Is getting a graduate degree worth it? That’s a question that has no easy answer. Instead, it’s entirely dependent upon each person’s individual needs, goals and resources. Before making the important decision whether pursuing a graduate degree is the right — and best — choice for you, gaining a thorough understanding about what graduate education is, and what advantages it might offer you, is a critical first step.
What Is Graduate Education?
“Education that goes beyond the bachelor’s level is graduate education,” says Mary Anne Templeton, Ph.D., Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School at Troy University. “But, even more specifically, it’s a much more focused educational program and is driven by the requirements of the profession a student is either already in or that they want to pursue.”
Dr. Templeton explains that, in most undergraduate programs, students take a wide variety of classes that may have little to do with their declared major. For example, a political science major might also take courses in physics, literature or yoga. This is because the goal of an undergraduate program is to provide students with a broad educational experience. In graduate school, however, the educational focus becomes much more specific. “In a graduate program, you’re taking classes that are only associated with your area of study,” she says. “It’s a more academically challenging curriculum — but it’s ‘easier’ in the sense that it’s not a general degree. It’s completely focused on topics that are directly related to the discipline you’ve chosen to study.”
Dr. Templeton goes on to explain that “the goal of graduate school is to go further into the material and be able to synthesize information at a deeper level. Students do more research, which leads to a more comprehensive understanding of how things develop.” Unlike undergraduate classes, the courses students take in graduate school flow into each other and provide many different perspectives into a particular area of study.
Is Getting a Graduate Degree the Right Choice for You? Maybe.
The reasons people decide to pursue a graduate degree are as unique as the individuals themselves. “Some students come to our Graduate School to improve their chances for advancing in their careers, while others come back for personal reasons — including the satisfaction of getting additional education or pursuing a passion they have,” says Dr. Templeton.
Pursuing “a passion” is why Emily Price, currently working on her Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, chose the Graduate School at TROY. “I truly felt a calling in my life to be a counselor. So, I made a leap-of-faith decision to quit my full-time job and became a full-time grad student/grad assistant in my early 30s,” she says. It’s a decision she does not regret. “There are times when it seems like I’ve made an odd life decision, but when I’m in class and in the field during practicum and internship, I feel right at home and so fulfilled to be doing what I was created to do. I know it’s going to be worth all the hard work and late nights.”
One piece of advice that applies to anyone contemplating graduate school is: Be abundantly clear about your reasons why. Why do you want or need a graduate degree? Is it to become more updated on trends and new developments in your field? Does the career you want to pursue require you to have a graduate degree? Have you seen that having a graduate degree helped others in your organization advance further and faster?
Unlike the traditional undergraduate experience — which often involves an active social life and is usually free from the responsibilities of a full-time job and family obligations — graduate school is much more rigorous. It requires an entirely different level of focus and commitment than what you might have experienced during your time as an undergraduate — and it may require some more sophisticated juggling of your professional and personal life.
Price is juggling several part-time jobs — as a graduate assistant on the Troy Campus, as a tutor and as a program aide/driver within a local mental healthcare facility. “My husband and I are also Dream Team pastors at Vine Church in Troy, AL, so these past two and a half years have definitely made up a busy season of life,” she adds.
If you’re clear about the reasons you want to pursue a graduate degree, it could very well be one of the most beneficial choices you make for your career — and even for your life.
“One of the key things a graduate education can help you do is create a niche for yourself,” says Dr. Templeton. “Instead of getting a graduate degree that’s in the same field as your undergraduate degree, you might decide to pursue one that complements it. For example, if your bachelor’s degree is in public health, then maybe you earn a graduate degree in communications. This strategic mix of disciplines can really help you distinguish yourself from your peers.”
A graduate degree can also have an impact on your career earning potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the more you learn, the more you earn.” The bureau’s 2019 data shows that the median weekly earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree are $1,248, while the median weekly earnings of those with a master’s degree are $1,497 and $1,883 for those with a doctoral degree. Of course, salaries can vary widely depending on your experience and area of expertise, whether you work in the nonprofit or for-profit sector or even the individual company or organization that employs you. Still, in general terms, an advanced credential can boost your salary and career prospects in many professions.
When’s the Best Time to Go to Graduate School? (HINT: There Isn’t One.)
Should you go to graduate school right after you graduate with your bachelor’s degree? Is it better to work for a few years first, and then go back? At some point, is it simply too late even to consider getting a graduate degree? Trying to figure out the best time to pursue a graduate degree can be frustrating. However, Dr. Templeton simplifies the decision-making process, saying, “The reason a student decides to attend graduate school determines the best time for them to do it.”
For instance, for those entering a career field that requires a graduate degree — such as counseling — it’s often best to go straight from an undergraduate program into a graduate program so that you can begin practicing as a professional sooner rather than later. But, for others, getting experience in a field before considering graduate school might make more sense. “We have people attending our Graduate School at TROY who are at different stages in their lives,” says Dr. Templeton. “Some are coming back to school to learn more about the new trends in their industry and add different skills. Others are coming back to get the education they need to change career paths completely. Career military servicemembers find that graduate education is necessary for career advancement within the various branches of the military. We also have many students in the military who are getting ready to retire from service. A master’s degree can help them build a bridge from the skills they’ve learned in the military to applying those skills in civilian life.”
“Our graduate students at TROY are a very diverse group of people who are coming in at different times in their lives,” says Dr. Templeton. “They come in with different perspectives, and they learn from each other. They’re constantly bringing in new ideas that help everyone learn and grow.”
When Price decided in her 30s to start graduate school she realized that getting a master’s degree would be necessary to follow her calling to become a counselor. “This TROY degree is a key to unlocking the next phase of my professional life,” she says.
Is There Just One Type of Graduate School Education? (No.)
There are multiple types of graduate school educational options — from certificate programs to master’s degree programs to doctoral degree programs. There are also professional degree programs, which include disciplines such as medicine and law.
The type of program you choose will depend on your personal and career goals. For example, if you simply want to gain new skills or sharpen your existing ones, a post-graduate certificate program might be the best fit. If you’re focused on climbing through your company’s ranks, a master’s degree program might be the better choice. Or, if your interest is in research or teaching in higher education, you might want to consider pursuing a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). If you need an advanced degree for professional certification or practice in your field, your choice is usually pretty straightforward.
Depending on the graduate school you attend and the program of study you choose, there will be specific requirements you’ll need to meet in order to earn a certificate or diploma. “Certificates — which typically require 15 hours of course credit — are associated with a specific graduate program and most can be counted toward a full master’s degree,” explains Dr. Templeton. “But they’re not a diploma and they aren’t a certification.” (Professional certification is typically awarded by a third-party organization rather than the school.)
To earn a traditional master’s degree, students are generally required to complete 30 to 36 course hours. For fields that require licensure after the program’s completion, the required course hours can increase to as many as 60. Doctoral programs — which require the writing and defending of a dissertation — can take even longer, with three years being the average time needed for completion.
Interested in Exploring the Possibility of Graduate School? Start Here.
“Before beginning the search for graduate school options, start by narrowing down what your area of study will be,” says Dr. Templeton. “Then, talk with someone in the field who’s already doing what you eventually want to do and ask them questions — like what does a typical day look like on the job and how did they get to where they are now? Ask them to give you the good, the bad and the ugly. This can be very helpful when you’re deciding if the field you think you want to earn a graduate degree in is actually one that you’re really interested in.”
Another piece of advice Dr. Templeton offers is to look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. There, you can see the projections for job growth in your field of interest and determine if the profession requires you to be licensed before you can begin working — for instance, as a mental health counselor or psychologist. Additionally, she suggests looking at job search websites — such as Indeed and Glassdoor — to find out what kind and how many openings there are in your field of interest and the experience, education and skills companies expect applicants to attain.
Once you’ve determined that you’re committed to pursuing a graduate degree, start searching for schools that offer quality programs in your specific area of interest. Ask how many of their graduates are employed in their desired field within a certain period after completing the program. Request data regarding the average salaries those graduates are earning. Ask if the program is accredited.
“The selection of a graduate program is a very personal choice,” says Dr. Templeton. “It’s important to do your research because earning a graduate degree is a big investment of both time and money. You need to determine how graduate school is going to fit into your life and finances, as well as how it will help you advance toward your goals. Tour the university and meet the faculty in the program that interests you. Ask them what they expect from their students. And talk to students who are currently enrolled in the program to find out what their perspective is.”
Determining how you’ll pay for graduate school is also something you’ll want to do before making the decision to go. Consult with the school’s financial aid representatives and ask for help in coming up with a plan that will work for you and your budget. Potential aid sources include (but aren’t limited to) private loans, federal aid and graduate assistantships.
Price, for instance, participates in a graduate assistantship that provides a scholarship opportunity and a small amount of cash flow into her family’s household budget.
Choosing TROY for Your Graduate Education
TROY has been providing graduate education to students since 1957. In the decades since, the University increased the number of graduate and professional degree programs it offers to more than 40 and has been consistent in its efforts to make earning a graduate degree an undertaking that’s affordable, accessible and provides the highest-quality education.
“Your graduate school experience is influenced by your teachers,” says Dr. Templeton. “Our faculty are excellent. They bring real-world experience into their classrooms, they work with students on research projects, and they have a true connection to those they teach.”
Price agrees saying that TROY’s counseling faculty have been amazing across all campuses and TROY Online. “There is such an openness that students can have with their professors at TROY — both as an undergrad and a grad student. I love learning from others’ experiences, and across the board, our professors have rich professional and life experiences they draw from to help make their teaching come to life for their students.”
She also noted that the faculty go above and beyond to make sure that their students are not only doing well scholastically, but also mentally, physically and emotionally. “Self care is such a major topic in mental health, and while our professors are professional and have high expectations for their students, they also take the time to know their students and help when help is needed,” she says.
Because of the way TROY is structured — with multiple sites located within Alabama, the southeast and even throughout the world — students have much-needed flexibility to attend classes and access university-based services. “We offer a small school atmosphere with a large reach,” says Dr. Templeton. “In addition to our sites here in the states, we have sites located in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. Because of this, our Graduate School has a global presence, awareness and appreciation.”
Class size in TROY’s Graduate School ranges from approximately 10 to 20 students, facilitating the formation of deeper relationships between students — and between students and faculty. “Unlike the typical undergraduate experience where you’re rarely in the same classroom with the same students throughout, the group you come into graduate school with is the one you’ll frequently be in class with,” says Dr. Templeton. “This is because you’re moving through the program together.”
To make earning a graduate degree more accessible, TROY provides students with the option to take many classes online. “Relatively few of our courses require face-to-face instruction for every class,” says Dr. Templeton. “Some are totally available online, while others might have a blended or hybrid approach that offers a combination of in-person and online instruction. For someone who is working and has a family, the online option can offer more flexibility.”
Price says her program is primarily made up of in-person classes, but today, more and more offerings are online, and this has been a huge help in continuing to move through this program. “I am a huge fan of face-to-face learning. My in-class evening courses have allowed me to meet some of the most amazing people and they have allowed for some incredible conversations and learning experiences to occur,” she says. “However, online courses have been such a godsend! The nine-week format has not only allowed me to earn course credits faster, but it has also allowed me the freedom to study, converse with classmates and learn from home while fitting classes around a busy schedule.”
The other benefit of having an online option is that it makes earning a graduate degree possible for those who live far away from TROY sites and can’t commute to class every day. “Anyone can take an online class offered by TROY no matter where they live,” said Dr. Templeton. “And that includes deployed military personnel overseas.”
Another way TROY makes the process of earning a graduate degree more flexible is by offering Fast Track graduate degree programs that require 30 to 33 semester hours and can be completed within a year. “This appeals to students who are wanting to advance in their current jobs,” says Dr. Templeton.
TROY offers graduate degree programs in a wide variety of fields, including computer science, education, nursing, criminal justice, public administration, accounting, management, strategic communication, social work, and sport management. Additionally, certificate options are offered in biomedical sciences, healthcare informatics and nursing leadership, and for family nurse practitioners.
Investing in Yourself
Deciding to move forward with earning a graduate degree can be daunting. But it’s not a solo effort and TROY is committed to helping its graduate students succeed. “When you take the first step of your graduate school journey, you don’t have to do it alone,” Price says. “At TROY, I’ve been surrounded by student-centered professionals who have offered help and support every step of the way. As a grad student, I appreciate that our programs are accredited and highly regarded within the professional world. I also feel like my professors want me to succeed almost as much as I do! I’m thankful for TROY, and I’m excited the master’s degree I’m earning will help me pursue the dreams I have for my career!”
The benefits of having an advanced degree in your field of expertise are significant — and the data backs up the benefits. When you earn a graduate degree, opportunities for advancement open up more quickly and salaries are likely to increase more significantly. Additionally, graduate education provides you with a much deeper understanding of the world in which you live. And that’s why a graduate school education isn’t just an investment in your career — it’s also an investment in your life.
If you’re interested in exploring graduate education at TROY, we’d love to talk with you and answer any questions you might have. You can learn more about all of our graduate degree programs on the Graduate School page on our website.