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Does Grad School Pay Off?

A few years ago, going to graduate or professional school seemed like a smart way to wait out a miserable economy. Students who picked up an extra degree may now be wondering if it was worth the time and expense.

In terms of salary expectations, the answer is yes. The Census Bureau reports that workers with a master's degree earn an annual $74,217, on average, compared with $58,762 for bachelor's degree recipients and $32,812 for high-school-only graduates. Grads who earn doctoral degrees can earn salaries in the six-figure territory. Professional degrees bring in an average of $128,578.

But the average grad-school debt for students who borrow tops $30,000 for a master's degree and approaches $90,000 for a professional degree, not including undergraduate loans.

If your monthly payment exceeds 10% of your monthly income, you could end up struggling financially for the sake of that degree. Vet the prospects for your profession before spending (or borrowing) to go to graduate school.

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Law degree

New hires of law-firm associates, which plummeted 40% in 2009 from the previous year, are creeping back up. More than 87% of law students who participated in law-firm summer programs were offered jobs in 2010, an 18% bump over 2009, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Still, hiring remains significantly below prerecession levels, and competition for jobs will be fierce as law schools continue to churn out more lawyers than the market can bear. As for salaries, the biggest paydays are at big private firms, where new lawyers earn a median annual salary of $160,000. Public-interest attorneys earn the least, with median starting salaries of $42,000 to $50,000, according to the NALP.

Medical degree

The medical profession suffered its share of economic heartburn in the aftermath of the recession: In 2010, doctors in eight specialties, including plastic surgery and gastroenterology, saw a drop in pay from the previous year, and most others enjoyed only a modest increase. No worries: Physician incomes are still among the highest in the country, ranging from $175,000 to $600,000, depending on the specialty. And job prospects for physicians will be healthy throughout the decade, owing to an aging population and ongoing demand for high-level care. The most sought-after of the profession (but not the highest-paid): doctors who practice in rural and low-income areas and those who specialize in age-related illnesses.

Doctor of Pharmacy

Take regular breakthroughs in medicine, a shortage of new pharmacists, and a host of older pharmacists getting ready to retire and you've got a prescription for job opportunity. Although some pharmacists saw their hours cut back or their schedules rejiggered during the recession, job growth for pharmacists will approach 20% over the decade ending in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary for the profession, which currently requires a doctoral degree, is $106,630. If you go into this field, plan on spending less time mixing medications -- most are premeasured and delivered ready-to-use by pharmaceutical companies -- and more time counseling patients and filling out insurance forms.

MBA

Employment prospects for MBA grads rebounded after suffering a dip in 2009: Nine in ten members of the class of 2010 were employed after graduation, about the same as prerecession levels, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. But getting those offers was no walk in the office park: Grads sent out more than 33 applications, on average, and submitted to more than six interviews before getting a bite. Nearly half of the class reported applying for jobs that offered less money than they had hoped for. As for the future, job growth for business management analysts over the decade should be strong, and so should the competition among job seekers. Many firms won't even look at a candidate who lacks an MBA.

Master of Public Health

Public-health professionals should find plenty of jobs in the coming years as the health care industry expands, the federal government ramps up disaster-preparedness efforts, and communities seek to improve preventive care. Specialties with the most job potential include health services administration, epidemiology, health education and public-health program management, at first-year salaries (which include all degree levels) ranging from $33,000 to $86,625 for health education and $37,050 to $161,400 for health services administration. The median for health service management runs $80,240. Most public-health management positions require a master's degree, such as a master of public health or health administration.

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