Grad school has increasingly become the butt of jokes recently. Amid the financial turmoil starting in 2008, plenty of recent and not-so-recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees ran to grad school in order to avoid the job market for several years and hopefully emerge more employable than ever.

But grad school isn’t a joke – it’s a serious investment of time and money, and like all serious investments, the more you give it, the more it’s likely to give back in return.
Heading to grad school shouldn’t be done on a whim. Which is why you’ll want to sit down and ask yourself some serious questions before signing up for the next round of GREs and beginning your applications.

Think you’re a good candidate for a grad program? Check to see if you’ve got these tell-tale signs.

1. You know what kind of degree and program you want
Grad school is all about specificity. Enter a program, and you’ll be expected to find your own particular niche. And chances are that as well as you know your area of study already, you will be shocked to discover how specialized and esoteric your field can get.

The more you know about your interests going in, the better your shot at survival is. It also makes the application process easier, as you can cherry-pick the schools and programs that are the best fit for what you’re looking to do. And anything that makes applications easier is sure to be a good thing, because there will be a lot of them.

2. The idea of applications doesn’t make you break into a cold sweat
Remember the application process from undergrad? Probably not too well, as you had the support of your parents and school guidance counselor helping you out. Now it’s time to shoulder all that on your own. Get cracking on some stellar essays, and in the meantime, make sure you study up for the GRE, and don’t forget to get your non-grad school apps in order: the ones for grants, fellowships and financial aid.

3. Your finances are – somewhat – in order
The primary gripe you’ll hear about grad school is its enormous expense. It costs a lot just to apply, and then you’ll be spending a small fortune on the ensuing classes and credits themselves. If you have a sizeable undergrad debt hanging over your head, you may not want to throw yourself into a grad program without some significant financial aid assistance.

4. You’re open to new geographic regions
As U.S. News & World Report noted in an article on questions to ask yourself before choosing grad school, returning to higher education is a great opportunity to see new places. Of course, the flip side of this sometimes means heading to new climates or corners of the nation that you’re not very fond of in search of the better degree. Not a huge fan of desert heat? You need to know that you’re willing to put up with high temperatures and dry air if the University of Phoenix is your best option!

5. Your family is on board
“Family” here doesn’t necessarily mean Mom and Dad – it refers to wife, husband, kids, partner or even your pet dog or cat. Making sure your “family” is on board is all about recognizing your own responsibilities to others. It doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 51, whoever else might be impacted by your choice to go to grad school needs to be ready and willing to go through the motions.

6. You have real, definitive reasons to go
It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that grad school students stay in school to put off facing the real world. But that cliché has some basis in reality – for some people, grad school is a way of delaying the inevitable. Except this shouldn’t be why you’re headed back into higher education.

Your reasons to go should be definitive: You want to advance in a field you’ve already been working in. You’re hoping to make a drastic change in careers. You want to expand your knowledge base with the help of professors and advisors. Or, perhaps you want to become a college professor yourself.

If you’re going to grad school to find out what you want to do with your life, you’re searching in the wrong place. Grad school is about honing an interest, not widening your education. And you shouldn’t head off to grad school in order to prove anything to anyone, whether it’s yourself or your family.

7. You have a passion
On the Career Services Blog for Princeton University, Satomi Chudasama, assistant director of the school’s liberal arts and engineering career counseling, noted that graduate school is all-consuming: “It’s intense.”

These are the kinds of terms and phrases you hear often about grad school. They make it sound more like a torrid love affair than education. But there’s a good reason for that. Grad school requires passion. If you’re not ready to fall head over heels, it’s just not for you.

Learn more about going to graduate school in our Grad school Guide.