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Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Grad School

October 26, 1986|EILEEN HEYES

To grad school or not to grad school?

For many college seniors and mid-career professionals, that is the question.

It is ultimately a question of cost versus rewards--both of which can be measured in dollars and intangibles.

To be sure, starting salaries for those holding master's degrees are generally higher than for those with baccalaureates. And the salary gap tends to widen as a career progresses, according to articles published in the Encyclopedia of Education.

But if the College Placement Council's 1985-86 Salary Survey is any indication, an MA seems to make a bigger difference in some fields than in others, at least in initial salary offers.

For example, the survey showed that accounting majors with BAs received offers averaging $1,768 monthly; those with MAs were offered an average of $2,132, or about 21% more. The following table shows average offers in other disciplines, and the difference in percent:

% Field BA MA inc. Humanities $1,608 $1,624 1 Social sciences $1,665 $1,754 5 Chemical engr. $2,438 $2,678 10 Electrical engr. $2,364 $2,851 21 Mech. engr. $2,322 $2,740 18 Computer sci. $2,216 $2,777 25

The number of job offers to graduates with higher degrees, however, was down substantially from the year before.

The ubiquitous MBA, the placement council found, attracted higher salary offers when combined with a technical bachelor's degree than with a BA in a non-technical field. And previous full-time work experience made a substantial difference in starting salaries for MBA candidates.

In dollar terms, it is fairly simple to measure what economists call the "opportunity cost," or what you have to do without in order to go to grad school. Besides paying for school, you may have to forgo some wage earnings by cutting back on or quitting your job. Divide this by the additional salary you expect, and you can see how long it will take to recoup that part of your investment.

"Then there's a qualitative side, an intrinsic side," pointed out Chuck Bond, College Placement Council field services coordinator for 13 western states. A graduate degree can also mean "broadened horizons, a chance to do more interesting work, a more idealistic kutlook," Bond said.

An aspiring graduate student must decide, Bond noted, whether he really loves the discipline and enjoys research. "Why do something you hate just for more money?"

On the other hand, some professions are virtually closed to anyone without a graduate degree. A BA in psychology or economics, for example, will not qualify a graduate to work as a psychologist or an economist. And to do serious research in almost any field, college placement officials say, a higher degree is a must.

"The very first question a person should ask himself is, Does he need additional education at this point in time" to meet his career goals? advised John Adams, director of placement and career planning at UCLA's Graduate School of Management. "This is especially true for undergraduates."

A stalled career, he said, may reflect poor career management rather than a need for more education.

"Many people are better qualified than they believe they are," Adams said. Look at your resume, he advised: Does it really capture your abilities? "Look at what you can do, not what it was called."

Most of all, before trying to tackle a graduate program, Adams said, "a person should really want to get an education. It's too big a challenge if you don't."

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