4 Questions to Ask Before Pursuing a Master's Degree

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Back-to-school season is just around the corner, but kids aren't the only ones heading back to the classroom. Mid-career professionals are also weighing whether a return to school is the right choice for them. While the decision to return to school is a personal one, trend lines indicate that increasingly employers value - or even expect - graduate degrees and advanced credentials during the hiring process. Benefits of a master's degree include facilitating a career pivot, broadening your professional network, improving the likelihood for a big promotion, and even giving you a nice paycheck bump.

Still, the decision to pursue a master's degree should not be made lightly. If you will be attending school part-time while continuing to work full-time, how will you juggle work-life balance?  If you will be enrolled full-time, how will you cover tuition and living expenses if you're not working? Will you be taking out loans to pay for school, or does your employer offer financial assistance? If you're frustrated with your current career trajectory, will the graduate program offer the prestige or network necessary to pivot effectively in a new direction?

As a society, we're raised to believe that education is a good thing- and it undoubtedly is. But with the cost of advanced degrees reaching into the six figures, it's critical that you carefully evaluate the opportunity cost and benefits - as well as your expectations - before making the leap.

These four questions will help guide your evaluation process as you decide whether to get a master's degree:

1. How Will I Ensure I Have Time for Studying?

Do you plan to continue full-time employment while pursuing your degree? If so, take a good hard look at your current schedule. Will you have sufficient time to study? If your current job's hours are unpredictable, or you often work overtime, you'll need to be flexible in other aspects of your life to find time to study.

With online courses helping professionals obtain degrees ranging from an MBA to a master's degree in health administration, technology has made it easier than ever for full-time professionals to become part-time students and obtain higher education on a schedule that works for them.

It's also worth having an honest conversation with your supervisor about pursuing your degree. Depending on your relationship with your manager, you could request remote working hours on test days, or you may be allowed to make your schedule more flexible while you're studying. There may even be a quiet area at work you've never discovered that is ideal for lunch break study sessions.

2. What Type of Savings Do I Have for My Degree?

Taking out significant student loans without a feasible repayment structure can hurt your long-term financial security. If your company does not offer financial assistance for graduate degrees, you may wish to switch jobs to a company that does. Programs such as the
can help offset some expenses. However, having savings stockpiled before you pursue your master's degree is critical in case:
  • You decide you need to cut back hours at work
  • You don't want to pay high and long-lasting interest rates on student loans
  • You don't recoup the investment you put into your studies

3. How Will This Impact My Current Obligations?

Think about all your priorities outside of your job. Are you a parent of young children? In a committed relationship? A caretaker for a parent? Do you have a lot of activities outside of work you regularly attend, such as volunteering at a community center? Studying for a master's degree will impact how you to how you spend your time. Manage expectations in advance and discuss your decision with those who will be affected.

4. Am I Passionate Enough to Accept No Guaranteed Return on Investment?

Even with straight A's, there's no guarantee that you'll see a return on your degree investment. Case in point: the thousands of law school graduates who are now struggling for jobs in an increasingly competitive legal marketplace. Ten months after graduation,
. That's bad news for law students who amass on average $127,000 in debt for private law degrees and $88,000 for public law degrees.

Factors outside of your control, such as fluctuating job markets or a number of qualified candidates already in the workforce, can impact your return on investment. Before assuming a master's degree means an automatic paycheck and position bump, consult the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics to assess demand in your field and average salaries. You may realize that investing the same amount of time and energy in starting your own business, for example, will result in a better career trajectory. Conversely, you may also realize that you lack the business skills necessary to successfully grow a business and that a part-time MBA is critical to helping you achieve your long-term career goals.

Bottom line:

Obtaining a master's degree can positively impact both your professional and personal development. But doing so is also a serious commitment that deserves serious reflection. Approach a master's degree as you would another strategic career choice: carefully weigh the costs and benefits, seek feedback from professional mentors and loved ones, and ultimately make a decision that's aligned with your long-term goals.