I accidentally went to graduate school three times.

The first time was just a built-in perk of an AmeriCorps service program I completed.
(I was 21.)

The second time was actually on purpose (just not part of my original life plan).
(I was 26.)

The third time was a matter of necessity. I needed a way to increase my earning potential (because of the debt from the second time), and nothing else was working.

It felt forced; it felt rushed, and I didn’t want to do it.
(I was 30.)

I whole-heartedly regret the debt (and the interest on the debt), but not the network or the wealth of experiences.

We can’t go back in time, but we can (1) make better choices in the future or (2) help others make better choices.

According to a 2014 article posted by U.S. News and World Report, 25% of graduate students owe almost $100,000 in student loan debt. Another 10% owe more than $150,000.

This is in ADDITION TO any debt owed from college.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that the average medical school debt for graduating physicians in 2015 was $183,000.

In 2017 Lend Edu argued that the average debt for graduating lawyers was between $48,000 to $340,000.

50% of doctoral students leave graduate school without completing their degree.

In 2016, for the eighth straight year in a row, women earned more doctoral degrees than men. They also outnumbered men in graduate school by 135 to 100.

What should you know before you apply to graduate school?

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U.S. citizens and permanent residents are considered domestic students. Visa-holders are classified as international students.

If you’re a domestic applicant considering graduate school, here are 10 things you should know, first.

(International students should consider these points too, and a few others we’ll discuss next time.)

1. You should know why you want to go, how you plan to use your degree, and what kind of degree you need.

If you fall into any of the following categories, you probably don’t need to put much effort into the how you will use your degree. You need the degree to enter the field. End of story:

  • You’re planning to become a lawyer.
  • You’re planning to become a doctor, nurse, or work in the health profession.
  • You’re planning to become a tenured-track professor at an accredited institution of higher learning.
  • You’re planning to become an engineer or architect.

But what’s your why?

When I graduated from college I completed an AmeriCorps service program. We didn’t earn a salary for teaching, but we earned a small stipend for living expenses, and housing and transportation were paid for. Graduate school fees were paid for too while we earned our teaching certification.

In Year 1, we became certified teachers.
In Year 2, we completed coursework towards our Master’s in Elementary Education at Northwestern University.
After Year 2, the program’s end, we had the option of finishing our Master’s at Northwestern (for free), with the caveat that we had to teach an additional year (total of 3 years) in our elementary school.

If we’d rather not continue teaching, we could just re-enter the workforce with our incomplete grad degrees.

I’m pretty sure you can guess which one I chose.

*Narrator: Dear friends, she (me!) would later go on to pay more than $30,000 for a Master’s degree in Education from a less widely known school. She didn’t know why she needed her degree or what kind of degree she needed.

The struggle.


Know your why. Know what your graduate degree can provide.

2. You should know whether it’s necessary for your career.

Consider the opportunity cost, not just the financial expense and/or burden.

If you’re not sure how your career path will evolve, consider what other skills and talents you can hone to increase your earning potential, first. Instead.

Is there a better, less expensive, more desirable way to achieve the same goal?

Or do you just love school for learning’s sake (like me)?

3. You should know whether you’ll pursue a thesis or non-thesis track.

Every PhD program I know of requires a thesis—and the successful defense of your dissertation.

Some Ed.D. programs don’t require either.

Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.) programs vary.

I chose the non-thesis track when I completed my Master’s in Education because I was working full-time, I didn’t want to do it, and I’m kinda lazy. A completed thesis wouldn’t advance my career.

What’s the best choice for you?

4. You should know where you want to live, specifically. Rural area? Urban? Suburban? US? Abroad?

I’m from Houston originally, but I always wanted to live abroad.

I never took the risk, but if I had, I would’ve moved for graduate school.

The more years that pass, the harder it is to coordinate an out-of-state or overseas move.

Why not get a head start if you already know where you want to be?

5. You should know what your options are if you can’t finish your program.

Learn your school’s policies on medical withdrawals and deferments BEFORE you apply.
Learn whether you can defer BEFORE you start a program or only AFTER you’ve completed a set number of terms.
Learn what you’ll be responsible for (financially) if you must leave the program.
Learn your school’s policy on the maximum period of time allotted for program completion.

*If you defer, note that you may lose any and all available funding.

6. You should know whether any additional certifications or licenses are required after you graduate. How often do you have to take them & how much do they cost? 

I had a friend who always wanted to be an architect.

He wasn’t great at Math, and he wasn’t great at standardized tests, but he pulled through. He supported his family financially through much of graduate school.

Everyone was so proud when he graduated because it was such an achievement for his family.

Architects must get licensed by the architectural review board in the jurisdiction where they’d like to practice. To get licensed, you must also pass a test called the Architectual Registration Examination (ARE), which is made up of seven divisions.

It took years and thousands in additional debt (after graduate school) to make that dream a reality.

Know the costs.

7. You should know the average (and entry level) salaries of those in the profession you seek to enter.

I would never suggest that anyone make a decision solely based on money.

However, before you enter a graduate program (especially if you plan to take on additional debt to pursue the program), understand the salary range for those in your chosen career field. Especially the entry level salary.

Perhaps that Master’s degree in English, financially speaking, isn’t actually worth it.

Make your decision based on money.

8. You should know all the important deadlines for your application and for your degree program.  

When can you apply? When are the applications due? Is early decision or early admission an option? When is your FAFSA due? When can you register for classes, if you’re accepted? When will your financial aid be dispersed? What are the deadlines for the scholarships you’ll apply to? Have you given your recommenders enough time to write solid letters of recommendation? What are the orientation dates? Do you need to submit official transcripts with your application or after you’ve already been accepted? If you studied overseas, how much time do you need to allow for processing time? When will you take the GRE or GMAT? Have you allowed enough time for the scores to be sent from the testing agencies?

Know all your relevant and important deadlines.

9. You should know how you’ll pay for it.  

25% of graduate students owe almost $100,000 in student loan debt.
Another 10% owe more than $150,000.

How will you pay for your degree?

10. You should know that grad school is simultaneously easier and harder than college.

Yes, both. At the same time.

It’s easier to fail out of graduate school. For most programs, you have to maintain a B average. With one or more Cs, you can be academically dismissed. 

There’s so much more freedom in graduate school and (arguably) more opportunity.

You have the opportunity to become an expert in your field or develop expertise. You can hone in on things that truly matter to you or truly matter to your work.

Gone is the insecurity of your teens. The angst. The relationship sagas. The overly-involved parental involvement and the unrealistic expectations. (Hopefully!)

It’s one of the easiest and hardest things you can do for your future!


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