There’s been talk of a potential economic recession since 2019, but it’s not clear exactly when, or how severe, a downturn could be. The now-infamous 2008 recession, sometimes known as The Great Recession, was devastating for just about every job field (including mine: I had just graduated with a highly specific master’s degree in art business). The long-term effects of a recession can also include abandoned educational plans or an exacerbation of debt because of reduced job opportunities in the workforce. And that’s not even mentioning the exhaustion, burnout, and professional frustration that can be common side effects.
So the decision of whether and when to pursue a graduate degree is a tricky one, since you don’t know what the market will look like when you graduate. Thus far, the United States job market has continued to grow every year, so we’re not dealing with a recession right at this moment. But, you should absolutely be asking these big-picture questions if you’re mulling over continuing education options. Here are a few important things to consider as you come to a decision.
If you’re going back to school full-time, here’s your best-case scenario: no matter what the economy was doing when you took time off, your sector should be doing well when you graduate. A strong job market means more opportunities, higher salaries, competition for your skillset, and better long-term job prospects. There are a few things you can do here to ensure your own success, including finding a career path that isn’t obsolete or dwindling. But some of it’s out of your hands.
Just go in with a plan, so that you’re ready to the best of your ability. Think about your best-case scenario and plan for it by knowing the job you want after you graduate, your ultimate career path, how much you stand to make, and (very very importantly) how you’re going to pay off your debt. Then, don’t be afraid to think about the worst-case scenario.
What happens if you graduate during a downturn? Is your degree so specific that you can’t utilize it in another field or position? Becoming a nurse or lawyer means your entire profession won’t go away anytime soon, but it also might be a bit harder to do something outside that field. Getting an MS or MBA in marketing means you’ll have a highly adaptable degree, but creative jobs (like mine) can suffer during a recession.
Think creatively now before you’re forced to. What other career paths are available to you with the degree you hope to obtain? Would you be able to live (and not lose your mind) working in a related, potentially lower-paying job for a period of time? Will you have the time over several years to make up ground and get to a place where you’re not professionally underemployed? It sounds scary, but trust me, you’ll feel better going in with your eyes open.
You could conceivably wait until the economy slows, then take time off to go to school. This is a popular plan, and could work especially well if you have a sneaking suspicion that you need to change jobs, you hate what you’re doing right now, or you need that requisite degree to make it to the next level, professionally. In an ideal world, you would “skip" the economic trough and use it to build up your professional profile. Then, you can return to the workforce with the perfect reason why you took time off (employers don’t love to see “unemployed," but they do love to see “advanced degree") and ready to hit the ground running.
This could absolutely work, but I say this with the caveat that there’s much you don’t know here. Namely: what if the economy is still in a bad place when you graduate, and now you have debt on top of that? What if some massive change happens while you’re in school to change your plans? Someone hoping to specialize in pharmaceutical drugs, for example, should keep an eye on the fact that pharma bills currently being debated in Congress have the potential to drastically change the industry. Going to school just to do it, without thinking about what comes afterward, is not a productive plan.
If you’re in doubt, there are also part-time and flexible programs so that you don’t have to relinquish your current job in order to pursue your dream. It’s a lot of work, but it offers more security than going without income entirely. It might also take longer, though, so just know what your graduation date will be. Know also that it might be a lonely experience, with full-time students seemingly flying past you since they have more time to devote to classes. But many, many people take this route.
The truth is, it’s hard to determine exactly when an economic event will occur. A pundit who says, “It’s definitely happening tomorrow!" might have more information than you, but The Great Recession caught a lot of people by surprise. There’s so much at play, and 2020 will be a long, eventful year.
To put this in context, I was in probably the worst possible situation when I graduated, with a highly specific degree in an industry that was dependent on clients buying pricey pieces of art (which was, incidentally, not going to happen when people couldn’t even pay their mortgages). But everything up until that point had seemed to indicate that the job market was in a great place. It would have been tough to anticipate the depth of that recession, and I just had to roll with the punches. It took me several years to recover, but I stayed adaptable and stacked my skills to great effect.
My point is, don’t beat yourself up for not knowing exactly when to go to school. You make the same gamble when you buy a house, or switch jobs, or make any number of major life decisions. Just watch what’s going on, do your homework as best you can, and then make the best decision with the information you have.
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Katherine J. Igoe is a full-time freelancer in Boston. She has direct experience working in education and higher ed, helping students make important academic decisions. Follow her, ask questions, or suggest story ideas on Instagram @kjigoe or on Twitter @kjigoe.