Will a master’s or doctorate degree really help me in my profession? Is graduate school really worth the time and effort?

The answers depend on which direction you want to take your career. If you’re willing to burn the midnight oil, write 25-page term papers, do oral presentations and assist professors with research, then graduate school may be for you. And it’s never too early to think about a thesis topic if a doctorate is in your future.

If it sounds like graduate school is a lot of work, you won’t be surprised that it really is. There’s almost no such thing as free time because you’re busy studying for an exam, writing a paper, grading papers (if you have a teaching assistantship) and working. But getting the skinny on what would be expected of you from professors will help determine whether graduate school is up your alley.

Deciding on what you want to do after you obtain a graduate degree is critical to which program and course of study you should undertake. Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says UNC’s master’s program is either geared toward those who majored in something else and are taking graduate courses to eventually become full-time journalists, or to those who want to pursue research and teaching.

Whether a graduate degree will aid one’s chances in getting that dream job is still debated by some academics and professionals in the field. Some say it does. Others contend that experience is more important. Meyer says, however, that he has had recruiters request to only speak with individuals who have master’s degrees.

“I don’t think that’s the norm yet,” Meyer added. “It all depends on where you are in life and where you want to go.”

What about the money?

A graduate degree does not automatically ensure employment. But it does improve marketability and will make a financial difference in your career in the long run once you land a job, according to financial statistics from the U.S. Department of the Census.

The average annual income of people 18 and older with a bachelor’s degree, irrespective of occupation, is $37,224. Individuals with a master’s degree earn about $9,000 more, and those with a doctorate degree make $21,000 more than individuals with master’s degrees.

You probably won’t make $9,000 more immediately after getting a master’s, but it’s fairly safe to say that you will make more money once you obtain a graduate degree. Graduate degree holders not only make more money, but they also make themselves more attractive to potential employers.

Richard Lutz, a marketing professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville and director of UF’s doctoral marketing program, believes that a graduate degree is becoming more of a necessity in today’s work environment.

“It is becoming an entry-level degree in a lot of occupations,” says Lutz, who received his master’s and doctorate degrees in marketing. “They [businesses] are looking for people at the entry level to do more advanced kind of work.”

Many businesses are using the Internet to find individuals with advanced degrees. MBA Job is a Web site created by MBA students at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. The site is dedicated to promoting “the MBA degree as a superior business credential and to break down geographic barriers while placing MBAs in careers best suited to their skills and interests.”

The service is free for MBA candidates and holders to post their resumes on the site, and it is free as long as they continue to log into the service at least once a year. Premium services, such as getting reports on the number and location of searches performed on your resume, are $15 a year.

Be careful … student loans loom in your future!

OK, so now you want to know how much graduate school will cost. There is no cookie-cutter answer because costs vary from school to school and depend on the number of credit hours you take.

For example, at the University of Florida, in-state graduate students can expect to pay about $3,300 in tuition based on 24 credit hours a year. For non-Florida residents, the cost jumps to $11,500.

At Indiana University in Bloomington, tuition for in-state residents is about $3,500 for 24 credit hours a year, and it jumps to $10,300 for out-of-state residents. Activity, health and technology fees are usually the same for instate and out-of-state students.

How do these figures compare to the national average? The average full-time graduate tuition for all institutions, public and private, was $7,100 for the 1996-97 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. Statistics were not available for the 1997-98 and 1998-99 school year. The average tuition of graduate students at public universities during the same school year was $3,613, compared to $12,702 for graduate students at private universities.

You can offset the cost of graduate school by applying for loans, scholarships, fellowships and assistantships. They are many different types of loans offered by federal and state governments, banks and other private and public institutions.

If you plan on taking out a student loan, pay close attention to the interest rate and the grace period, which is generally the time after you graduate and your first payment. Many loans give students up to 10 years to repay the loan. For example, if you borrow $5,000 with a 10 percent fixed interest rate, you will eventually have to pay back $5,500.

Denise Rossitto, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, one of the nation’s largest student-loan providers, says it’s important for students to borrow money from a bank that will give you good options on repayment. Rossitto says some banks will reduce your interest rate if you make a certain number of payments on time.

“Try to find a lender that has different types [of loans] and flexible repayment plans,” Rossitto says. “Look for a program that will reward you for making your payments on time.”

John Holder, an assistant director of financial student assistance at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, says although many graduate students take out some kind of student loan, students should explore every alternative financial resource before taking out a student loan. If you have to take out a student loan, be sure not to borrow too much.

“They should try to get a part-time job and try to save as much coming into the academic year as possible,” Holder says. “When they graduate they will have other expenses along with the student loans, such as car and mortgage payments.”

Grants, fellowships and assistantships

If you had a solid grade point average as an undergraduate — at least a 3.0 — then other financial resources may include grants, scholarships and assistantships.

Graduate school grants are generally free monies issued to students who will do some research that will enhance their academic progress. Check with your college department and the State Student Incentive Grant (SSIG) Program, which is funded jointly by individual states and the U.S. Department of Education, to get a listing and amounts of available grants. Competition for grants is generally intense.

Scholarships are awarded based on high academic merit and/or financial need. Fellowships are generally offered by corporations, foundations and individuals, and awarded to students who have demonstrated academic excellence. Assistantships are issued by each collegiate department and consist of selecting a number of students for teaching and research assistant positions.

As a full-time teaching or research assistant, you would work about 20 hours a week. Assistantships usually include a stipend and tuition waiver for a certain number of credit hours. Assistantships, similar to scholarships, are awarded to those who have demonstrated academic excellence, solid work experience and recommendations.

Here are some key questions you may want to ask yourself if you are leaning toward going to graduate school:

Key questions to ask yourself:
  • Will a graduate degree benefit me in the long run? Is the company willing to pay all or part of my tuition?
  • Do the institutions that I’m considering have any kind of distance learning programs? How does the cost of such a program compare to actually being in the classroom?
  • Am I willing to put in the long study hours and brainpower to successfully finish graduate school?
  • How are my finances? Can I really afford to go to graduate school at this stage in my life?

Is graduate school right for you? Only you can make that decision. But if you’re starting to think about it, it’s wise to start researching and planning ahead to make sure your decision is the right one.