Is It Time to Go Back to School?

If the timing is right, earning a graduate degree may help advance your career.

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You've got a college degree. And a good job. But wheels are turning in your head about the possibility of going back to school, maybe even fueled by the release of our Best Graduate Schools Rankings. Is it time to earn an advanced degree?

Deciding whether to go back to school isn't easy, particularly if you have a reliable paycheck, which is more than many Americans can say in this struggling economy. But consider how education has shielded the more educated members of the workforce from the recession. In February, when the nation's unemployment rate was at 8.9 percent, workers with a bachelor's degree or more faced a jobless rate of less than half that, 4.3 percent.

"There is no question that, on average, people who have more education earn more and are unemployed less frequently," says Michael Greenstone, director of The Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank. "Education is the classic way for people to invest in themselves."

But therein lies the catch: It's an investment. Advanced degrees can be pricey and time-consuming, and earning one often means stepping away from the life you've created.

So when's the right time to leave your job to pursue a degree? Or to start taking evening or online classes in addition to your day job? If you already have an undergraduate degree, is more schooling really necessary?

Regardless of the type of degree you're considering, here's what you should ask yourself when weighing the option to go back to school:

What do I want to do? Going back to school can be an effective way to advance within your field or jump-start a career change. In either case, go into the decision knowing your goals. Do you have a specific job you aspire to? A company you want to work for? A salary you'd like to make? Figuring out what you want can be the toughest part, but it's crucial to your success; if you know what you want, you can more easily figure out how to get there.

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Above all else, make sure you're not going back to school because you're not sure what else to do, says Alexandra Levit, author of New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career and member of DeVry University's newly launched Career Advisory Board. "A lot of young professionals ... go back to school because it's comfortable," Levit says. "You want to make sure you're really doing some soul-searching before making that move."

Even those who end up at an unexpected destination usually benefit from having an initial goal in mind. Sabrina Balmick, 29, worked as an executive assistant for a recruiting company for two years after college before deciding to get her master's in publishing, the industry she hoped to work in. But after three years of studying full time, she completed the degree during the recession and couldn't find a publishing job that paid enough to live in New York City. So she returned to her former company in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., as a marketing manager. "It was kind of a roundabout way of basically getting promoted in the same company," says Balmick, who's happy with how her situation turned out. "I'm definitely glad that I went back [to school]."

Is a graduate degree really the best way to get there? Knowing the answer to this question requires understanding the field you want to work in and having some real-world experience, whether it's a paying job, an internship, or volunteering. For some professions, a graduate degree increases your marketability but isn't a necessity. For others, like certain positions in healthcare or education, an advanced degree is required.

"Take a step back and make sure this is really what you need," says Emily Westerman, associate director of the career services office at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "Very often, people [enroll in an advanced-degree program] prematurely and then they find out it's not the right direction for them." One way to avoid finding yourself in that predicament is reaching out to people who have the job you want and asking how they got there, she says.