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In 2010, I decided to attend grad school. A little over a year out of undergrad, I had been gaining experience working at a nonprofit. But I found myself wanting a more formal education in the governance of nonprofit organizations.

My life was in a comfortable place, but I was beginning to wonder what else was out there in terms of a bigger and more challenging city than my hometown, higher education, and more opportunities for professional and personal growth. I began researching schools with nonprofit management curricula, and quickly learned that choosing the correct path for my future would not be a quick or easy one.

Whereas an undergrad degree is an obvious choice for many, a graduate degree is something else entirely. Depending on your field, the programs can be expensive and the courses more challenging. And often people are busy working, being married, and sometimes even raising children while earning a higher degree. All in all, the decision to continue your education beyond the standard 4-year degree is no small one.

I remember the soul-searching that went into my own decision. It sounds so simple, but I had to sit down and ask myself: Why am I going to grad school? Deciding on a program means more than just attending classes; it can mean relocation, an investment of time and money, and a commitment to a certain profession or industry. 

Six years and one master’s degree later, I can confidently say I made the right choice continuing my education. But some people aren't so lucky. Don't end up with tons of debt or years of your life wasted because you went back to school for the wrong reasons. If you are considering grad school, as with any big life decision, start by looking at your motivations.

Why Do You Want to Go to Grad School?

It seems like a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. You want to study and get a degree in a chosen field. Fair enough. But is that all there is to it?

Some may view grad school as an out, or an escape, from a routine, everyday life. If you’ve been working at the same unchallenging job for a couple years, the chance to start fresh is appealing. If you're graduating from college and don't know what you want to do, maybe pursuing a professional degree to give you tangible skills seems appealing. Or perhaps you just want to move to a cooler town; get closer to friends; escape your parents; prove someone wrong; create an existence that resembles the lifestyle gurus you follow on Instagram. None of these are good reasons for investing in a higher degree.

If you view grad school as an out or escape, it’s time to determine if a wiser option is available: look for a different job, volunteer in a totally new field, find an internship to gain practical experience or pursue a certification instead. Investigate programs at a local college that are relevant to your interests. Test the waters first, and see if committing to an academic program at the university level is what you really want. Grad school is not a substitute for a job. And it’s not a placeholder until you figure out what you want to do with your life. 

What Job Awaits You?

One critical distinction between undergraduate and graduate school is how employers interpret your education when hiring. Your B.A. in Marketing or English can be completely irrelevant to the work you end up doing (I know, I’ve been there). A master’s or doctorate, however, signals to potential employers that you are an expert in that field, and you’re looking for a career there. An undergraduate degree is a bit more flexible; a master’s is more final.

If you’re investing resources and time into a graduate program, have a very clear idea of the job that waits on the other side. Is the school you’re choosing located in the right city for that type of work? Will the connections you make there, including among your professors, prove valuable in finding a job? What about internships while you’re in school—are they available nearby? Alternatively, will you have to continue your education and pursue another degree after graduation to find employment? Do you even like the types of jobs associated with your degree?

In my own search for the right school, I ended up choosing the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. This followed a period of intense indecision as another school on the west coast—USC—offered me a very generous scholarship. It’s strange to think how my life would have turned out had I chosen USC, but one of the biggest deciding factors was location.

Los Angeles is cool and has great weather, and the program itself was ranked as highly as American’s. But did it really match my career goals? I wanted to work in nonprofits or the public sector, and DC has an abundance of opportunities. Sure enough, I found a variety of internships in both the nonprofit and public sector during school and was offered a job—an ideal job, too—immediately after graduation. It is hard for me to say with certainty this would have been the case in Los Angeles. But I understood that my purpose in attending grad school was not to launch off on a quest to “find myself” out West, but to accumulate a definite set of skills and, afterward, build a career.

Lastly, Can You Afford the Risk?

All the questions surrounding the decision to seek a higher degree relate in some way to how prepared you are to take a risk on a big life change. This involves a real sacrifice of time and money into your future, the benefits of which may not appear immediately. The risk is that your investment may not pay off.

My friend John has experienced this. He attended grad school twice. The first time, to earn a JD, was—in his own words—“The absolute wrong choice.”

“When I went to law school, I honestly didn’t really know much about it, the legal profession or what it means to be an attorney,” he explains. “I was at a point where I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life and it seemed a straightforward option. But I didn’t understand what my personal goals were.” John spent time researching the curriculum, but not the profession or field, the culture of the school or how difficult it would be to find a job as an attorney. More importantly, he didn’t realize that his personality was in no way suited for the law profession. “I was naïve. I spent tens of thousands of dollars of student loans for a degree I don’t necessarily need. Plus, it was three years of time studying things I’ll never use, and not developing in the ways I needed to. It set me back in that sense. “

A few years after graduation and upon reassessing his career goals, John entered a different program, eventually earning a master’s in Public Administration and establishing a career in the public sector. What was the difference? This time, he not only understood the risk, but his goals for attending school and the best way and place to achieve them. “That is part of the key–don’t look at it from the terminal perspective, but as the starting point for a specific trajectory of your career. It’s not just about the experience of the classroom. The degree is your entry into a sector. You have to make sure that whole picture is what you’re wanting for the duration.”

So, Are You Ready?

Attending grad school can be a deeply rewarding experience. It is uniquely fulfilling to see years of preparation and hard work come to life in a meaningful career. If you’ve asked the right questions and you feel you’re ready, there are plenty of resources available to begin the journey.

Check out the Princeton Review, known for its school ranking system by area of study. Speak with others about their experiences. Think about your personality, the type of place you would like to live, the amount of debt you’re willing to take on, and where you want to be on the other side of the program.

And take heart: if you still end up making the wrong choice, there are second chances, as John’s experience shows. Plus, no experience is ever truly lost; mistakes are an opportunity to learn. The important thing is to understand the risk, weigh that with your passion, and go with the choice that makes the most sense for you.

Over four years into my life here in DC (and with no desired end in sight), the risk has paid off enormously on both a professional and personal level. This is priceless, and this is exactly what I would wish for anyone seeking an answer to whether grad school is the next step: seek the option which you believe will bring you joy and fulfillment.

Photo Credit: Sigfrid Lundberg