Career: How to know if going to graduate school is a good idea

Contributing ColumnistMarch 3, 2014 

Theresa Mickelwait

In my work in career coaching, I have noticed an increased trend, especially among college students, in the desire to go to graduate school.

On one hand, I could applaud this as an acclaim to the value of higher education. However, instead of just congratulating someone on their decision to further their knowledge, I dig deeper to inquire about the reasons for this pursuit which could be a hindrance to your career.

Let me begin with addressing the wrong reasons to go to graduate school. I commonly see college students wanting to go to graduate school simply to delay entering the workforce. One reason for that is they simply don't know what they want to do. Another is fear; fear of a poor job market or fear of having to grow up and support themselves. All of this has more to do with their mental attitude than with a tangible benefit of getting a higher degree.

Some employers are unwilling to hire someone with a graduate degree when it is not required for the job because they see the job candidate as overqualified. To the employer, a graduate degree means you will want more money or that you might be a flight risk and leave for another job that uses your degree. Either way, it can limit you career options.

Here are my top four reasons getting a graduate degree might be a good idea:

1. It is required for the career you want, such as teaching in higher education. Some fields require a terminal degree for licensure to practice, such as psychology. And most areas of academic research will require a Ph.D. although there are also research assistants and other related jobs that do not require that level of education.

2. Improve your application for another program. I recommend this to students that plan to go on to a professional program, such as medicine, but may need to strengthen their application. It is a good strategy if your GPA is a weak area of your application to demonstrate that you can handle graduate level coursework.

3. Greater earning potential — maybe. Don't bank on this. Getting a graduate degree does not automatically ensure you will make more money than with a bachelor's degree. You have to compare apples to apples. An undergraduate degree in engineering or business might make you more money than a master's degree in some other lower paying field.

But within your field, a graduate degree might make more than a bachelor's degree. It could also allow for quicker advancement into management, but not necessarily. Actual experience usually trumps education.

4. Increased credibility. This one is not for everyone. I don't recommend getting a degree just because you think it will impress people especially considering the possible hindrances.

However, if you are going into an field that highly values education, a higher degree can earn more respect. Also it can sometimes increase public perception of your credibility in some political and entrepreneurial endeavors.

The best thing to do if you are unsure of your career goals is to find resources to help you. You may have to find employment to support yourself in the meantime while you figure out if getting a graduate degree is the right decision for you. And a good career coach can help you address some of the mental roadblocks that are hindering your career. You need to address the real issue, not try to mask it with more education.

Theresa Mickelwait holds a master's degree in psychology and a certificate in career coaching from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. She is a senior assistant director at the University of Kentucky James W. Stuckert Career Center. Reach her at Theresa.Mickelwait@uky.edu

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