Just a generation or so ago, going to graduate school seemed like a sure-fire way to boost employment prospects and a higher salary. But in today’s job market, it doesn’t always make financial sense to pursue an advanced degree. Before shelling out the cash and commitment, there a few factors you should consider first.

What do you want to get out of it?

If you’d like to become a lawyer or a doctor, you don’t have much choice in the matter — an advanced degree is a requirement to practice.

But if that’s not the case, you should be really clear about what you want out of a degree. What’s the objective? Do the positions you’ll be applying for after studying require a degree? Or are you totally changing careers and need the formal education?

With education costs on the rise and a shaky economy, it’s wise to consider just what you intend on doing with that degree. If you’re trying to go into education administration and most of the roles require a master’s, that makes sense. On the other hand, if you’re applying for an MBA school because it “might look good on my CV,” well, that’s an expensive theory that may not pay off in the end.

What’s the earning potential?

Before embarking on an advanced degree, it’s a good idea to check out the job market, salaries, and earning potential, not only for the role you hope to have after graduation, but positions you hope to have in the future.

If job pickings are slim or starting salaries are quite low, you may be digging yourself out of a financial hole for some time. If, however, your career is in a growing field, earning potential could be quite high. 

Can you get financial assistance?

Higher education isn’t cheap, but costs can often be reduced in a variety of ways. If you’re already in the workforce, your company may offer partial or full reimbursement to study in a field related to your role. Superstar in undergrad? You might also qualify for fellowships, scholarships, or teaching assistant positions. More and more programs are also geared toward working adults, allowing you to attend classes in the evenings and part time so you can keep working.

What’s the opportunity cost?

If a degree isn’t absolutely necessary in your field, it’s important to think about the opportunity costs and what you might be giving up while you’re pursuing a degree. For instance, if you’re in a field that values experience over education, you could be working against your best interests by missing valuable time in the workforce. Will pursuing your degree still give you opportunities to network with potential employers and clients, or will you be starting from scratch on graduation day?

And if a degree isn’t the right choice…

Weighed up the different points and don’t think graduate school is for you? Try these options to enjoy some of the benefits without the high price tag:

  • Take a short course instead. Brush up on skills, learn new ones, and network with industry professionals by taking an intensive class or workshop instead of a full-fledged degree program.
  • Join meetups and professional groups. Meet people in your field — or a field you’re hoping to break into — in an informal space.
  • Consider volunteer positions. Gain more hands-on experience and beef up your CV while making a difference.