I was dining out with a friend when she looked up and said seven words that I dread to hear: “I’m going to apply for grad school.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not against grad school. I could never be against bettering oneself with education. However, after four-plus years working in the admissions office of a master’s program, I see things a bit differently.

True, I’ve seen students get in, study hard, get a great job, and make bank. There are plenty of people who reap the benefits of a graduate degree via better jobs, more career opportunities, and a sense of satisfaction at the education received.

Unfortunately, I’ve also watched others struggle to find a job — any job — all while steeped in more debt than ever.

So as I put my fork down and looked my friend in the eye, I asked the only question I could think of: “Why? Why go to grad school?”

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My friend struggled to explain her situation. She was frustrated: She wasn’t going anywhere at her job, and she wasn’t making the income she had imagined. Surely grad school would lead to greater success.

But is grad school worth it for people like her? Will another degree accomplish all the things we imagine it will?

Just Another Paper on the Wall

Lin S., a former student in the program I worked for, once felt the same way as my friend. She entered grad school eager to learn and become the professional that she had always imagined herself as. That was, until one day when she emailed me in dismay.

Lin was $80,000 in debt and working as a waitress. She asked me if she was alone — if she was doing something wrong, since she couldn’t live up to that grad school promise. She wasn’t.

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The idea that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough has taken over an entire generation. Too many people have sunk themselves into more student loan debt, more frustration, and more dinners with friends in which they decide to change their lives by getting a master’s degree.

A graduate degree is just another paper on the wall and another line on your résumé.

Sure, for some jobs, it’s essential to have a master’s at the ground level. But for most, it’s just a boost up.

A graduate degree won’t land you a job or get your big idea funded. It won’t convince your boss to finally give you that promotion. Graduate degrees will help you knock on some more doors with confidence, but it certainly won’t open them. That work is all yours.

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Other Ways Around

As I gently laid out my reasons and shared the cautionary tale of Lin S., my friend asked me what she should do instead. I encouraged her to consider a few alternatives:

1. Enroll in a Certificate Program

Certificate programs are generally affordable and require low time commitments. Plus, they provide great ways to place yourself in a specialized field.

Ellen Myers, a former graduate adviser, suggests certificate options for those in specialized fields such as nursing, computer science, business management (non-MBA), and engineering — fields in which regular advancements mean you may need to constantly continue your education to stay ahead.

Myers estimates that the certificates may result in a $5,000 to $10,000 return in salary, depending on the field.

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2. Talk to Your Manager

If she isn’t on board with your going back to school, that may be because it isn’t necessary for your job. Instead, ask if the company offers training programs that can help you advance faster.

3. Find a Mentor in Your New Field

If you’re going to grad school because you're looking to change careers, you need to be 100 percent sure about that switch. Browse Facebook for those working in your desired position, attend networking events, send cold emails, and so on. You may be surprised to find that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Is Grad School Worth It? The Bottom Line

Grad school can work — it should work. But going for that degree without giving consideration to the cost of the program versus the actual job opportunities — or to the alternative routes available — can result in many wasted years and a hefty financial burden. Before filling out that application, ask yourself if grad school is really the answer for you.