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Is Graduate School Worth It?

Why do you want to go to graduate school? You generally felt college was worth it. You got your bachelor’s degree because you heard a college degree leads to a better salary. Maybe you feel grad school is the next logical step because you think the specialty of a Master’s will make you more marketable. A doctoral degree? Outside of academia, I don’t know that the degree will open up that many more doors than an undergraduate diploma. In most cases people are continuing to climb the scholastic ladder because they want to gain a distinct advantage over competing job applicants, but the diminishing returns of graduate studies should make us wonder if we are making the wisest investments of our energy, time, and money.

Some career tracks require education beyond a Bachelor’s. To my knowledge, you can’t become a licensed clinical social worker without a Master’s in social work. As far as I know, you can’t become a doctor without medical school. Attorneys can’t be attorneys without taking the Bar, and in most jurisdictions you can’t take the Bar without graduating from an accredited law school. If your interests lie in a highly specialized field that requires advanced education, may your efforts be blessed. Nothing will be more fulfilling than following your own dream.

For those of us considering careers in the humanities and social sciences, we have to ask some hard questions. Let’s start with one of the most obvious ones:

What will grad school teach that a job can’t?

Can you honestly think of a scenario where you learned more from a book than you did from hands-on experience? I read more than two dozen books and watched hours of business shows on investing before I ever opened a brokerage account, and despite all the advice from those well-written pages and savvy commentators, I made a stupid beginner’s mistake with the first stock I ever purchased. Thankfully this was not a taxable account. The impact of my stupidity was minimal, but it is one thing to read about other people’s mistakes and quite another to learn from them yourself.

We need to stop fooling ourselves into thinking future employers want to see advanced degrees on our résumés. Andrew McAfee in the Harvard Business Review goes as far as asking employers that they stop requiring college degrees. Most job listings give candidates the option of using comparable experience in place of formal education, because they recognize the value of real world exposure to the projects they would like the candidate to tackle. There are only so many hours and budget dollars an employer can devote to facilitating the transition from book knowledge to working knowledge.

What can grad school offer that the real world can’t?

Looking back, the thing I miss most about my grad school lectures are the intellectual conversations. Learning about the congressional budget process, public policy formulation and campaign strategy did something for me as an informed citizen, but the animated debates were what kept me showing up to class in the evenings after spending all day at the office. I realized too late that if it’s intellectual stimulation I wanted, I could have joined a Meetup group, attended think tank lectures, participated on online forums, or taken part in any number of informal organizations. I would not have wasted so much time writing papers, and I certainly could have saved myself thousands of dollars on student loans.

Some graduate programs advertise the amazing networking opportunities that come through joining their ranks of alumni. If it’s professional fellowship you seek, join an association serving your industry. Also remember that working for any employer automatically places you in that employer’s circle of peers. Over time you attend meetings and conferences and start to see the same people, and you should feel free to tap into that network to improve how you’re doing your job or learn about new job opportunities. You do not need to spend two or more years slaving away for a degree to be able to join a school’s alumni network that may or may not yield leads later.

Is preparing for graduate school the best use of your time?

If you went to grad school, or if you’re in the process of applying, then you’re familiar with the various standardized exams required for admissions. Few people can score well on these exams without proper preparation. Often we spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours to learn strategies to dominate the test, but can you imagine how much farther we would have gotten if we had applied the same time and money to learning the tradecraft we want to master?

MBA programs confuse me. I don’t know why it’s necessary to spend so much effort preparing for the GMAT in order to get into one of these programs. Wouldn’t an entrepreneurial spirit benefit more from working for a reputable employer, rotating departments to learn the fundamentals of a business system, and eventually launching their own business? Or, wouldn’t they benefit more from jumping ahead and starting their own venture under mentor supervision? That’s not a knock against MBA graduates. There are moments when I wish I could be smart enough to get into an MBA program, but I offer this as food for thought.

Are you staying in school to avoid reality?

Hey, it’s a fair question. Many people would rather be seen working for a degree than working the employment boards in what is perceived to be a challenging market. We like to tell ourselves it’s a bad economy out there. It doesn’t help that political campaigns harp on unemployment rates to drive a point, but the problem is not always a lack of jobs. It’s a lack of qualified candidates.

So, what is the reality out there? The switch from an industrial age to the information age has changed the job market. USA TODAY warns of a looming shortage of skilled auto mechanics despite the field’s immunity to overseas outsourcing. The same is true in the construction and trucking industries.

Okay, so you don’t want to do manual labor. That’s too bad. One industry’s shortage could mean someone else’s windfall. One of those aforementioned entrepreneurial spirits could partner with local high schools or trade schools and jumpstart an apprentice program to roll out a serious corporation. Sometimes the best ideas are the traditional ones.

Time is ticking. Maybe the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers of the information age prompted your interest in developing the next market disrupter. Perhaps you’ve kindled your fire for community organizing. Here’s the problem: You’re not the only one. While you’re stuck in grad school learning what you could have learned on the job, others could be taking the jobs and promotions that could have been yours.

Few people can count on guaranteed employment after college. Most of us will eventually hit the job interview circuit. With commitment, everyone who interviews eventually finds a job, so if you’ve chosen to pursue school because you’re afraid of job rejection, you’re only postponing the inevitable. In fact, you may be hurting yourself because a full transcript cannot make up for an empty résumé.

Am I a party of one?

I started writing this post with no real clue about the general consensus on the subject of grad school. After all, this blog is advice to my younger self based on my own experiences, but when I got to this point in the article I was pleasantly surprised to discover there are others who agree. Of course there is no real consensus for something so subjective, but the most comprehensive blog supporting my position is a blog called, fittingly enough, 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School.

Here is a brief sample of some of those reasons:

  • The smart people are somewhere else.
  • Your pedigree counts.
  • Graduate school is not what it used to be.
  • Respect for the academic profession is declining.
  • Funding is fleeting.
  • There are too many PhDs.
  • Teaching is moving online.
  • The humanities and social sciences are in trouble.
  • Politics are vicious.
  • You are not paid for what you write.

The first reason, Smart people are somewhere else, was particularly compelling. It reads, in part:

“If you think that going to graduate school will allow you to spend your days in a community of the enlightened, consider the axiom that it is unwise to borrow money that is difficult to repay. To go into debt for a graduate degree in the humanities is to go into debt for a credential that, at best, will qualify you for a job with a relatively low starting salary in an extremely competitive job market. Meanwhile, you will have removed yourself from the job market to pursue this degree, so don’t forget to add up the years that you will have incurred debt when you could have been earning money. But surely people in graduate school would be too smart to finance their educations with debt…”

And, just for some added perspective, consider one of the comments left in response to that post. It reads:

“Putting aside issues of debt and lost income, this reason strikes a chord with me in a more general sense. There was a time when I thought that I was lucky to get into a grad school where I would meet seriously smart people who would force me to rise above my mediocrity. After a while, I realized that we were all pretty mediocre intellects. (I guess that test scores aren’t everything.) Grad school has done more to drag me down than lift me up intellectually.”

Finally, here’s a point from Megan McArdle’s article in The Daily Beast that hit pretty close to home for me. It reads:

“Graduate students learn to write, but not like other professions do, and in fact the writing habits that make you a good academic often make you a very bad writer of journalistic articles or corporate reports. There are certainly professors who switch effortlessly between the two–Professor Berube seems to be one–but that’s not the norm in my experience, or in the experience of people I know who edit a lot of academics. The ponderous, jargon-filled style of academic articles, constantly multiplying out the caveats and contradictions to their very last implication, fills a real purpose in scholarly discourse. But no one else will wade through it. So if PhDs want to be writers, they often have to unlearn what they’ve learned.”

What are your thoughts on grad school? I went, I saw, I conquered. I have mixed feelings about it, but maybe you have a definitive view? By all means sound off in the Comments!

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