Deciding whether graduate school will help advance your career can unleash a mind-bending set of cost-benefit questions that demand thorough research and planning.

Sybil Pressprich is a senior career counselor who helps people facing a job loss.

Sybil Pressprich: Earning a graduate degree is time-consuming and costly, but it can also lead you to a more satisfying career.

Let’s face it: Earning a graduate degree is time-consuming and costly, and it can put a lot of stress on family life. But in some cases, it can also lead you to a more attractive and satisfying career.

That’s why research is vital when making this decision. The central question should be: Will this degree get me where I want to go? You can’t figure out the answer to that question by guessing because too much is at stake, both in time and money.

One of the best ways to find out if graduate school is worth your effort is by visiting with the people who do the hiring in your organization or in the industry you’re targeting as a career goal. Have honest discussions about their expectations, how those expectations might change and what specific value a graduate degree adds for job seekers.

Ask those experts if they are only looking at master’s or doctoral degree recipients for open positions. In some fields, such as nursing or social work, an advanced degree is often a requirement for career advancement and better pay.

Ask whether you could gain a similar career advantage by completing a certificate program, studying online or even studying on your own. Central to this decision will be determining how you can demonstrate your improved competence to prospective employers after completing your studies.

Some people arrive at graduate school as lifelong learners eager to build their academic credentials. That’s an admirable goal, but it’s also helpful to think about the result of earning that advanced degree and how your professional life will look after graduation.

In certain fields, for example, a doctorate carries an expectation that you’ll become a faculty member—and faculty jobs are at a premium and may require relocation. If you don’t follow this traditional route, will you struggle to find engaging employment, and could you be viewed as being overqualified?

Paying the freight

The economics of graduate school are also important.

Start out by calculating the tuition, fees and costs of living–including the cost in terms of lost wages if you’re not working. Find out if your employer will help underwrite your education.

If you need to borrow, investigate your student loan options at www.studentaid.ed.gov/sa. Explore graduate school scholarships from your school, professional organizations and private groups. If you’re a veteran, consider your available benefits.

Once you settle on a graduate school program, find out if there are research or teaching assistantships that will help pay the freight—and help build your skill set.

Don’t forget to figure into the equation the impact on your lifestyle and family. Think hard about whether the sacrifice in the short term will translate into a better standard of living once that diploma arrives.

Sybil Pressprich is a career and educational counselor for the Division of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison. sybil.pressprich@wisc.edu.

This article originally ran in the Wisconsin State Journal.