More Education, More Problems? The Myth of Grad School

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A few years ago, I found myself in a state of career transition. As I looked for a company that would hire me solely on the basis of having a few skills and a lot of promise, I was forced to listen to a barrage of advice from those closest to me. The overwhelming prescription for curing my professional ills? Graduate school.

My boyfriend encouraged me to go get a Master’s in English. My parents cheerily reminded me that my alma mater offered MFA degrees in acting. Some even suggested that I get an MBA, since “those are always useful.”

Just to be clear, I already have a BFA in acting. I worked in the entertainment business and eventually became a full-time writer. How’d I do it? Instead of going to graduate school for an English or creative writing degree, I worked my butt off and eventually had enough experience to get editorial jobs. Mission accomplished, and with no extra debt in sight.

But sometimes it feels like, as a person with only a bachelor’s degree, I am in the minority. Many of my Gen Y peers have multiple BAs, BSs, MFAs, PhDs, and MBAs, as well as an alphabet soup of other educational achievements. I know a couple of girls in their early thirties who have more degrees than jobs on their résumés.

You Can Go Home Again

Especially in times of economic turmoil, graduate school can seem like a pretty sweet idea. Can’t find a job? Get another degree! It lures you into a sweet, warm cocoon of security, a place where you can focus on higher learning for a few years while forgetting about the big, bad, scary world outside. School feels familiar. School feels safe. It’s become a de facto economic indicator, just like lipstick and hemlines, of terrible times—as the economy falters, applications to grad school inevitably increase. Everyone seems to have the same idea: get ahead of the pack by getting extra degrees. And if you’re already unemployed, why not fill in the hole in your résumé with some schooling?

Because it’s not a guarantee of future success or earning potential. To be sure, there are some careers that absolutely require an education beyond a bachelor’s degree, law and medicine among them. If you want to be any kind of psychologist, therapist, or counselor, you’ll need a master’s in psychology or social work, at the very least. Librarians need master’s degrees, as do those who work in public policy, academia, or the hard sciences. Postsecondary teachers need master’s degrees or PhDs, and even elementary and high school teachers need a master’s in some states.

But a lot of the degrees that people end up getting are next to pointless. (Sorry, Russian-literature majors.) In a 2007 analysis of master’s degree programs and their usefulness, MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston found a definite salary bump for those with a master’s in fields like science and engineering, while conversely, master’s degrees in the liberal arts and humanities had almost no payoff. (She actually discovered that people with liberal-arts master’s degrees earned less than those with only a bachelor’s degree.) So don’t believe recruiters who tell you that another degree in art history or philosophy will make you a more attractive job prospect.

Even the vaunted MBA isn’t immune to criticism. Although it’s generally considered a worthy investment since many graduates significantly increase their salary upon graduation, there’s no evidence that an MBA from an inexpensive public institution is any less valuable than one from a prestigious private university. The difference between top MBA programs like Columbia or NYU and those at large public universities is mainly the connections and networking opportunities that are available.

A Professional Student

Before you commit to graduate school, it’s important to take a long, hard look at why you’re going and what you expect to get out of it.

What are your goals?
Before you set out to earn an advanced degree, education experts recommend that you have very clear and specific career aspirations. Get a master’s because it’s a requirement for the exact job you want, not because you think it might make you more marketable in a general way. If you don’t have a well-defined path, or if the job you want doesn’t really require advanced education, the better choice might be to simply keep pursuing jobs or to take night classes to boost your knowledge. Most humanities, liberal arts, and creative careers fall into this category. What these careers demand is experience, and all the education in the world can’t make up for a lack thereof.

However, while being a writer doesn’t require any specific degree, if your goal is to be the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, a master’s might come in handy. Likewise, that art history degree is probably a good idea if you aspire to be the chief curator of a major museum. If you aim to work at the absolute highest levels of your industry, advanced education makes more sense.

What return will I get on my investment?
By going back to school, you’re investing both money and time, so you want to be sure that when you emerge from the program you’ll have spent both wisely. Are the expected financial rewards worth the investment? An Ivy League MBA is expensive, but if your goal is to work on Wall Street, you’ll probably recoup those costs rather quickly. However, if you intend to work in a moderately paid area, such as philanthropy, you would do better with a reasonably priced MBA from a state school. In other words, don’t take on $100,000 of debt if your anticipated starting salary after graduation is only $60,000. The financial rewards of being a doctor make an expensive med school worth it—not so, the rewards of being a social worker or school psychologist.

Am I just afraid?
Do you want to go to graduate school because your career depends on it, or are you just unsure of what else to do? Many people love not only the intellectual stimulation of school, but also the feeling of safety it affords. It can be tempting to hide from the job market for a few years, but if the end result is emerging from school just as unprepared for a career as you were before, it’s probably not a smart decision. At that point, you’ll be in more debt, you’ll be older, and you’ll have that much less experience than your peers in your industry.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with education, of course; most people find master’s programs personally fulfilling, even if the programs don’t turn out to be career boosters. But the important thing is to make the decision in line with your future goals. You may be happy with the knowledge you gain in graduate school, but you probably wouldn’t like emerging from school with a mountain of debt and another low-paying job.

For me? Not going to graduate school is the best decision I ever made, and I routinely counsel aspiring writers against it. If I’d joined a master’s program in 2007, I’d have only recently graduated, in debt and with no more discernible job experience than when I started. Except instead of being twenty-seven, I’d be thirty, and instead of having one useless degree, I’d have two.

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