Challenges of a Career Student

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career student

The following is a contribution from Syed at Broke Professional. If you would like to contribute to Frugal Rules, please contact us.

It’s no surprise that student loan debt is rising across the country. The total level of student loan debt in America recently topped $1 trillion and recent figures show that the average student loan debt for seniors completing their undergraduate degree is $29,400. But the debt doesn’t stop there for those pursuing a Master’s degree or beyond.

Sad to say, I will be doing a hearty jig when my student loan debt reaches $29,400. Though I’m blessed that my career as an optometrist easily allows me to take care of my student loan payments and then some, not everyone can say the same.

Scary Statistics for a Career Student


A recent report published by USA Today says that about 40% of the $1 trillion in student loan debt comes from financed masters and professional degrees. The same report also says that the average student loan debt for graduate students is $57,600. I can say from my own experience that many of my classmates in Optometry School had student loan debt well into the $200,000’s.

Students pursuing a graduate school program take on a big financial risk in taking out student loans for grad school, especially if they are going into a field without high income potential. That’s because most graduate school programs don’t have the state and federal support of favorable grants and loans that undergraduate programs have.

They make obtaining federal financial assistance incredibly easy, as all students have to do is visit their school’s admissions office and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. Students will then wait for their award amount to be determined by the government.

This form ensures that students receive the maximum amount of financial assistance for which they are eligible and this amount often includes scholarships and grants. Obviously, students have to come up with some method of paying for their schooling and this federal financial assistance program is the easiest way to receive funding.

There are rarely “full ride” scholarships given to those in graduate or professional school programs. And tuition for graduate programs is simply higher than undergraduate programs. Students really have to look at the risk and reward for pursing more education.

The Problem of Time When it Comes to Student Loans


While student loan debt is a huge problem facing graduate students, it’s not the only one.  Another problem is time. Let’s take the example of a law school graduate. He completes his undergraduate program four years after high school at the age of 22. He would like to apply to law school but having some experience in the field or a Master’s degree really helps your chances so he decides to pursue a Master’s degree and complete an internship at a law firm which takes three years.

He then applies to law school and is accepted at the age of 25. He completes law school in three years but it takes some time to complete his licensing exams and find a great job, which after many interviews with different firms, he finally does at the age of 30. The problem is that while he’s been pursuing the education he needs to achieve his career goals, his student loans have been accruing interest for eight years.

While many of his peers are well into their careers, he is just starting his and is saddled with lots of student loan debt (student debt from a good law school tallies up to around $150,000). While people won’t shed many tears for lawyers, time is not on their side.  Compound interest is a powerful thing, and it has been working AGAINST our lawyer all this time in the form of student loan interest accrual on top of the fact that he hasn’t been able to invest money and have compound interest work for him.

A successful lawyer or doctor will be able to shift the numbers in their favor after some time, but it’s not easy. It will take a combination of smart investing and being diligent in paying back those student loans (which is what I’m currently doing).

Success Comes Down to Making Hard Choices


That’s why students need to think long and hard about pursuing a professional degree. The cost of an advanced degree demands that students and professionals alike think deeply, rationally and strategically about whether more education is a wise investment. If you can’t see a good probability of earning enough to make back all the interest, loan amount, time and lost investing opportunity, additional education, at least from a university, might not be the best option for you.

Try to think about your education decision in those terms and do a risk/rewards analysis to determine if pursuing more education is worth the time and money it will cost you. Realize you can be successful without a college degree. After all, just look at Bill Gates. He’s anything but a career student. In fact, he’s a Harvard drop out.


What’s your opinion on higher education? Have you thought about going back for an advanced degree? Have you weighed the costs? Is it worth it? If so, why? If not, why not?


Syed is an optometrist who runs a personal finance blog over at He enjoys writing about many financial topics such as student loans, credit cards and planning for retirement. He focuses on helping new grads navigate the world of personal finance. He has a beautiful wife and a son who he hopes won’t end up with 7 figures of student loan debt. He is also a die-hard New York Giants and Knicks fan.



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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • Alicia says:

    I have a PhD in the physical sciences, where stipends, scholarships and fellowships allow you to (generally) scrape by, so my experience with grad degrees is very much different than those with professional degrees.

    I used to believe in higher education for educations sake (it’s the academic in me) but I’ve started thinking long and hard about the return on investment for those years of lost earning power. It’s not as cut and dry as I used to believe.

    • Syed says:

      Certain advanced degrees do allow for some additional aid on top of student loans, but those are few and far between for students in the medical field. Thanks for the comment Alicia.

  • Taylor Lee says:

    “A successful lawyer or doctor will be able to shift the numbers in their favor after some time, but it’s not easy”

    For your lawyer, it’ll be especially hard, since there’re an inundation of lawyers right now. Surprising to think that there is unemployment in such a high-educational barrier prestigious job, but there is.

    As to my opinion of higher education, as far as college goes, whether or not to pursue a college education really should be about whether a student desires to be in that sort of environment. It kind of irks me that college is this credentialing system and so people weight the value of the education they receive based off numbers and cents.

    That said, it is possible to get a college education, even a liberal arts education, without spending an arm and a leg given the variety of higher ed options out there. In general I think that students need to be sat down and shown the expected numbers for student debt repayment BEFORE they start their program, not after so as to know what they are getting into and assess their choice with full knowledge of the situation.

    • Syed says:

      A lot of professions, such as law, used to give you an almost guaranteed stable high income for life. This is becoming tougher in some fields nowadays and networking is becoming more and more important.

      I definitely agree we need to be sat down and shown the numbers before we commit to a program. I don’t think schools will do that though since it will cause some students to re-think their decision, so it’s up to us to do the number crunching ourselves. Thanks for the comment Taylor.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    I absolutely hate how expensive higher education has become because now you really have to ask yourself if it is worth it, where 15 years ago, there was no question that it was worth it and most people would say it is necessary. Yet as the costs have risen, so must the questioning. As a planner, I see very minimal value in an MBA or a JD. Both of these professions are saturated and have experienced years of cutbacks. Most of my clients with these degrees are struggling to pay back loans. For my doctor clients, it depends on their specialty. I have a friend who is a gynecologist who literally had to close his business because it wasn’t making any money and he still has student loans. My surgeon clients do well, though. It is a tough decision, but certainly one that you can’t go into lightly.

    • Syed says:

      Student loan debt really puts a crimp on professionals finances, especially early on in one’s career. I fell lifestyle inflation plays a big role early on as well. A number of my colleagues got loans for houses and new cars even before they graduated! It’s very important to have a plan for after graduation and to not give in to lifestyle inflation early on. Thanks for the comment Shannon.

  • Amy says:

    My husband and I pay $600 per month toward our graduate school students loans (masters in social work and law degree). It’s a lot, but neither of us could do our jobs (which we enjoy) without these degrees.

    • Syed says:

      There certainly is value in getting advanced degrees in certain fields, but some degrees just aren’t worth the time and money spent. It’s great you can easily afford your loan payments and do something you love. Those two factors are key. Thanks for the comment Amy.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    I could never be a career student. I’m just always working toward something and I can’t stand the feeling of not knowing and just going through the motions. More education is not always the answer!

    • Syed says:

      Thanks for commenting Daisy! You’re right more education is not the answer for everyone. We need to be more strategic nowadays about deciding to pursue higher education.

  • Deb @ Saving the Crumbs says:

    We have friends who have $400,000 of debt from dental school. What in the world?!!!! Professional degrees aren’t cheap, but sometimes there are workarounds. My brother got his MD and PhD simultaneously with a free tuition ride (but you have to be pretty smart to be accepted). My husband got his masters in business free by working as a graduate assistant in the department. We have friends who get their medical school loans paid off if they work a certain number of years in low-income areas. These things aren’t for everyone, but are worth looking into.

    • Syed says:

      There definitely are certain avenues available to get loans reduced. During optometry school, every student had a opportunity to sign with the US Navy to be an optometrist. You would have to work for them for about 3 years I believe and they paid off over half of your loans. Not many people did it, but in hindsight I think that is something I should have done. I would have had a cool military title too!

      Thankfully my loans aren’t $400K. That’s incredible. Thanks for the comment Deb.

  • Kirsten says:

    I know the compounding interest problem all too well. Hubby went into 6 figure debt to get into a career that pays $15k a year to start (with the promise of more lucrative pay 10-15 years later). Bad, bad move. He got his graduate degree in order to be able to make more, but of course we had the interest on his loans compounding and even his graduate degree doesn’t pay great. It’s a good thing I’m able to make as much as I do – I keep us afloat!

    • Syed says:

      Compound interest can be a killer. If I could go back I would at least pay the interest accrued on my loans while I was in school. It would’ve been a small monthly payment that could’ve saved a LOT of money. But woulda coulda shoulda isn’t gonna help. I’m trying to buckle down as apply as much extra I can to the principals of my loans. Thanks for the comment Kirsten!

  • Natalie @ Budget and the Bees says:

    It’s unfortunate that people have to make such a difficult decision when considering higher education. Education is so important, and it’s pretty terrible that you can’t just follow your dreams. You have to weigh your dreams against practicality. The law student in your example may have huge aspirations and noble intentions with his profession, but may never realize them if he decides the debt will be too large. I understand; at this point in my life I’m not pursuing a graduate degree because I feel the cost combined with my husband’s student loan debt would be crippling.

    • Syed says:

      The higher education system is so different than even 20 years ago because it’s all about profit now. Schools are charging more money, banks are profiting from student loans but students are graduating with more and more debt. Some are forecasting a bubble burst similar to the housing market but we shall see. Thanks for the comment Natalie.

  • Cat@BudgetBlonde says:

    Since my husband went to a foreign medical school, he has double what the average medical school student has in student loans. We are planning to live like students well alter he’s practicing to knock it all out.

    • Syed says:

      Thanks for the comment Cat! Yeah I remember the Canadian and international students in my class complaining that their loans were super high, almost double what us citizens were paying. But keeping expenses down is definitely a good idea especially with the high income potential that MD’s have. You’ll be able to knock that debt out in short order!

  • Thomas @ i need money ASAP! says:

    A friend of mine did his Masters degree but was able to secure funding. This allowed him to earn a small amount while earning his degree. While not possible for everyone this was a great way for him to do it.

    • Syed says:

      Definitely a good decision. One of my friends got his Master’s in engineering paid for by his work. He had to complete the program with a certain GPA. There are opportunities like this for certain fields and it’s important to take advantage of them.

  • Simon E. says:

    As a society…I think its high time we rethought the whole premise of education. To an extent it has become so commoditized and expensive to the point of being a burden to those that pursue more in some cases. And with time, its seeming like a poor return on investment.

    Am encouraged by efforts to bring education online and to the masses. Its certainly bringing down the costs and providing essential skills to individuals.

    • Syed says:

      There definitely need to be changes, on our part as education “consumers” and on the part of universities themselves. People will simply stop going to college if tuition keeps increasing the way it has. Thanks a lot for the comment.

  • Al | Saving the Crumbs says:

    I think another “hidden cost” in many professional degrees is the lifestyle inflation that often accompanies it. “How can I be a respectable doctor/dentist/etc. and keep driving my old beater car from the the 90’s?!” Of course there’s also the bigger house, the golf clubhouse membership, etc. etc. It can take nerves of steel to pay back student loans instead of buying all the “status” toys.

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