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Questions to consider before pursuing an advanced degree

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Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010 12:00 am

Pursuing an advanced degree has long been considered a good career move. While the decision often depends on an individual's field of work, most employers are impressed by applicants with advanced degrees.

In the current economic climate, however, the value of advanced degrees has become a point of contention. With so many people unemployed, one argument goes that an advanced degree can make a given applicant stand out from the rest. On the other hand, companies with limited  budgets may look at applicants with advanced degrees as luxuries they cannot afford.

Though both sides of that debate make valid points, in the end it's up to the individual to decide if pursuing an advanced degree is worth it, and whether or not it will help or hinder his or her ability to find new work or advance with a current employer. When making that decision, individuals should ask themselves the following questions to make the best choice possible.

Who is footing the bill?

Most people are aware of how expensive an undergraduate degree can be. But those who are just now considering an advanced degree may feel some sticker shock when researching programs. According to the Finaid.org, a Web site devoted to providing student financial aid information, graduate students accumulate an additional $30,000 to $120,000 in debt to their pre-existing debts from undergraduate studies. The median additional debt for a Master's degree is $25,000, while doctoral students can expect to accrue an additional $52,000 in debt.

With such heavy financial stakes, it's important for individuals consider who will be footing the bill for their advanced degree. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement, but such offerings are usually capped. Employees can choose a course here or there to fall below the maximum, but that typically means it will take significantly longer to complete a degree. Some graduate programs even mandate a graduate degree is completed in a certain amount of time, which might make it impossible for employees to fund their graduate degrees through a tuition reimbursement program with a cap on how much will be reimbursed. Individuals without substantial cash resources set aside for an advanced degree or those with an aversion to adding significant debt might determine that an advanced degree is not worth it.

Is it worth it?

An advanced degree does not pay off in every field. Data collected by the United States Census Bureau in 1996 revealed that someone with a master's degree in liberal arts earned just $5 more per month than someone with a bachelor's degree in the same field.  Social sciences master's degrees also did not fare too well, earning less than the average bachelor's degree in the same field.

So while conventional wisdom suggests an advanced degree is always worth it, that's clearly not the case with certain degrees and fields of work. Consider the price versus the payoff when determining the viability of pursuing an advanced or professional degree. While medical students often borrow upwards of $100,000 for their degrees, USCB data showed that's clearly worth it, as the payoff for doing so is nearly $1 million. If the payoff is so high compared to the price, chances are it's worth it. If not, that's a decision only the individual can make.

Is this really what you want?

The high rate of unemployment has naturally led many people back to the classroom. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics published a graph in 2008 that illustrated a good correlation between unemployment rates and fluctuation in the number of graduate school enrollees. That's not surprising, as many people use unemployment as a motivator to pursuing an advanced degree or view that advanced degree as a tool that will keep them from being laid off in the future.

However, the decision should not be reached hastily, particularly by those who are unemployed. As noted above, graduate school is a major financial commitment, one that should only be made if it's truly what an individual wants and not just an attempt to avoid returning to the unemployment office down the road.

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