grad school is not your escape

From a Monday New York Times article on the job market for new grads:

Liam O’Reilly, who just graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in history, said he had applied to 50 employers — to be a paralegal, a researcher for a policy organization, an administrative assistant — but he had gotten hardly any interviews. While continuing to search for something he truly wants, he has taken a minimum-wage job selling software that includes an occasional commission.

“Had I realized it would be this bad, I would have applied to grad school,” Mr. O’Reilly said.


Grad school is not a way to prolong the day of reckoning.

You go to grad school if you want to pursue a career that requires it. You do not go to grad school for the hell of it, or because you don’t know what else you want to do, or because the job market is bad and it’s somewhere to hide out for a while.

Liam isn’t alone in thinking this way. I see countless job applicants with freshly minted masters degrees that they’re not going to use, and I see countless people making plans for grad school when they can’t explain why they need to.

Grad school is expensive. It’s time-consuming. And it generally will not make you more marketable, unless you’re going into a field that specifically requires a graduate degree. What it will do is keep you from getting work experience for that much longer, meaning that when you’re done, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more competitive than you. It might also limit you by requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need, in order to pay back those loans (without actually increasing your earning power). And if you apply for jobs that have nothing to do with your graduate degree (for instance, if you apply for a job in banking, but you have an advanced degree in healthcare), employers will think you don’t really want the job you’re applying for, since it’s not in “your field.”

Being a new grad entering this job market is scary. I can understand why staying in the warm bosom of academia a little longer would be appealing. But using grad school as an escape isn’t a good answer.

P.S. 50 applications isn’t that many for an entry-level candidate, especially when it apparently produced some interviews. Keep persisting!

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Tera*

    I completely second this. It was almost a complete mistake and a MASSIVE waste of money.


  2. Sabrina*

    Do you remember that FedEx commercial from a few years ago where the guy is there on his first day and someone asks him to help with shipping some stuff and that it's really easy? He says "But I have an MBA" and she says "Oh OK then I guess I'll have to explain it" Yep. I know a lot of MBAs like that. It's like they traded brains and common sense for those three letters.

  3. Claire*

    Wow. Like Liam, I graduated from college with a B.A. in history and applied to be a paralegal, a researcher for a policy organization, an administrative assistant, etc.

    Except I graduated in 2009. I don't even WANT to know the number of files I have in my "Job Applications" folder on my desktop, because it is flat-out depressing.

    I kind of want to tell him that it is way, way, WAY too early to already be complaining.

    However, a year later and a couple BS jobs in between, I finally got an offer for a great job!

    I reiterate what you said, AAM: keep persisting, because 50 for an entry-level job really is not a lot at all. Oh, how I know.

  4. Interviewer*

    See, I think this is Liam's real problem – he's not applying for entry-level jobs. Sure, sometimes admin assistants can be entry level, but 99% of the ones I've hired have loads of relevant experience, and the hiring manager required it. I can't hire a paralegal without a certificate from an accredited program and at least a few years of experience in a law firm. Researcher at a policy institute probably needs at the very least significant project work with a professor during school.

    College grads don't get these jobs with just a piece of paper, and yet they're being sold on this dream in high school. Then when they don't get a job, they think they need "more education." Ugh.

  5. Laura Y.*

    Hang on a sec — I totally agree that going to grad school is not the way to solve your (un)employment woes…but "just for the hell of it" is a perfectly legit reason to go, especially if you're doing it in a field you love.

    I dearly want to get a Ph.D. in Art History (focusing on weaving technology in western Europe). I want to do this not because I particularly want to be employed in this field, but because I'm interested in being better educated on this subject that I find incredibly interesting. Yes, I can read books and articles about the subject, but there is no substitute for a well-structured program of study that encourages critical thinking about the subject at hand and offers feedback and discourse with peers in the same field. Also, there are limits to the materials I can access without some sort of academic association.

    Discouraging grad school because it won't make you more money devalues what grad school should be about: becoming better educated. And that's never a bad thing.

  6. GeekChic*

    @Sabrina: I LOVED that commerical.

    Anyway, I agree that Liam is giving up way too early. I sent out over 200 resumes after I graduated from grad school (required for the work) before I got so much as an interview. And that was more than 10 years ago!

    @Laura Y.: It's fine to go to grad school "for the hell of it" if that is what you're really doing (as opposed to hiding from a bad job market). But that also presupposes that you have enough money / scholarships to make such a move worth while.

  7. De Minimis*

    Heck, I'm one of those who went to grad school as part of my career goal, and I'm starting to wonder if it was the right move. I can't imagine someone going to school for no reason other than wanting to avoid the job market for a while longer.

    I agree, if he's at least getting interviews he must be on the right track. That's way better than many in his position are doing.

  8. Anonymous*

    I'm in grad school (just finished up a semester taking 9 credits) AND I work full-time in my field. My wallet and my career cannot afford to take time off from work to go to grad school for a few years.

    I'm in grad school for a few reasons- 1) to fulfill a personal goal, 2) to eventually run my own (large) business, and 3) to get a better job in a field that's closely related to what I do now but directly related to the graduate degree.

    Grad school isn't just about seeing dollar signs and thinking you can delay the real world. Many working adults are in grad school. I do agree, with AAM, though, that if you do not have a clear direction for your career or you just want to delay the job hunt, grad school isn't necessarily the best choice.

  9. Anonymous*

    @Interviewer, are there really such things as "entry-level jobs" anymore. Because I only ever see postings that require a minimum of 2 years of experience. I graduated from college several years ago and had an awful time getting a so-called "entry-level" job because they all wanted experience. I did have a few years of internship experience, but that wasn't good enough for most of them.

    The jobs I was applying for were things like, "Marketing Assistant" or "Communications Assistant." Those sound pretty entry level to me. There is no way now, with my 5-7 years of experience that I would even touch a job like that (but some of them say that's what they want) and yet, I see "manager" jobs that require 3-5 years of experience, so really, it's just a crapshoot in the big career lottery.

  10. Evil HR Lady*

    Heh. I went to grad school because I didn't want to get a job. Plus, I love teaching adults and wanted to be a professor.

    I agree with AAM. Even if you're 95% sure you want an advanced degree in whatever, get some real life experience under your belt first.

  11. Kelly*

    @Anon 2:30
    Agreed that there are no traditional entry level jobs anymore. Employers know that with the large number of people looking for any type of work they can add any requirement they either want or desire and they'll find someone in most areas who fits their ideal candidate profile. The entry level positions that might have gone to recent graduates before the recession are now going to older applicants with more work history and maybe less education.

    The one good reason to continue onto grad school is insurance. My sister graduated this year and is going be be cut off from my parents' insurance end of this month. She'll get back on it end of September as part of the health care reform if they can enroll her then, but more more than likely it'll be around January 1, 2011. She's had health problems and needs some form of insurance to pay for doctors' visits and prescriptions.

    She's planning on taking a year off and applying to med schools to start in September 2011. I told her she should have taken the GRE in addition to the MCAT and applied for public health or biology grad school programs. That way she could stay in school and on my parents' health insurance.

  12. Anonymous*

    @interviewer @anonymous 2:30 @evilhrlady
    Do ANY entry jobs exist anymore? Do 'transferable skills' exist in ANYONE'S MINDS ANYMORE? Or is that some career advice column line? In three years no temp agency I've signed up with or any employer I've talked to seems to believe in transferable skills. Even internships want a several years of experience.

    Yes I know you're supposed to talk about how you can learn things quickly, know similar programs/skills/body of knowledge, write about how x skill is applicable to y situation by using specific examples in your cover letter.

    I see all these employers who advertise for $10/hr 1099 ENTRY LEVEL jobs (which conveniently isn't disclosed in their ads) which isn't even living wage in any U.S. city that want 2-5 years experience in another field like SALES. I am not a recent graduate so I really really can't afford to keep doing work for other people for free (aka VOLUNTEERISM). I've moved several thousand miles, taken on a temporary door to door job , and got a paralegal certificate, joined additional organizations, horned in on law school guest lectures, researched every single organization I've applied to that wants to be identified, etc. I have no idea what else I can possibly do. I'm getting really tired of living with my parents, as nice and as generous as they are.

  13. Anonymous*

    Add me to the list of people going to grad school 'for the hell of it'.

    I always wanted to go, just to sate my own thirst for knowledge. I never thought I would get the chance, because I couldn't afford to. Then a year ago I decided to at least apply, and to my surprise was offered full scholarships to all of the universities to which I applied.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with going to grad school simply for the love of learning. Especially if you can get a scholarship or are willing to afford the burdens of the tuition.

  14. ~Me*

    50 applications? HA, try 500+ in 10 months, which produced 6 interviews. I think you can try harder Liam.

  15. Anonymous*

    Some people are professional students. One day they wake up and say "I think I'll get a Ph.D. in [insert area of study here] today." Others above have said it right – to better educate themselves.

    I don't see a right or wrong in this debate because everyone's situation is different. It will continue to be debated for as long as grad school exists and isn't mandatory. I do believe, however, grad school will become today's college degree; if you think about it, today's college degree is yesterday's high school diploma- necessary.*

    *Please don't jump on me so quickly. I do understand there are people have done quite well in the real world without a college degree, and there are those who just can't handle college for various reasons. But in many areas, college is necessary; you can't get around it.

  16. Anonymous*

    I also believe there's a fundamental issue here that's not being addressed. It's not popular, of course, but let's get it out here:

    A B.A. in History is worthless unless you've planned all along to become a Professor of History, a HS History teacher, or perhaps, want an entry-level job at a museum as a docent. There simply isn't an other entry level job that needs "history" knowledge as a skill.

    I should know – I have a BS in Psychology and Philosophy. The ONLY thing these degrees qualified me for was to go to grad school (which I did). But had I tried to start work with these degrees, I would've been in awful shape.

    So what I don't understand anymore is why there are respectable colleges and universities allowing individuals NOT interested in: teaching, grad school or fields related to their stated major; to actually major in these irrelevant topics.

    Said topics include: English, History, Foreign Language, Psychology, Philosophy, and virtually every other liberal art.

    Yes, yes, I know… not gonna' happen. OK, then fine. But perhaps Universities should require some quantity of valuable/usable work-related skills courses as well. You know, to actually prepare a history major for being a paralegal, a researcher or an administrative assistant.

    1. Anonymous*

      In defense of certain irrelevant degrees: I think that in this job market if you don’t have what it takes to sell yourself appropriately, or if you didn’t take the time during college to build yourself up career-wise, you’ll have a hard time getting a job regardless of what you have a degree in.

      I was concerned I wouldn’t find a job out of college because I got a BA in English, but I managed to obtain an entry-level position in a field I was interested in (project management) thanks to a well-chosen editing internship, work experience during college, and the advice on this website. Since starting at my new job, I’ve met three other people all connected to my department who also majored in English for undergrad, which surprises me. None of us are teachers or book editors and we still have careers.

      Personally, I don’t understand why some liberal arts grads are so shocked when the open-ended major they chose didn’t translate directly into a specific career. It makes me think that the problem isn’t the degree but that they’re still trying to figure out what kind of job they want to do.

  17. De Minimis*

    I keep reading this as "Grade school is not your escape" and am expecting to see a plea for new grads to stay out of elementary ed.

  18. Ben Eubanks*

    I always tell people to lay off grad school until they know for sure what they want to do. If you couldn't make up your mind about what your passion is with the first 4+ years of college, you probably won't after an equally expensive 2+ more. I've considered it, but there's nothing that I can see at this point that I'm lacking (that an MBA would help with). :-)


  19. New Hire*

    Thank you for this. My career field doesn't require it and after I left school, I took several internships to get me experience. When I finally went out for the full time job, it came down to me (with experience) and a girl with an MBA. I got the job. And I keep getting jobs because I've a ton of experience.

    There were times where I thought I should have gotten a masters "out the way" but I really couldn't justify the cost since I was paying for it myself and still quite marketable without it!

  20. Bridget Brandt*

    I am always sadden to see people devaluing a college education. I agree experience is necessary to land a "good job", but experience and education should never be a give and take. They should work together…that's what employers today are really looking for. We are all truly blessed to live in a society that has tremendous access to education, and we should be proud of it.

  21. Ask a Manager*

    I agree that if you're going to grad school because of a love of learning and you can afford it, go for it. But not if the reason is to hide out from the job market. (Also, you need to be willing to pay the price I talked about in the post — employers who will think you really don't want jobs outside your field, etc.).

    @Anonymous 8:02, on the subject of history, English, philosophy, etc. degrees being worthless: I think there are tons of employers who want to see that you have a degree and don't much care what it's in. They want to see that you made it through college. So those degrees do serve that purpose (as well as the purpose of further educating you, of course), but I think your point is that for the job market, they just let you meet that sort of baseline requirement — they don't do much beyond that to qualify you for a particular job, in a lot of cases. That's where work experience comes in.

    @Bridget, I don't think anyone is devaluing a college education. We're saying that grad school is for when you need an advanced degree for a particular reason, not when you're using it a an escape.

  22. UnderemployedCanadian*

    I have mixed feelings about this post; I find myself agreeing with it about 70% and 30% against. The death of entry level jobs (and employers that offer training programs) is very frustrating but quite a few exceptions exist: the Canadian civil service, some provincial governments, some banks, some accounting firms and some law firms will happily recruit newly minted graduates all the time without any problem. I do think they are a minority though.

    Credential inflation is a very real trend and I think that explains some of the reason that people are going to grad school.

    Predicting the job market outcomes of undertaking a particular educational course is also very difficult. Computer science was hot in the late 1990s but it has declined. Finance has been very hot for most of the last decade but just underwent a collapse. Though the so-called "practical subjects" are a bit more predictable than the liberal arts, they are still far from a sure thing.

    I wish that graduates could have some data to guide them in the job hunt. How many applications is too many? I've submitted about 80 applications in 2010, which has led to about 6-7 interviews. I have been job hunting full time for about 9 months. How many applications and how many months of job hunting are too much though? Is there a a good rule of thumb out there (e.g. a year of job hunting in a specific field without success means you should change fields).

    My situation:
    I'm a librarian by training and I have three degrees (BA and MA in history and a library master's). In some cases, my education has opened doors regarding interviews but I think it is far from enough to land a job.

  23. Anonymous*

    I have a Ph.D. in physics and graduated approximately 1 year ago. I have been working as an Adjunct Professor for the last year while searching for a permanent position. I have applied to hundreds of positions in industry, government, and education. So far no luck.

    An advanced degree does not guaranty you a job when you finish. I agree that 50 applications is a small drop in the bucket these days.

  24. Rebecca*

    Education is beneficial in general. Loving learning is good. Debt that will hold you back for decades is neither of these things. Don't ask me how I know this.

  25. Anonymous*

    Another reason grad school is not your escape: You are not the only one who has this idea. I'm a full-time grad student right now (a master's being the entry credential for the health care profession I'm going into). We're not one of the top-flight schools in the field, and we only have partial funding for a few students a year, but we still saw applications TRIPLE between last year and this year. I have plenty of friends who applied to a dozen grad schools last year and were left with no plan after getting into none of them.

  26. GC {God's Child}*

    30K in debt thanks to grad school. . . couldn't get a job after. Sank deep into depression. Out of desperation worked part time for a total bastard who screamed at me. Sank deeper into depression. Took me 3 years to climb back out. Now making about what I would have made five years ago if I hadn't detoured to grad school. My job doesn't even requires a bachelor's degree!

  27. Class factotum*

    A B.A. in History is worthless

    Not true. I was an English major. Got a job before my engineering friends. Paid less, but in five years, I was making a lot more.

    The liberal arts, if one does them well, teach one to think, to analyze, to understand hidden motivations, and to communicate. These skills are all essential in business. The technical problems in business are easy to solve, but the real problems are working with other people and getting them to implement those solutions.

  28. Anonymous*

    It's actually not too difficult to go to grad school for free and be employed by your program in exchange for the tuition waiver, stipend, and benefits, thus also getting work experience. Nearly all the top PhD programs offer this kind of work-for-us-get-a-free-PhD program.

    I went to grad school for free for two years, got some valuable skills along the way that were not strictly related to my degree (time management, networking with professionals, teaching, organization, etc.) and more importantly, it gave me two years to be ready to enter the working world. When I was fresh out of undergrad the idea of a 9-5 job horrified me and I had little understanding of how to navigate the professional world. By the time I'd been in grad school for 2 years I was eager to get out of school and take on a "real adult job". Even if I never take a job requiring the Master's I acquired, grad school allowed me to mature a little bit before entering the adult working world.

    And I am quite certain that when the position only required a BA and I was the only candidate with a graduate degree, I certainly stood out as a more attractive candidate. It may not have increased my earning power, but it made me more competitive and actually landing an entry-level job pays the bills a lot better than just being qualified for one.

  29. Shelley*

    This is encouraging. I recently quit my job as a television reporter to spend time with family as they went through a rough spot. While things have gotten better on the home end, I can't even get employers to respond to my request for an informational interview. A lot of people have urged me to return to college, but I can't stomach the student loan debt. Plus, I worked hard for my undergrad degree, landing great internships and an even better first job. Perhaps patience is key.

  30. Independent Consultant*

    I went to grad school and now have an MA in Economics (graduated 2008), partially because of a bad job market (in 2006), and partially because I love the field and knew I needed more expertise to do the regression analysis that I wanted to do professionally. I thought getting the MA would allow me to do some research that would help me get a job (relevant experience much?)

    However, as others have stated _everyone_ hiring anymore wants 3-5 years experience (paid, professional, verifiable experience; nothing volunteer counts and nothing you did in college counts). Sometimes they even list hours; I applied for a job once that required 4000 hours of documented professional work experience. What am I supposed to do bring in a pay stub with year to date hours on it!?

    Currently I am “self employed” while living, effectively at home. I am a one man consulting firm. I’ve done everything from regression analysis (my passion), to computer repair, to website design, to wiring, carpentry, plumbing and welding for businesses in the area. Despite loving my autonomy I’d rather the stability of a 9-5 job.

    I don’t regret my Masters Degree, I do however despise the lazy, good for nothing, HR departments that won’t give you a chance unless you have 10 years experience in “the field” along with usually an MBA (yes that “masters” is still a hot commodity), which does not make you a master at anything, it makes you a B-Hole from B-School. I’ve gotten a dozen serious interviews in the last three years, but I’ve never gotten a job because there’s always someone more experience and more desperation just around the corner.

    I also hate that everything now is called some sort of analyst. I’ve applied for a number of jobs now that all purport to be some sort of research analyst, however in the interview it becomes apparent that what they are looking for is a database administrator who can generate pretty graphs in Excel, not someone that actually knows how to do high level data mining and data analysis. I am a _super power user_ of MS Office, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference unless you already have experience using some sort of database software that costs six figures that you couldn’t possibly learn outside of the industry. I’m sure if I tried to get a janitorial job, my position would be sanitation analyst.

    Rather than just saying “don’t do it, it’s not the way out,” or, “it’s not the way to a better job,” I think the author should try to find something constructive to say for those of us who got a Masters because we loved the field, loved the subject, loved school, or because we thought we would be getting relevant experience doing research. Best of luck to everyone else struggling with a Masters and no experience. In the mean time I will continue to “make my own way in the world” because no one else is doing it for me.

    Clearly the author has no sympathy for those less fortunate and likely got into the job market long enough ago that he or she didn’t have to deal with what a number of the other commenters and I are going through. Congratulations! you got a job, and got promoted up the ranks to something resembling successful, before I was even contemplating going to college in the first place. Thanks for the supper helpful advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m sorry you’re going through that. It’s a tough situation.

      I have plenty of sympathy for those struggling with this job market — it’s, um, why I have an entire blog dedicated to helping people navigate these issues.

  31. RedRabbit*

    I am currently in college for one of those fields which requires a Masters. I do wish I could do it with just a BA, but that’s just not the reality anymore.

    I certainly want to second those who have pointed out the problem of requiring bother an MA AND 3-5 years experience, plus all sorts of other stuff.

    It is difficult not to think of the old joke about the ideal candidate. 20 years old, 20 years experience, and the candidate will work for $20,000 a year.

  32. Nathan A.*

    I gotta tell you, having an MBA with some job experience pretty much just makes it so that you have some likelihood of getting your foot in the door – that’s about it. If you think you will land a high paying job with an MBA with no exp, you got a rude awakening coming. Don’t get me wrong, you get plenty of skills that could help you run your own company (if you so choose).

    If you are looking to get a grad degree (especially an MBA!), intern while in grad school – *please*. It’s something I wish I had done. You are much more likely to get into a higher paying job if you are already paying your dues through an internship through a fortune 500 company. I’ve also noticed several job postings for pre-MBA students (generally one semester away from graduation). If you want jobs like that, you gotta do extremely well and generally go to a top-tier school (don’t worry, they don’t always want ivy league).

    I would highly recommend against getting an MBA from an online or for profit school. I think it’s a waste of money no matter how you turn it.

    That’s my $0.02.

  33. Yamilk Moo*

    A MBA with no experience will get you an interview, maybe – but like everyone here is saying, you will be seen as less attractive candidate to the BA with seven years of experience, or rather, the BA with three years of experience. Internerships are a effort but in the professional world HR managers are not interested in where you volunteered for free with essentially no consequences, and with no professional contacts to attest to your working style, reliability, and whether you can deal with the inevitable workplace stress.

    College and in a workplace experience are applies and oranges. Ideally the two would correspond – but the hard dirty truth is that there will be situations and people that you will be exposed to in the workplace that wasn’t covered in school and it’s those are the skills employers expect you to have.

    I am against getting a MBA that is not necessary in your field, won’t increase your earning power, and you will only achieve it by taking on thousands of dollars in students loans – it should not be done. Ideology of believing in the “value of education” with no means to pay for it, and no interest in getting a “real job,” and facing the harsh reality beyond the warm conventional bosom of academia is the condescending, immature, attitude that what keeping you out of work and is exactly what employers want no part of.

    This is from an RN who pursued her RN to MSN from Hopkins in MD. Guess what? I made 56,000 a year with my RN. I make 60,000 a year with my MSN. Only now I owe about 83,000 in student loans. That does not include interest.

    Please young people do not turn your nose up to those of us who walked the line and got bitten in the tush for it. We are honestly trying to help.

  34. Anonymous*

    I went to grad school because an advanced degree is required to make it into the upper levels of my field. So far, the degree has not done me a bit of good when it comes to finding a job in my field. There are high numbers of unemployeed (combination of new grads and people who have been laid off) and very few job openings. I have a low-paying “any job” that gives me enough money to cover my bills and contribute a little to household expenses. I don’t earn enough to live on my own, so I have to stay with my parents. (Which I’m grateful for the room and board, but it has the downside that I’m not geographically located anywhere near any of the hotbed from my industry, which I’m sure hurts my chances of finding a job.) The only thing that has saved me is that I went through school on scholarships and fellowships. so I don’t have student loan debt to worry about.

    I’ve applied for several hundred jobs at this point. I’ve had a few phone interviews, but that’s it. There are so many people who are out of work that they can put someone with a lot of experience (i.e. the perfect candidate) into a position that in the past would have gone to a recent grad. I’ve done some networking/informational interviews. Almost everyone has told me what a qualified person I am, etc., but they can’t afford to hire anyoen right now.

    It’s so depressing to have invested all of the time and hard work into my education to only have ended up in the position I’m in now. I feel like the best years of my life are slipping away. As much as I love my field and am proud of my accomplishments, I wish I’d picked something else years ago.

  35. Robert*

    Its a tough world having a BA degree. But a Masters? I’m glad I saved my money. But making $9.50 an hour with a BA degree sucks enough. “My name is Robert and I’m in a vicious cycle”. Geez, I feel like I’m in a AA meeting recovering from alcohol abuse. The job market is so bad it makes you wonder.

  36. Advice is nice*

    I think the only acceptable reason to go get your masters degree would be if you got one of those fuddie-duddie undergrad degrees and decided to better your opportunities with an MBA or I saw a masters degree for those who wanted to get their RN who had an unrelated BA/BS. (There are others like that but I can’t think of all them right now) Those kinds of degrees would be great! Don’t just do your masters just because. First, go out and try to get a job (even a sucky job!) think, think, think and research, research, research the job market THEN go back to school and get something useful.

    Too many of us were fed the go to college, everyone must go to college lines in high school then we keep thinking education will be the answer but from the posts it isn’t. Things just aren’t what they were a few years ago, our parent’s advice, or general career advice just isn’t aligned with the reality of the new job market.

    I think colleges have turned into money hungry institutions and they need to be held accountable for not properly preparing these young people. When in college or even high school I never received any career planning advice or workshops or attended any such events because there were none offered. Hopefully, young people are learning from this generations mistakes and are pursuing useful degrees.

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