With programs ranging from traditional college classrooms to accelerated or condensed executive education programs and online degrees, there are many opportunities to continue your education and earn a graduate degree, even while holding down a full-time job.
For some, it’s worthwhile. An April 2018 release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that, while those with a bachelor’s degree make an average of $1,173 in weekly earnings, Master’s degree holders get a bump to $1,401. Professional degree holders rise to $1,836. (Of course, real earnings vary significantly based on a variety of factors including occupation, geography, experience, and others.)
But money isn’t everything. A recent report from PayScale found that overall, roughly two-thirds of people with advanced degrees reported feeling regrets related to college. These degree-earners had high degrees of stress, especially millennials.
Most felt regret about their student loans. While 24.6% of those who earned bachelor’s degrees regretted their student loans, that percentage jumped to 31.5% of those with a master’s or Juris Doctor degree. Those with non-M.B.A. master’s degrees reported the highest response rate in this category: 33.3%.
“What we did find is that the cost of going to college and the cost of getting an advanced degree especially just really looms large,” says Sudarshan Sampath, Payscale’s director of research. But there were other regrets, too, including area of study, poor networking, and the time it took to complete their degree.
Those who earned a PhD had the largest percentage of “no regret” responses, but 10% of PhD respondents said they regretted the time it took to complete their degree while 5% regretted obtaining too many degrees. Is the advanced degree worth it? And if you’re considering a graduate degree, how can you avoid the regret trap?
“First if someone is considering a graduate degree—in my world, 99% are MBAs, but I think it applies across the spectrum—the first question they need to answer is ‘Why?'” says executive recruiter David Arnold, president, Arnold Partners, LLC, an executive search firm specializing in chief financial officers. “Depending on the answer to that will drive a series of decisions. If the answer is it is the only way to get to the top of my field, then they need to consider top schools in their field. If it is ‘yes, because I am just intellectually curious,’ then that could drive someone to different programs.”
While some fields require advanced degrees, it may be worthwhile to survey the lifetime earnings bump you might expect to determine financial return on investment, if your goal is to earn more, says Sara Sander, PhD, dean of the school of social and behavioral sciences at online college Purdue University Global. For example, while such degree-related pay increases used to be common for teachers, they may be less so now.
But, advanced degrees aren’t always transactional. There are many reasons why people want to pursue higher education, Sampath says. The key is to keep an open mind. And be sure you’re not saddling yourself with life-changing debt you’re going to struggle to afford.
In many cases, you don’t need a specific degree to have a particular career. “There are a lot of different pathways through life and through a career,” Sampath says. “If you just take it a little slow and find the things that engage you and actually interest you, I think most people end up just fine.”