Here's How to Decide if Grad School is Right for You

06/22/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

For many students, graduate school is a more focused version of college. You'll get specialized training in the industry you want to work in, plus the benefits of professional connections and credentials beyond a bachelor's degree. But there is a lot to weigh when asking yourself, "Should I go to grad school?" Think through these factors before you invest in a master's, professional or doctorate program.

Long-term career goals

In 2013 there were 1.7 million students in full-time graduate programs at U.S. public and private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But not all industries require a graduate degree for you to be successful. Talk to colleagues and mentors you admire to find out how they got to where they are. Look at position descriptions for jobs you're interested in and take note of whether they expect you to get additional training.

That's what Chris Anderson did. He got his master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Kansas in 2012, and now he's a student services coordinator and academic advisor at the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Engineering. After researching jobs he was excited about, he noticed his bachelor's degree wouldn't be enough.

"I needed that master's, at a minimum," he says.

It was also worth it for Anderson to go to grad school so he could develop a network of professional contacts, he says. When you meet industry colleagues in grad school, they can help you switch jobs or keep up with trends in your field down the line.

Importance of work experience

But Anderson didn't go back to school right away. He worked as an admissions counselor and advisor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, for two years after undergrad, which he says gave him valuable real-world context for what he learned in his master's program.

"It just made my degree make a lot more sense," he says. "For me, I needed those two years. I needed to get a taste of what it was actually going to be like."

If you're burned out after college and want some time off from school, consider working before entering a graduate program. The flip side is that a 9-to-5 schedule might be really appealing after four years of all-nighters. So the answer to "Should I go to grad school?" is "yes, right away," if you know you want another degree but have a feeling it'll be hard to go back after working.

The biggest one-year increases in fall 2013 graduate enrollment occurred in math, computer sciences and health sciences, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Those fields each saw about 11% more graduate students enroll in fall 2013 compared to the previous year. The most popular graduate fields of study in 2013 were education and business, the Council of Graduate Schools says.

Future earning potential

Perhaps most importantly, consider how much you'll earn with a graduate degree, and whether it's worth potentially having to pay off student loans after.

Say you live in Los Angeles and you're thinking about getting a master's in public health, with the goal of working at a community health center. A community health worker in California makes $41,750 a year on average, according to In-state tuition and fees for an MPH program at UCLA are almost $23,000 a year. Think carefully about how you'll pay for your degree and whether your salary when you finish will be enough to live on.

Remember that you most likely won't save money while you're in school, Anderson says, and that could be a big shock when you graduate. He says he recommends asking yourself, "'Is that really going to be worth it to take two years off of a salaried position and take two years off of putting money into a 401(k)?' " Depending on the program, your degree could take even longer to get.

Still, the sacrifice might be worth it. Among adults 25 or older with a master's or professional degree, the more education they had, the higher their average salary in 2014 -- and the lower their unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If a graduate degree in your field will bring you more job opportunities and more money without the burden of too much additional debt, start on those applications and get ready to go back to school.