Three good reasons to go to graduate school (and one very bad reason)

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

Eager to go back to school? Be sure to think it through! (Photo Credit: Blue Square Thing, Creative Commons/Flickr)

With a new school year starting, many people are wondering if it’s time to consider an advanced degree. However, before you begin searching or applying, it’s important to assess your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school, as pursuing a graduate degree requires a significant investment of time and resources.

Among the best reasons to go to graduate school are:

  • It is necessary for your desired professional field such as healthcare, law, teaching, and social work to name a few
  • It can improve your career by increasing your responsibility and/or income earning potential
  • It can enhance your professional prospects, whether you are switching careers or simply want greater flexibility and options

Because of the investment required, we also want to highlight a potentially bad reason to go to graduate school: you’re avoiding a problem. Whether the problem is professional (you can’t find a job or don’t like the one you have) or personal (you don’t know what to do with your life or are facing financial difficulties), the amount of money and time required to finish graduate school will likely exacerbate these problems or lead you to make hasty decisions.

Are you considering grad school? Tell us what you think!

Still wondering if grad school is for you? Attend a free Idealist Grad Fair! We’re visiting 17 cities across the U.S. this fall.

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Comments (13)

  1. Leodegracia s>abing writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I want to look a job and how?Please give me an advise and informations what to do because I am 46 years old now.

  2. andrew writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Interesting that “because you can learn something” was not in your top reasons to go to grad school but building your resume, getting more money, and building your network were.

    I thought this website was called “idealist” not “ladder-climber”

  3. Allison Jones writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 10:20 am

    @Andrew – Thanks for sharing! You bring up a great point about attending grad school to learn more. While we do explore this a bit more in our graduate school resource center, in the end, the decision to attend graduate school will likely be based on a mixture of personal and professional reasons.

    To your last point, wanting to make a difference and wanting to do well in your professional pursuits certainly do not have to be mutually exclusive. While we always encourage people to find the right opportunity to give back, we also realize that to give back effectively requires a focus on professional development and this can take many forms, including grad school.

  4. cjoy writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm


    In a society where personal success has become the primary focus, it’s important to remember that the primary reason to pursue a higher education should be to Learn! As John Dewey Points out Education should be an ends within itself as it allows us to make better decisions for ourselves and our communities.

    If you start graduate school seeing it as a means to a professional ends you will undoubtedly miss amazing opportunities to engage with a learning community and view things through the lenses of others.

  5. Josh writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Allison and Andrew are forgetting one very important thing.

    Grad school costs a whole lot of money.

    While it’s certainly noble to think that everyone should go to grad school to “learn something” it’s naive to think that is anyone’s number one reason, unless they have the financial means to make it so.

    For 99% of us (ugh, I can’t believe I just used that phrase) grad school needs to be an investment. That’s why going to escape the job market or because you don’t know what to do with your life are terrible reasons to go to grad school.

  6. Johnny C writes:
    August 28, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    The problem with grad school is many people I’ve encountered don’t go there for the three good reasons; by and large many are trying to run and hide. Many years into an advanced degree, close to completion, I ask people what they want to do with their life “once they get out of prison”, and they still don’t know. I did a year of graduate school and realized that I was looking for personal validation and for permission to be happy by putting trust in a piece of paper (the degree) that promised many sheets of paper (money).

    I would have finished school had I not been curved out (grade curving is something many people don’t understand even in the program), and believe me, I would still do it, but the more I work in the field I thought I needed preparation for via an advanced degree, the more I realize it’s skills, experience, and making connections instead.

    I HIGHLY recommend this book for those considering graduate school before they commit: Getting What You Came For. Everything from applications to horror stories of funding, curving, competition, and the rainbows they chase for more money and personal validation are mentioned, and shows some success stories of the happiest dropouts years later.

  7. Jim P writes:
    August 29, 2012 at 11:59 am

    From a humanitarian perspective, the #1 reason someone should choose to seek any higher education is to put one in a better position to do more good in the world. This includes learning more, being more marketable in the non-profit job world, being more effective at your current job, and making more money (so one can give more to their select charities). One needs to compare the time and money spent on attaining a degree with what that same time and money could equip them in the form of valuable experience (volunteering/working overseas for example).

  8. Samuels Bakers odikiria writes:
    August 30, 2012 at 3:19 am

    Oh, In some countries like uganda where i live you have to be a agraduate in order to qualify for any job. Almost all jobs require one to be agraduate. so if you can not be of that level you remain unemployed. if you get employed then it will be a low paying job which cannot sustain you and your family.

  9. Steve writes:
    September 1, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    This is a really important topic and I believe Idealist and the commenters are together painting a good picture of why this is a complicated decision.
    I have recently graduated from grad school and received my MPA in International policy and management. Grad school was one of the most difficult and fulfilling experiences in my life.
    However, I am now very bitter as I went their for a better-paying and more fulfilling role in the public sector and have been unemployed for months. If I could give some advice in hind-sight it would be – Expensive does not always mean better. My grad school is #6 in the country (US News & World Report) and charges students accordingly. Do not forget that these private schools are businesses, first and fore- most, and need customers.
    Also, be sure to research your schools career services and job placement rates. I went to a professional masters program (professional project instead of a final thesis) and I have been unemployed against my will for over 3 months now. All the career services do there is say “Put MPA at the top of your resume” and “Have you checked our job listings?” This has been far and away the most disappointing part of the $100,000 I paid them – the fact that I have no way to pay them back and they have no reason to concern themselves with your career success once you stop paying tuition.
    Finally, be sure to research your sector’s prospected jobs when you are graduating. If the funding for your public sector is on the brink, or your technology isn’t taking off, then you may be making a poor investment as the returns may be questionable. Further, the economy is absolute garbage right now – people with PHD’s and 10 years experience are applying for not only the entry-level jobs that I am, but also trying their luck with Target, Best Buy and serving gigs. Go out and vote if you want their to be a difference. Hope this helps somebody.

  10. Cloflo writes:
    September 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    I totally agreed with Steve. I have been working for a Non-profit organization in New York City for 5 years and I’ve been totally commited and motivated during this time because I’ve been wanting to work hard and climb the ladder and succeed inside the organization. After five years of waiting an opening came up and I was next to been promoted until…. the director changed the position for an experienced person with a Master’s degree because as she said between the salary of a case manager position (BSW) and a Master’s degree Social worker there is not a big difference. So as far I know we have received a lot of resumes with Multilingual people because right now we need people who has two languages as a minimum requirement. Sadly I am bilingual but I have not been promoted as I expected but I know that I have a job that I have to take care of and continue pursuing my dream of getting my master’s some day without getting in a big debt. Hopefully… some day.

  11. Carlo writes:
    September 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I think “to learn something” didn’t make the list of top reasons to attend grad school because our access to accurate, high-quality information today is unprecedented. You can learn thousands of somethings for free, without having to apply, get accepted, or take out a huge loan. Learn about healthcare from Learn about Lean Startup Methodology at Learn Modern Contemporary Poetry from Ivy League profs at You can watch a TED Talk or read a professional-quality blog on pretty much anything. And you can discuss what you’re hearing and seeing in online forums and communities all over the place.

    I agree with Andrew and Cjoy that learning should be an end in itself. And lifelong learning is a real virtue. But when you can learn almost anything from very bright minds and connect with almost anyone for free and on your own terms online, grad school becomes about something else: namely, the things mentioned in the original post – gaining access from gatekeepers in certain fields and helping you maximize your opportunities and earning potential.

  12. […] featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad […]

  13. […] featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school and our second post on finding the perfect graduate degree program. Want more information? Be sure […]

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