Should You Get Your Master’s or Ph.D.? How to Determine if Grad School is Worth It

BY Terri Williams

Should You Get Your Master’s or Ph.D.? How to Determine if Grad School is Worth It

The decision to attend graduate school varies greatly among those with bachelor’s degrees, according to a 2015 study by Georgetown University. For example, 77% of students who major in health and medical preparatory programs attend grad school, compared to 55.7% of public policy students, 38.4% of students who major in finance, and 1.3% of architectural engineering students.

And while a graduate degree certainly looks good on your resume, the return on investment isn’t always clear. Is it necessary for your job? Will it provide a competitive edge or salary increase? Or will you just be saddled with a lifetime of debt?

Below are 6 questions to ask to determine if graduate school is worth the time – and money – for you:

1. How Much Will It Cost?

Costs vary from program to program and from school to school. Below is a sample of several tuition costs:

Graduate School Costs (3)

According to David Bakke, a personal finance expert who blogs at, those who are thinking about grad school also need to consider other costs besides tuition and fees: “For example, if you’ll be going to school full-time and it takes you two years to graduate, that’s two year’s worth of salary that you won’t have.” Bakke also says that during those two years, you wouldn’t be contributing to your retirement savings, your emergency fund, or your kids’ college fund like you would otherwise. “Even keeping up with your monthly bills can be problematic,” he adds.

2. Does The Job You Want Require a Graduate Degree?

Dr. Nadja Graff, VP for the Division of Graduate Studies at Touro College in New York City, says some of the jobs for which her students apply do not require a graduate degree. However, she notes that there are exceptions.

For example, she says a teacher certificate in New York State requires at least 18 credits for an internship certificate, and a master’s degree for more permanent certification. And the entry-level degree for the field of Speech Language Pathology is a master’s degree.

Adam Flugel, a recruiter for Burtch Works, an executive data science staffing firm, says the vast majority of data scientists – to the tune of 92% – have graduate degrees: “With the quantitative depth and coding abilities, and the nuanced combination of the two required, it either takes an advanced degree or an incredible amount of independent work to build the skills needed for a data scientist job.”


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many employers prefer a master’s degree for certain professions, such as economists, statisticians, financial analysts, human resource managers, and most other types of management positions.

3. Is There a High Demand for This Degree?

You don’t want to get a master’s degree, only to find out that no one is hiring graduates with that major. However, Bakke says there are a few careers requiring a graduate degree that are in high demand, such as physical therapists, math teachers, and international relations professionals.

And according to Dr. Graff, many career options that require a master’s degree in business are in high demand, such as human resource management. “Accounting job demand is recession-proof, and the demand for MBAs and Finance MS graduates is re-surging after a dip associated with the 2008 financial crisis,” she says. She adds that there is currently a high demand for jobs associated with both a Master of Science in Information Systems and a Master of Arts in Web and Multimedia Design degree.

Flugel says, “There’s a very high demand for data scientists precisely because it does take such an intense breadth/depth of technical skills and hands-on experience.” And even though there is a talent shortage, he says that employers will not lower their requirements or expectations.

4. Will a Graduate Degree Increase Your Salary?

According to Bakke, a person with a graduate degree will earn roughly $400,000 more over a lifetime than someone without one.

Graduate degree holders will make roughly $400,000 more over the course of their lifetime than

In the business sector in particular, Graff says employees with a graduate degree could expect to earn an additional 15% to 20% over a lifetime. She notes, however, “For graduates with no experience, it may take up to 5 years to accumulate sufficient experience to command higher salaries.”

Flugel says a data scientist without a master’s degree can expect to learn $10,00 less at the entry level, adding that this is a very conservative estimate of the difference.

Salary differentials do, however, vary greatly depending on what you get your degree in. According to the Georgetown study, biology and life science majors with a graduate degree earn 63% more than their peers with bachelor’s degrees. On the other hand, art majors earn just 23% more with a graduate degree.

5. Will Your Job Pay Enough to Justify a Graduate Degree?

Some positions that require graduate degrees offer salaries at or below the median annual wage for all workers – with or without a college degree.

Nurse midwives and nurse practitioners can earn a median salary of $96,460 with a graduate degree.Among some of the other professions that require a master’s degree, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that rehabilitation counselors earn an average of $33,880, archivists earn $44,410, healthcare social workers earn $49,830, and librarians earn $53,370.

Among the higher paying careers that require a master’s degree, occupational therapists earn $75,400, statisticians earn $75,560, and nurse midwives and nurse practitioners earn $96,460.

6. What Will Your Total Debt Load Be?

If you pursue a graduate degree, you want to be sure that you won’t spend the rest of your life paying off debt – at the expense of buying a car, buying a home or even getting married.

“The average undergraduate finishes school with $28,400 worth of student loan debt,” says Bakke. “Throw in $30,000 per year for two years of grad school, and you’re looking at $88,400 worth of debt. That can absolutely affect [a person’s] ability to buy a home or a new car, or to start a family.” According to most estimates, graduate students make up 40% of the nation’s more than $1 trillion student debt load, although they represent just 14% of all students in higher education.

Graduate degree holders make up

However, Graff noted that the higher level of education can increase credit-worthiness and add polish, confidence, and communication and collaboration skills, as well as broaden professional networks. And advancements in these areas can help the graduate have a more successful career and life.

7. Should You Go to Grad School?

Should you go to grad school? Ultimately, that’s a decision only you can make – and the answer will be different for every person, depending on their situation. But there are some helpful things to ask yourself when making your decision, including:

  • How much will it cost – including tuition, living expenses and lost earnings?
  • Do you actually need a graduate degree to get the job you want?
  • Is there high demand for that job – i.e., will it be relatively easy to get that job once you graduate?
  • Will having a graduate degree increase your salary significantly?
  • Will your job pay enough to justify the added cost of a graduate degree?
  • How much debt will you need to go into?

Thinking of logistics like these, as well as whether you want to attend grad school or not, can help you make the decision that’s best for you.