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Back in 2009, I was pretty unhappy in my career and wanted to make a change. I had just passed the CPA exam and instead of celebrating this milestone, I realized that I didn’t want to be a CPA for the rest of my life. 2009 obviously wasn’t the most ideal time to start job searching, but I was undeterred. Actually, I was almost obnoxiously overconfident.

Who wouldn’t want an eager, young employee with pretty much no experience looking to make a career change?

Well, it turns out no one wanted to hire me.

I went on a few interviews, but they were all for companies looking to hire a CPA — exactly what I didn’t want to continue doing.

Discouraged, I decided to look into grad school — something I was very hesitant to do.

I began researching MBA programs and realized this was a huge and very expensive decision. I took a lot of time to go through all of my options and figure out if grad school was the right move both for my career ambitions and for my money. And as a result of doing this reflection, I came out of school with no regrets and a realistic plan to pay off my debt.

Here’s the process I went through, updated with a few things I wish I would’ve considered, to help you make this big decision.

 

What should you consider?

Deciding whether or not to go to grad school is a highly personal decision, but these next three questions will help you start reflecting on whether grad school is the right move.

 

Do you actually know what you want to do?

I’ve met so many people who went to graduate school to figure out what they wanted to do. There’s something to be said for keeping an open mind, but if you’re considering another degree to “explore options,” there are plenty of other ways you can do that for free.

Don’t use grad school as a way to shortcut the answer to “what do I want to do with my life?” It’s a big question that deserves a lot more thought than that.

Also, if you’re going to graduate school because that’s what you’ve always said you would or should do (ex: “My mom’s a doctor, lawyer, psychologist, so I should be too.”), you probably have some additional inner work to do.

Try working or volunteering in the field you want to work in. Set up informational interviews and network with people who have jobs you think you’d like. Explore your options before you get to school. Get to know as much as you can about the career path you’re choosing so there are no surprises when you make the jump.

 

Can you change careers without it? 

I was writing an article once on how to change careers and someone I was interviewing gave the advice, “Go to grad school. That’s the only way to do it.”

Um…that’s not quite true.

Sure, if you want to be a doctor, medical school is required. But not all professions require you to get an advanced degree in order to make a change. Look at your options for changing careers without going to school. Are there online classes that you can take? Can you switch paths internally at your current company? Can you start a side hustle to get some experience without making a full jump?

Be honest with yourself about whether you can make the change without going to graduate school. You may still decide that going to grad school is the right move for other reasons.

 

What are your other options? 

Once you start thinking about going back to school, it can be easy to get stuck on that as your only option. Thanks to confirmation bias — our tendency to only see things that support a decision we’ve made — you may start looking for all of the reasons why it is the right decision.

To break out of this mindset, take a step back and think about what else you could do with those years and that money. Take grad school off the table. If school weren’t an option, what else would you do with those two (or more!) years?

 

The money factor 

Because grad school is expensive — both from tuition and years of lost income when you’re not working — we have to talk about money.

 

Quick and easy check

When I was checking out school costs, this student loan repayment calculator was always open on my computer. It’s easy to use — simply put in how much you think you’ll take out in loans, the average loan interest rate (I was taking out federal graduate loans so my rates were between 6.8% and 7.9%), and how long you’ll have the loan (standard time period is 10 years).

It then spits out the salary that you’d need to make in order for that loan payment to be affordable. And it was eye opening.

When deciding on Duke, I looked at how much, on average, marketing graduates from the program were paid. I used that average salary to help manage my expectations and do this initial calculation.

 

Calculating the ROI

This calculation required me to break out the spreadsheet, but it really helped to put the ROI of my program into perspective. At the time I did this calculation, I was still struggling with choosing to attend Duke. It was the only school that didn’t offer me some sort of scholarship, and tuition was $20,000 higher than my second-choice school.

I’m going to use real numbers because, well, transparency. And frankly, I’m too lazy to make anything up.

So before going to graduate school, I made $74,000. Going to business school would mean spending $120,000 (yikes), plus forgoing the salary of $74,000 or more for two years. So really, the cost of going to school was going to be $120,000 (tuition) + $148,000 (lost salary). $268,000.

Yep, I was terrified by this number.

The average salary of someone leaving Duke with a job in marketing was $100,000 – $120,000 at the time. It was right on the cusp of that first quick and easy test check. Would that salary increase help make the ROI on my education positive?

I decided to calculate my expected earnings for the next 35 years under two different scenarios. One with a salary beginning at $74,000 today and receiving 4% raises for the next 35 years. The second scenario beginning two years later with a starting salary of $100,000 and receiving 4% raises for the next 33 years.

The lifetime earnings under scenario one were $5,450,265. Under scenario two they were $6,620,953. Going to grad school would likely help me earn an additional $1,170,688! Even factoring in the amount of the program ($120,000) plus interest on my student loan, I’d still come out ahead.

 

The post-school budget

The very last check I did was to look at what I expected my budget to be when I graduated. With a salary of $100,000, my monthly after-tax paycheck would be $6,000. But, I estimated that my monthly loan payment would be $1,500.

I sat down and wrote a very basic budget that helped put into perspective how I could expect to live while paying off my loan post-grad school.

Take some time to create a really basic budget so you know what your after-school life will look like. It’ll help you understand the tradeoffs that you’re making to finance your education.

 

Life happens

You can do all of this work up front, but at the end of the day, life happens. If you’ve gone through and made a thoughtful decision using the questions above, it won’t be so jarring when things don’t go quite according to plan.

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you’ll know that I didn’t stay on that career path that I went back to business school for. Rather than working in marketing for 33 years, I worked in it for four.

I paid off my loans, said bye to my corporate gig, and went out on my own doing freelance writing and content marketing in the personal finance space.

Knowing what I know now — that I’d hop onto a totally new track — was it still the right move for me to go to grad school?

I’m going to double down and say yes. And the work that I did to answer the questions above helped me to make a good decision, regardless of how things turned out. Here’s why it was right for me at the time:

  • I wanted to work in marketing and going to business school helped me to graduate with a job that I wouldn’t have been able to get applying entry level.
  • I was committed to a career change and would’ve eventually found a job doing entry-level marketing, probably at a much lower salary.
  • The curriculum was broader than what I needed to get a job in marketing. I was exposed to a lot of other concepts that are still useful today.
  • I LOVED it. And I love the people I met.

As I’ve made my next career change, I’ve used free education resources to help me make that jump. Things that weren’t available back when I was searching for a new job. I’ve taken a series of digital marketing courses on Coursera (as well as some amazing, fun courses on happiness and goal setting). I’ve used Udemy to help me improve my writing (I took this course). And I just signed up for a photography course on Skillshare.

Going to graduate school is a massive decision, but if you put real thought into it, when those loan repayments begin, you likely won’t regret the choices you made.

Photo by Ken Theimer on Unsplash

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