Do I have to go back to school?

There is a huge difference between the average lifetime earnings of those with just a bachelor's degree compared to those with a post-graduate education. According to the most recent Current Population Survey, people with master's degrees make an average of $384,800 more during their lifetime than those with just a bachelor's degree; those with doctorates earn $1,128,420 more. Given the monetary advantage of attaining more than a bachelor's degree, I think a better question to ask is "When is it a good time to go back to school?"

Certain careers we plan to have, such as a lawyer or pharmacist, require further education. Generally, people who intend on getting into occupations requiring more instruction should enter their needed program shortly after they receive their first degree. Without the advanced degree they can be stuck in limbo.

Yet other occupations, such as a social worker or secondary teacher, are easier to attain and advance in with a post-grad degree, but aren't off limits without one. For these positions it may be wiser to work a year or two before becoming a student again. This way you will have acquired some professional experience, which will make you even more marketable once you receive a post-graduate degree. You may also be able to save money to pay for life's necessities if you aren't able to work fulltime while attending school.

You should be picky about where you receive your post-graduate degree because all schools aren't equal. You will be investing at least two years of your life getting a master's degree and as many as seven years for a doctorate. Finding a school that will meet the majority of your needs during this time period is crucial. What to look for:

1. A school with an accredited and great program: Find the school with the best program you are interested in that you can afford to attend. Find out if the program has been rated one of the best of its kind, or at least is considered a good program to go through by professionals in your field.

When you visit the school, ask to speak privately to at least two students in the program to find out their likes and dislikes. Also ask for the contact information of two recent alumni to get their opinion about the program.

2. A school in a good location: It's probable that you'll have to move to receive your post-graduate degree. While you could attend the same school you received your bachelor's from I wouldn't recommend it. The change of atmosphere will help you better adapt to other environments and you're more likely to meet new and different people. The location of the school you choose should have a lot of companies that you can work or intern for. Some cities are known for certain industries, like Los Angeles, which is known for its entertainment industry, and Washington D.C., which is home to many public policy organizations. You want to be able to gain experience in your field while you're going to school, which is easier when the city has a lot of companies you'd be interested in working for.

3. A school that offers you some kind of fellowship or assistantship: Increasing your knowledge will probably mean increasing your debt. However, you shouldn't have to pay for your entire post-graduate degree with student loans. Choose a university that offers to pay all or part of your tuition or housing because of your academic background or in exchange for working at the school.

Chaz Kyser is the author of "Embracing the Real World: The Black Woman's Guide to Life After College." Send comments about this article to column@embracingtherealworld.com.

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