Grad School Enrollment Growing Rapidly in U.S.: How To Make Sure You Are Ready

By Kate Jellema

This year, for the first time, the number of women and men enrolled in graduate schools in the United States topped the three-million mark. That's up from fewer than one million in 1990. And the trajectory is steady. About three-and-a-half million will be in graduate school by 2024 with enrollment increases projected every year between now and then by the U.S. Department of Education.

There are good reasons for that. One is monetary. A report from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that over an adult's working life a person with a master's degree can expect to earn $400,000 more than a person with a bachelor's degree. That depends, of course, on the job demand in the field of study. Some will do worse and others better.

A second reason is satisfaction. Many people place significant worth on increasing their mastery of a field that interests them, on developing their mind and deepening their appreciation of the world and their place in it.

In some fields, such as teaching, a graduate degree may be required, particularly for careers in higher education. Others may be more interested in bolstering their appeal in the job market and grad school unquestionably does that, especially if one aspires to senior management.

While graduate school is an increasingly popular and sensible option for many, it remains, without doubt, one of life's big decisions. There are costs involved and not just tuition. You also have to consider the money you won't earn while you are back in the classroom.

The question I hear most often, however, from people who are contemplating graduate education is not whether but when to start. For many people it is ideal to take at least a year away from education before entering grad school. It helps to work, travel, or just step out of the ivory tower for a while. Most students perform better if they begin their graduate studies relaxed, more experienced about life, and more certain about the discipline they have chosen to study. Taking a bit of time after undergraduate school is one of the better ways to gain the proper motivation for success.

I give four questions to people who are considering an applied master's program, especially if they have already been in the workforce for some time.

  • Are you feeling stuck in the status quo in your position or field?
  • Are you feeling burned out in your position?
  • Do you have a sense that you have leadership potential that is going unrealized?
  • Are you hungry for intellectual challenge?

The answers can help people identify their motivating factors for pursuing more education, and gauge whether the intensity of the motivation is enough to outweigh the added costs and responsibilities that come with grad school.

For those wondering about whether to enter a doctoral program, a key question is: Do you want to build a life around research and teaching? Beyond the challenge and excitement of a doctoral course of study, PhD work best prepares students to become academics, and if this career path is not appealing, grad school might not be a good choice.

On the home front, will enrollment depend on shifting some familial responsibilities to others? If so, are all who will be affected clear about the implications and supportive of your decision? At work, will you need to rearrange your schedule or duties before you can realistically accommodate going back to school?

Grad school can be a richly rewarding, transformational journey that lifts one to new heights of professional potential, academic achievement and personal fulfillment. For many, earning a master's degree is pivotal to achieving their aspirations.

Since it is a potentially life-changing decision, people will want to put in a lot of effort at the front end, assuring themselves that they are truly ready to make a success of it after they enroll. The first step of the journey should be to ask, "Am I ready for graduate school?"

Dr. Kate JellemaKate Jellema is associate dean for graduate studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.

CONTACT: Matthew Barone, [email protected], 802-451-7510 (office) to connect with Kate Jellema.