When you’re trying to figure out what kind of career you want, one major thing to take into account is whether you’ll need more education after college. It’s a big decision, especially if additional schooling will mean you’ll need to take out a loan. On the one hand, a graduate degree might lead to your dream career, but on the other hand, it can definitely be expensive. Should you listen to the part of your brain that says “follow your dreams!” or pay more attention to the part that worries “this is going to make me fall deep into a money pit!”? We asked a couple of experts to break down the top questions to ask yourself, so you can figure out the right answer for your finances — and your happiness.
What’s driving your decision?
Take a minute to reflect on why you’re leaning toward this particular career path. Make sure it’s something that you want—not something that your friends or parents think is the right fit for you, advises psychologist Maggie Baker, Ph.D., the author of Crazy About Money.
Try writing down five specific things that are encouraging you to enter that field. For example, are you excited by international travel? The opportunity to help others? The intellectual stimulation? If you can’t think of five things, that’s either a sign that you’re on the wrong path or that you need to learn more about the career.
Reach out to friends or friends of friends who work in that field or search for connections on LinkedIn, and ask them to coffee or for an informational interview so you can get the nitty-gritty details. Find out what a typical day in that industry is like, as well as the pros and cons. Perhaps you could even snag an internship, shadow someone for a day, or do some freelance or volunteer work to get a better sense of whether you’ll like the job.
Do you already have loans from undergrad?
If you do, think carefully about how graduate student loans could add to that load. “The average amount of debt for graduate school is $100,000 dollars, which translates to a loan payment of about $1,200/month for 10 years,” says financial planner Joe Orsolini, CFP, president of at College Aid Planners, Inc in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “If you’re also paying undergraduate student loans, tack on that amount, which is often just under $300/month for 10 years.”
Women are hit especially hard by this: A new report from the American Association of University Women found that women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree owe, on average, $2,700 more in student loans than men. Combine that with the gender gap in pay, and you can see why women also take longer to pay off their loans.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t go to grad school or strive for what you want. Just recognize that the journey to reaching your professional goals may mean making some sacrifices along the way.
What are your career aspirations?
Depending on what they are, grad school may be able to help you reach them. Having an advanced degree may set you apart from other job candidates, and the experience can expand your worldview and skillset. Plus, it can set you up with a valuable network of supportive friends and professional contacts. There’s also a certain level of prestige and status that comes along with a graduate degree, if that’s important to you.
But that doesn’t mean you have to commit to more education to get a life and career that will bring you happiness. It’s a personal decision. Have you dreamed about becoming a social worker since you were a little kid and can’t imagine going into any other line of work? If that’s the case, grad school might be key to your life satisfaction. On the flip side, if you’ve only recently begun flirting with the idea of law school, and it’s one of many fields that interest you, you might want to do more thinking before you make a decision.
How much does your dream job pay?
Check out a site like Payscale, which provides typical salaries for various jobs in different areas of the country. If the salary is high—let’s say six figures—then it’s easier to justify paying for graduate school. But if it’s more in the neighborhood of $40,000, think about how that would affect your lifestyle.
After you write that figure down, Orsolini recommends estimating what other fixed expenses you’ll have as a young adult: things like rent, utilities, food, etc. Add everything up and see how much money you’d need to bring home each month after taxes to live the kind of life you want.
If it will be tight, ask yourself if there are temporary sacrifices that you’re willing to make. For example, are you okay with living at home for a while (and are your parents cool with that)? Could you trade in your car for a cheaper model or sell it and carpool or bike to school? Are you willing to live in a less pricey part of the country for a while (and will there be good job opportunities for you if you do)?
The ultimate question to really think hard on: Will these temporary tradeoffs be ones you’ll be psyched to make, because they’re leading you to something you really want, or will they seriously harm your happiness? These are tough questions to ask yourself, but they’ll make you confident in your decision either way, and help you avoid making a choice you regret later on, says Dr. Baker.
Have you exhausted all other options?
It’s generally not a good idea to dip into any personal savings or an emergency fund for graduate school, says Orsolini. If you ever find yourself in a crisis, you will want to have that money available. But, don’t forget to ask about financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, or work/study programs. Anything that reduces or eliminates student loan debt is worth exploring.
Another option is delaying grad school and getting a job first. Some companies will pay for you to get an advanced degree part-time at night or on weekends (or at least help offset the cost). While it’s a time-consuming strategy that requires a lot of hard work and discipline, it’s the best of both worlds, financially speaking: You’ll have a regular salary and no student loan debt.
And, you could also consider price when choosing your school. If you had your heart set on a fancy university but realize that you simply can’t afford it, look at public options, which may cost half as much.
What kind of personal life do you envision?
If you see yourself getting married and having kids someday, it’s smart to think about those goals now in the context of the career that you’re seeking, says Dr. Baker, even if you’re years away from that stage. Do you plan on being a full-time working parent? Or is staying home with your kids for a certain number of years important to you? Find out how family-friendly the industry you’re interested in is, and how much things like childcare cost. Ask yourself how loan payments will figure into those major life decisions. Of course, you can’t control everything that’ll happen in the future. But the more you learn, the more prepared you’ll be to make a choice that’s right for you.