How to Help Your Kid Make a Smart Decision About Graduate School

Is your young adult–the newly-minted college graduate–ready to enter the world of work? Are they prepared for a fulfilling career? Have you thought about whether or not they should attend graduate school?

How parents can help their kids with a graduate school decision.

I know. That sending-your-child-off-to-college thing was tough enough. Now you are enjoying life being the parent of a college graduate and you are not looking for more college tuition bills. At least not yet.

For now, you’d like to watch your college graduate find a good job and get some real- world work experience. Maybe even pay back a few loans. And you certainly aren’t ready to help them write essays for graduate school applications.

[Read Next: Jobs for New Grads: How to Help (or Hinder) Your Kid’s Search]

If you are concerned that your child’s undergraduate degree has not sufficiently prepared them for a rewarding career, would a graduate degree be the answer? And if it would be, what would be the right time for them to go? And what should your role be, as a parent, in making that decision?

Is Your Student Thinking about Graduate School?

First, let’s look at the value-added of a graduate degree. It isn’t just the added income, although that is important. It is the access to a career that requires advanced study.

In 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for high school graduates was 5.2% as compared to college graduates’ unemployment rate of 2.7%. But for holders of master’s degree, the unemployment rate was 2.4%, just .3% better than a bachelor’s degree, probably not a compelling reason to attend graduate school, especially if you bear in mind both the cost of tuition and money they didn’t earn while getting their graduate degree.

Perhaps more relevant than the small decrease in unemployment for graduate degree holders is the increased personal satisfaction of a more challenging and personally fulfilling career that advanced degree holders enjoy.

Graduate school is expensive—ranging between $30,000 to $120,000 and increasing about 3% annually, depending on the school and the length of the program. Sure, there are scholarships and other forms of financial aid, but it’s a big commitment of time and money. And with undergraduate student loans to pay off, taking on more debt can be daunting.

[Read Next: There IS Life After College]

So what is the right time? If your child has always wanted to be a surgeon (maybe you are one), you are looking at many years of training, and going to medical school right after college might be the right decision. On the other hand, a year or two of working in a lab might be a good way to get a taste of a medical career before committing to the long haul of training.

Now that people are staying in the work force longer and longer, and changing jobs and even careers more often, the decision of where and when to attend graduate school becomes even more complicated.

There is yet another factor, namely, the ever-changing nature of work that means that your child will have to keep their skills up-to-date in response to rapidly changing technology.

Here’s what we did it in our house. Neither of our children was destined to follow in the footsteps of their parents, a professor and a graduate school dean of students. But neither was ready to declare a career goal. We were hoping that they would take some time to discover their passion. With that in mind, we encouraged them to put off graduate school (if they were even thinking about it) for at least two or three years. We told them we wouldn’t contribute to the cost of their graduate studies if they didn’t feel excited about the career that an advanced degree would make possible.

And wait they did. Our eldest son joined Teach for America, an organization that places inexperienced college graduates as teachers in under-served schools for two years. With only the summer after graduation for training, he became a teacher. It wasn’t easy. His kids required a lot beyond book learning. After two years, he decided he was finally becoming an effective 2nd grade teacher and he stayed a third year to convince himself of his success. During that year, he applied (and was accepted to) graduate schools in public policy.

Our younger son took advantage of his undergraduate college’s on-campus recruiting program and accepted a job with a prestigious consulting firm where, he too, spent three years before “giving back” by working with a non-profit organization in the slums of Santiago, Chile for a year. While there, he applied to (and was accepted to) graduate business school.

Neither has looked back. No regrets.

Bear in mind that one size doesn’t fit all. Some of the most successful CEO’s in the United States are college drop-outs. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who founded “Unicorn” companies, (technology startups that reach a $1 billion dollar market value) none of whom graduated from college. Mr. Zuckerberg received an honorary doctoral degree this year from Harvard, the college he dropped out of to start Facebook.

Finally, bear in mind that you’ve given your child not only roots, but also wings, so it might be a good idea to have answers for them only if they ask for your advice. Sometimes waiting to be asked isn’t easy. But you raised them to be independent. And you know what? They’ll be fine.


What “Roots and Wings” Means to Me

How to Land a Job or Internship Out of College




About Judy Kugel

Judy Kugel retired as Associate Dean of Students at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2013. She has counseled people making career and life choices since 1970 when she co-founded the Boston Project for Careers, a nonprofit organization that developed opportunities for men and women who were seeking part-time jobs, often after being at home with young children. The Boston Project for Careers was one of the first organizations to promote job-sharing for professionals.
Her personal essays and travel articles have appeared in major newspapers, magazines and websites. She has explored life transitions throughout her career and led several workshops on that subject. An avid writer of journals, she went public in 2008, when she started her twice-weekly blog at 70-something.

In her “retirement,” she is a consultant, a coach, a blogger and a grandmother (in reverse order of importance). A graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Political Science, she holds an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College. She is the author of 70-Something: Life, Love and Limits in the Bonus Years

Read more posts by Judy

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