is a non-issue, there are physical expectations associated with parenthood, and delaying adult life/roles by a half-dozen years here or there can be taxing. As eminent gerontologist Bernice Neugarten framed it, more in one’s life becomes “off-time” when you start/arrive later ( ).

None of this is an argument NOT to pursue those forms of higher learning that captivate and inspire you. But there is much more to it than simply dangling compensation-levels in front of people. There are important choices to be made about what sort of life you want to, or can, live. And, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed the nearly dozen years I spent in grad school, it’s not for everyone. My wife forfeited a doctoral scholarship and left in the middle of her Microbiology Ph.D. program, partly because all she saw around her were people “perma-doc-ing” (going from post-doc to post-doc in different cities in search of an academic appointment). She’s done alright with a “Masters-and-a-half”.

Francesca El-Attrash

Mark, thank you for your thoughtful feedback! You bring up a lot of great points there. In particular, I haven’t considered how master’s and higher degree programs can delay retirement in many ways. I hope people read your comments carefully, as you bring up many other important considerations for those considering grad school!

Mark Hammer

Thanks Francesca.
I should add that there is nothing written in stone that says graduate training should necessarily be contiguous with primary, secondary, and undergraduate education, such that one doesn’t start “real life” until that last degree or diploma is obtained. Fortunately, it is possible to enter the adult world, early enough, and return to school later on. However, I have to say that one is served a slightly bigger piece of humble pie when you come back to the student role after having some degree of authority and autonomy in the workplace. For some of us, that requisite humility comes a LOT easier when we’re younger. One *can* pursue graduate training at a later age, but you have to want it, not just stumble into it.

Full disclosure: I didn’t receive my doctorate until I was 42.


I went back to get my master’s degree when I was 50 years old. It was a great experience, but as my advisor said, he had to remember that I was different. I went back to grad school to get a masters in civil engineering after being a landscape architect for 20+ years. I had to take a year of pre-requisites in calculus, physics, statics and dynamics. The undergrad work was tough enough but the grad courses took it up another level, especially since I really hadn’t done much serious math for years. The thing that made me different from my cohort, besides my age, is that I had a specific focus for being there; I came in with a research project that was supported by my employer and with that came money to fund the research; and I like to learn new things. In terms of the last item I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to take soooo many classes, but I had to finish my masters degree in a year so I had to reign that in considerably.
I remember during orientation asking some of my classmates what areas they were going to focus their studies and I was shocked that most of them didn’t know. The most common answer I got was that a graduate degree in engineering is the new undergrad degree and that you had to have a master’s to advance. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in general, but in some cases, especially specialized areas, it is.
My wife went back to grad school in her late 40’s after working as a floor nurse for 25 years. She wanted to teach so she got her PhD (at 51) and is teaching, doing research and flourishing. She waited until our kids were in college and high school before undertaking it though.
I guess my take away is that never too late to go back to school, but I do agree that you need to have a really good reason and focus for doing it. It is a big, expensive decision in more ways than one. One last piece of advice, if you have a family, make sure that they’re on board with it because it will become an all consuming life event. We had to make a lot of adjustments to our normal lives while we were in school but in the end it was worth it.