Exactly two months from today, I will be walking toward my second Masters degree. It is definitely an excitement,  in both the good and bad senses of the word.

With every step along the way, people find themselves questioning the added value of their plans on the academic, professional, or personal level, considering the cost-to-benefit ratios, and what could have possibly been a better alternative. Ironically enough, rarely do they take time to stop and stare.

They are somehow afraid of gaps on their resumes, of a semester of ‘non-productivity’, of a journey of questioning the process, of a ‘rest’ note in their symphony. So they keep pressing the gas pedal, as if faster is better.

A friend once told me: “After high school, you will never ever make a step and be 100% sure about it, without the fear of failure and hesitation”. He couldn’t be more right. After four years in graduate school, an exquisite and self-satisfying academic experience, I decided to share the many lessons collapsed in few tips for those who are considering a graduate education, for what it is worth (and isn’t).

Before Making the Decision, Ask Yourself:

– Was my college major the right one for me? Don’t be afraid of the answer, better face it now than later.

People often walk toward college thinking its another journey of education that will end with graduation. It is often because of their lack of experience in the real life, considering that their best exposure to life was that to a passive school experience that started with their parents enrolling them in kindergarten class and ending with a graduation that was planned and awaited over their first 18 years. Lucky are those who receive appropriate pre-college orientation from family and school, but for many reasons common orientation is often not enough for the majority. Decisions end up being taken less seriously than they should be; some follow their parents’ track or will, without real passion for the career that was planned for them; some give up on a major because they didnt make it through their top choice college; and some just find a major with a convenient tuition. The rest either do a really good job choosing what they’ve always wanted, or end up being lucky loving what they randomly chose. The truth is college majors are there to stay, and this is what students realize mostly somewhere near graduation.

If your answer is: No, it wasn’t and I regret choosing it. Don’t panic. It’s not late, and you’re certainly not alone. Go on a self-discovery journey. And make sure it is somehow rewarding, whether financially or in any other utility form. Work and earn money with your college degree, or start an entrepreneurial effort if that what makes you happy. A year or two will clarify things, and if you use them wisely they will never be tossed in the trash. Read alot, economic books and articles can help a lot in discovering what is really worth in the future economy and how you can align your passion with a sustainable career plan. Volunteer in things you never did, you can discover what you like when you are exposed to it. Travel around, discover emerging markets, and gain a multi-faceted perspective. Don’t ignore technology and it’s growing effect on our lives and careers. If you like it, embrace it and don’t be afraid of change. Sometimes you might discover a small tweak between your major and technology that could change the whole game. In my case, I landed on mobile health technology, as the intersection of science and tech. What is worse than never asking the above question is actually asking it, and getting a ‘No’ for an answer, and still going down the wrong path just because it is the way it should be, or because other people believe it is. If they like it that way, let them do it that way; You don’t have to.

If your answer is: Yes. Then, The next question is: What’s next? Do I really need a graduate degree, and what is the added value of such a degree considering the increasing tuition costs and the opportunity costs of being in school.

It somehow depends on whether the major is research-oriented or professional/technical. My recommendation for a technical degree is to go to the work field right away, enjoy a young professional life while earning money and experience. That said, the sooner you land a job that you want the faster you achieve your professional growth and maturity, because after two years from being in a desired field and vertical, you will know what it takes to grow in that direction and whether a graduate degree will be needed.

If your major is a research field such as history, philosophy, hard sciences, literature, etc., you will probably need to go up the ladder to the PhD level. Yet, working after college is never a bad idea even in this case, as in a lot of the cases research majors can align themselves as well with a professional job.

If You Decide to Join a Graduate School:

Ask around: If you have a program in mind, ask whether that program will really take you where You want. And the last place you want to take information from is a graduate school website. Try to think outside the box; after all, schools will be posting marketing materials for their programs, just like any other organization but with a less obvious aspect. You might be disappointed from what you see once in. Start with alum of a program or a school under consideration. They are always good resources given their experience. Consult students and professors about curriculum, e-mail executives of companies you want to work for, and ask them what really matters for them, they will be happy to hear about your interest (most of them).

– Ranking: If ranking matters in your aspired degree (like MBAs), don’t settle for less than top schools, it’s a one-time life experience and will last forever. Ranking however is not always a priority for many other majors.

Environment: The city where you live should be a place to enjoy. Being a graduate student is never an easy task and your life will revolve around the place where you live. Make sure it gives you a positive vibe, a healthy spirit that keeps you up to the challenges you will face.

Don’t be Fooled: the idea of holding a masters degree, and even more, a PhD often comes with a feeling of self-esteem, as higher education has always been associated with status and wealth. Don’t be fooled with such facts.
About one-third of people with master’s degrees make less money on average than a typical bachelor’s degree holder, said Stephen J. Rose, a labor economist with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, citing U.S. Census data. Simply, use a sheet of excel and evaluate costs and benefits, literally. In the costs, include: tuition, living expenses, books, travelling back and forth (if you’re studying far from home, and need to visit the family throughout your education), opportunity costs (the lost money you could be earning over the time of your education), and include all types of lost utility such as leisure time or any other valued utility you will lose by joining school (give them a monetary value if possible). In the benefits include: the raise or high salary you will earn once (back) in the job field, the self-esteem of earning a graduate degree, the knowledge you will acquire throughout your studies, the cultural experience in case you were traveling abroad (give those utilities a monetary value depending on your personal utility scale). If benefits exceed costs, then go for it; otherwise, don’t fool yourself with a Masters or PhD Degree! Trust me.

My biggest advice is to always think strategically: stop, stare, evaluate, and take action. And never forget to re-evaluate; also to follow your heart sometimes.