If you want to increase your odds for a higher professional salary or better career options, you know that the decision to attain a Masters degree is a great start. But when is the right time to go back to school and what factors can affect your decision?

► Meet top Masters programmes from around the world.

Don’t start a Masters unless …

Graduate school studies are worthwhile only when you have a clear idea of your desired career path or when “there is really nothing better to invest yourself in“, as described by Mia, who did a Masters in Journalism in the US.

Your first step is to narrow the focus of your studies and decide on a specialisation. Within the business and management fields, you have many options to consider, like Finance, Accounting, Human Resources, Marketing, and Management, among others. And these areas can be narrowed down even more.

To decide which degree programme to pursue, look closely at your individual skills and aptitude, as well as the personal satisfaction and enjoyment you get when you study a particular topic. You can also look at common career paths taken by various programme graduates to see which of them feel right for you.

You want the degree programme you choose to suit your personality and individual strengths for many reasons. First, Masters programmes may produce a short-term result in the form of a degree, but they are truly a long-term investment of your time and money, ideally producing returns of happiness and professional satisfaction throughout your career. Because you will spend so much time on your job throughout your life, you certainly want to enjoy doing it.

Check out: The Essential Guide to Choosing a Masters Degree

Second, professional success will come much more easily to you if your employment requires a skill set for which you have a natural proclivity. If you are gifted in interpersonal relations, a people-focused degree programme such as management may be perfect for you. If you are a skilled salesperson with a knack for persuading others, you may go furthest with a marketing degree.

Stay in the same track or conquer new lands

One way to make the decision of which Masters degree to attain is simply to continue the field of study you pursued while in college. For example, if you chose mostly management or business administration classes for your undergraduate degree, a Masters in Management programme, such as the one at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management, might be a perfect way to capitalise on the base of knowledge you already acquired. This is especially true if you had an internship or other hands-on experience that reinforced your commitment to that field of study.

On the other hand, your undergraduate studies may have opened your eyes to the fact that you are more suited to a different field. For example, if you struggled with economics or accounting studies but find yourself fascinated by new technologies or business start-ups, you might want to shift your focus to a less mathematics-intensive programme like the Master of Business in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

Once you know what you want to study, you then need to decide when to begin your Masters programme. This will depend somewhat on admission procedures or requirements, but more heavily on personal circumstances such as whether you need to save money or whether you want to travel or gain professional experience prior to the start of your studies.

Check the admissions requirements and application timeline

A Bachelors degree is a universal prerequisite for all Masters programmes, but some have additional requirements, such as professional experience. For example, the Masters in Finance at London Business School requires a minimum of two years of relevant finance experience before gaining entry to the programme.

Plan between nine months and a year to complete the application and for relevant preparation. Luckily, you can begin this process in the final year of your undergraduate studies so that you are ready to enroll after graduation if that is what you decide to do.

Check out: How to Choose a Masters Degree

Time your enrollment based on your unique circumstances

Along with the requirements of the university you choose, you must look at your own unique situation to determine when to begin your Masters studies.

Begin directly after graduation

Many students are eager to plunge into a full-time Masters programme directly after receiving their undergraduate degree, wanting to begin their professional career as soon as possible. This decision has a few added benefits, including keeping your study habits fresh and lessening the risk of never going back to school because you are tied to a full-time job’s commitments.

In this case, you should start the application process at the start of your final year at college, but only if you are absolutely sure of your specialisation.

Wait a while after getting Bachelors degree

Some students need a longer respite from the rigours of academia and want to take a bit longer to make a decision. Taking a break allows extra time for research to confirm your choice of specialisation. You may decide to get a job to acquire some practical work experience or to save money for the Masters programme or to put toward any debt you acquired with your undergraduate studies. Or you could spend the time traveling or pursuing some other interest unrelated to your education in order to capitalise on the bit of freedom you can enjoy before you get tied down to adult commitments.

This decision has a few potential drawbacks, however. Your study skills may get a bit rusty if you are not actively taking classes, and your peers will enjoy an earlier start to their professional career. It is also difficult sometimes to spend the time or money going back to get that Masters degree once you are tied to commitments such as a full-time job or family.

In any case, if you decide to take some time off after graduation, be sure to start your planning process at least a year ahead of when you want to begin, allowing time to select the right university and complete the lengthy application process.

Consider all factors

Regardless of whether you begin your Masters programme directly after attaining your Bachelors degree or whether you decide to wait a while, the timing decision involves weighing deeply personal and unique factors. Weigh the benefits of each option against your individual priorities, like career, education, and family.

Financial implications are also quite important to consider. You may have acquired debt at the undergraduate level that you want to pay back before you begin, or you may want extra time to save money for the higher degree. Some jobs you take may even offer financial assistance to further your education, so you could explore the possibility of finding an employer to support your Masters studies.

The commitment to Master’s degree studies should not be taken lightly. These decisions can have lifelong impacts on your career, your relationships, or even where you settle down. Consider these impacts thoroughly, carefully noting the pros and cons for each, and do not be afraid to discuss your personal situation with an academic adviser at a university you are considering since they want you to enter a programme with confidence and a high chance of success, as do you.