Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

Going back to school won't necessarily earn you more money. Find out what you should consider first.

Will an Advanced Degree Advance Your Career?

It seems like all the pieces are in place for the next giant leap in your career: Your friend told you his sister went back to school for a professional degree and, a week after graduating, landed a job with a $10,000 salary increase.

So you know a degree would boost your pay. You know from your college experience five years or three decades ago that you're comfortable living on a student's diet of rice and beans. You've got a couple of blank grad school applications on your dining room table, so why not fill them out and take the plunge?

Before you quit your job or your job search to pursue an MBA or other advanced degree, you owe it to yourself to think more deeply about this major fork in the road of work and life. Here are some major checkpoints for your go/no-go decision on graduate school.

Why Do You Want to Go Back to School?

Begin your deliberations with the basics. "One of the most important factors is, where is this going to get you?" says Jane Finkle, a Philadelphia career counselor. Finkle recommends that you thoroughly research the employment opportunities for graduates of the program you're considering.

Are you looking for advancement in your current field, or do you want to change careers? Either can be a good reason to get a graduate degree if you've thought things through.

Erin Doland is clear that career change is her prime motivator. "The more I sat behind a desk all day, the more I realized changing employers wasn't going to make me happy," says Doland, who quit her job as communications director for a nonprofit to pursue a master's degree in education at Johns Hopkins University.

Whatever you do, don't let outdated preconceptions prevent you from considering grad school. "People may get to a lull in their careers and think, 'I'm too old to make a career change,' but they're not," says Peter Syverson, vice president for research at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, DC.

What Will a Graduate or Professional Degree Do for You?

A cautionary tale: A high tech worker who asked not to be named was laid off from her job at a Massachusetts maker of medical devices. When she was studying for an MBA in healthcare administration at Canyon College, an online school based in Caldwell, Idaho, she was asked what job titles the new degree would qualify her for. Her response? "I'm not completely sure. As I read the paper, I see titles that are all new to me: billing manager, client and third-party resource delegate..."

Unlike this MBA student, be sure of the jobs your graduate degree will qualify you for, and how many graduates of the programs you're considering actually land those jobs. Also find out about those graduates' salary levels.

Ask admissions representatives for survey results from the program's recent graduates. Sit in on classes, and pick the brains of students enrolled in the program. Don't just listen to the marketing pitch of a student handpicked by the admissions office to sell you on the program, Finkle advises.

Your ultimate reality check: Ask potential future employers how they would value a particular degree from the programs you're looking into. Is the degree a requirement or preference for your target positions, or is it irrelevant?

How Will You Pay the Tuition -- and Live Without the Salary?

Suppose you've established all the right reasons for getting a graduate degree. Now the question is, can you afford -- or avoid -- the common triple whammy of lost income, tuition fees and then student loan payments?

Doland, who earned her bachelor's degree in 1998, says "it makes sense" for her and her husband to live like college students for two years. Since she hasn't been out of college that long, downshifting her lifestyle is easier for her than it might be for a mid-career worker accustomed to a second home and eating out five nights a week.

If you can't stomach the comedown, see if you can get a head start on your graduate coursework by keeping your job, taking classes part-time and getting your employer to pay the tuition.