thinking about grad school? think again.

I talk to way too many 20somethings who are planning to go to grad school but can’t explain what they plan to do with the degree once they get it. Instead, they have a have a vague idea that having a graduate degree will somehow make their career path easier for them … when the reality is that it may make it harder.

Now, of course plenty of career paths do require a graduate degree, and I have no quarrel with people going to school for that purpose. I’m talking about people who can’t even explain why they’re thinking of (or in) grad school and are enrolling in graduate programs without knowing exactly what they’ll do with the degree afterwards, or without knowing if their chosen career path requires the degree or even rewards it. Instead, the appeal of staying in school is more about avoiding a difficult and competitive job market or avoiding figuring out “what to do” now that their undergraduate program is over.

But while this may be a way of avoiding the job market for now, it won’t put it off forever. And even worse, these grads may have an even tougher time once they do enter the market than if they’d jumped straight into it.

The reality is that grad school is expensive and time-consuming, and it generally will not make you more marketable, unless you’re going into a field that specifically requires a graduate degree.

But 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). Imagine being in a tight job market and having a whole swath of jobs that you’re qualified for off-limits to you because they won’t pay enough for your student loans. Ask anyone who’s in that situation – it’s frustrating and even scary.

And if you apply for jobs that have nothing to do with your graduate degree – as many people do – employers will think you don’t really want the job you’re applying for, since it’s not in “your field.”  That alone can end up being a reason not to hire you – for the exact same job you might have been a stronger contender for before you got your graduate degree.

Grad school makes sense if you want to pursue a career that requires it. But it’s a bad choice if you can’t explain why you need the degree, or if you’re going because you don’t know what else to do, or because the job market is bad and it’s a way to prolong the day of reckoning.

So think twice before joining the swelling ranks of job applicants with freshly minted masters degrees that they’re not going to use. You might only be prolonging the day of reckoning, and making it harder for yourself once that day comes.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

  1. Julie*

    I would also caution students pursuing a PhD in the humanities in the hopes of becoming a university profession that the market for these jobs is EXTREMELY tight right now. There are far more graduates than positions for them, fewer tenure-track positions to the ones that do get jobs, and it has been this way for years.

    1. Anonymous*

      That’s true in the sciences too – at least for tenured positions (I can imagine that scientific postdocs are easier to come by, but those are very low paid). The fundamental problems is that, while a profess may have four or five PhD students, only one is needed to replace them. The best demonstration of the requirements of an academic career is that given by the movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

    2. Natalie*

      This fact, combined with the unpleasant reality of potentially having to live somewhere I hate because it’s the only place I can get a job, is exactly why I didn’t get my PhD in history.

  2. Anonymous*

    It took me two years, but I got a job with my master’s. I’m an adjunct professor, but most start there. If I keep proving myself, I’ll work my way up.

    I was advised to not go on ahead to the M.A. level by my student teaching supervisor a few years back. I didn’t take the advice. I don’t regret it. I was having difficulty finding a job, so I went this route to open my field in the subject I was teaching. I’m back to teaching on the college level, and I love it.

    1. Natalie*

      “Now, of course plenty of career paths do require a graduate degree, and I have no quarrel with people going to school for that purpose.”

      College teaching quite obviously falls into this category, so I’m not sure this piece was directed at you. :)

    2. Rana*

      Not to be a downer, but the idea that one can “work one’s way up” from adjuncting is incredibly outdated. Most of the people I know who ended up adjuncting found themselves falling farther and farther behind in the academic job search, since as an adjunct (with heavy teaching demands, little to no research support, few to no benefits) you’re competing with new graduates and people already on the tenure track. Indeed, there’s a lingering culture of perceiving adjuncts as “failed” academics who couldn’t cut it in a more competitive market. And if you have “only” an MA, keep in mind that your competition will have PhDs.

      Moreover, academic jobs do not follow a neat “promote from within” trajectory; every search in my field (history) must be opened to a national field of candidates, and while a competent and well-liked adjunct may have some say in how a new position is written up, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the position because the competition is so fierce, and the politics of selecting a new hire are complex.

      It’s good that you enjoy teaching, because that’s what adjuncting is about – but that’s not what they’re looking for in most tenure-track positions, where you need to demonstrate research and publication prowess as well as teaching ability.

      Maybe you’ll get lucky, but you (and others) should know that such luck is pretty rare.

      1. Anonymous*

        Generally, you do not need a PhD to teach at the college level – you need a terminal degree. (generally) This covers all ofthe fine arts. (Though I have heard of a PhD in architecture!) I don’t know if some schools would issue a MA instead of a MFA – but that is a common path for artists for the above stated reason, to teach in their field.

        Which is annoying to me for a whole other reason, but I will save that for my blog!

        1. Rana*

          It does depend on the field, though. Certainly you don’t need a PhD to be considered qualified to teach history at the college or university level, for example, but if you don’t have one, you’re unlikely to get past the first pass in all but the most basic of adjunct situations. It’s a field in which there are often 100-200 (or more) candidates for each position, nearly all of whom are qualified and in possession of a doctorate (or about to receive one), and the majority are not only qualified but a decent fit for the position. While the rhetoric of the discipline emphasizes merit, the profession has known for a while that even for the most qualified candidates (multiple publications, teaching awards, stellar recommendations) there’s an enormous amount of luck involved, and most people are not lucky.

          1. Anonymous*

            While the rhetoric of the discipline emphasizes merit, the profession has known for a while that even for the most qualified candidates (multiple publications, teaching awards, stellar recommendations) there’s an enormous amount of luck involved, and most people are not lucky

            Indeed – career ladders based on dead men’s boots will tend to do that.

      2. Anonymous*

        Well, I think it depends on what *else* you are doing while you adjunct. When I finish my PhD, I hope to get an academic job, but if it doesn’t happen, I will go back to industry, and likely adjunct at night. I would guess that in my field, the mindset of those making the hiring decisions is split, but there are as many who want people with real experience as there who want purebred academics. I think this is especially true now, when the job market is tighter, because they see someone who can help their students get jobs.

  3. Sean*

    It’s funny that this is the topic. The amount of times my mother alone has told me that getting graduate degree on top of grad degree will make me more “marketable” is quite high. I’ve been told countless times too that I’ll be in school for another ten years because the more school I have, the more likely I’ll be hired. The thing is though, for most of the things suggested to me for grad, I haven’t really liked the idea of them at all. I’m just about to finish my undergraduate degree, and while I am about to go in a new direction and spend another two years in school, it’s in something I would like to do, Journalism. And while it may be a bit of a difficult field to get into, I still feel that regardless, it’s still a better idea than getting a grad degree that might get me absolutely nowhere. My only advice to people is to think before leaping into graduate studies, really do research about what you’re looking at, find out what it can help you get, and decide, ‘is it going to get me where I want to go’? If the answer is yes, then pursue it, if there are doubts or you just can straight out say no, don’t.

  4. SME*

    Yes! And I wish I’d gone to a state school for my BA instead of the prestigious and pricey private institution that I attended. It’s a myth that big student loans are a good idea for people getting non-specific degrees. It’s one thing if you’re going to be a neurosurgeon. It’s something else entirely if, as with many people, you are getting an education for its own sake rather than as specific career prep.

    1. Lesley*

      Yes! People tell you that you’ll get a job that will help you pay off those loans, and going to the prestigious school gives you a leg up, but that only applies to certain specialties. For the most part, it really doesn’t matter where you go to school–it’s what you do in school and the experience you gain while there and connections you make that are the difference!

    2. Natalie*

      The final bill may not have been cheaper at that state school – state support of their universities is declining as the tax base shrinks. In the absence of endowments to make up the slack most state colleges have been raising tuition prices every year. Many private colleges have endowments that defray the cost of tuition for their students, and these days that can mean they will be cheaper than a state college.

      My partner and I met at a presitigous private college. When I graduated he ended up transferring to a state school, where he paid nearly 50% more because he received no institutional aid.

    3. Kimberlee*

      This is only anecdotal, but as someone who does hiring for a non-profit, I have been really, really surprised about how having a good school draws my eyes to a resume. I don’t necessarily mean, like, Yale or Harvard, I’m talking about good liberal arts schools. Seeing Reed on an application (as I have this week) makes me consider the person more deeply, since I know that Reed is one of the most challenging schools in the country. Same with most of the “big” schools, like an Amherst, Beliot or Oberlin.

      I wouldn’t have expected that I put so much stock into schools, but there you have it!

        1. JT*

          I can see that. But in my city there are some public and private colleges that tend to get some driven students w/o the wealth or family background of more “known” schools – Pace, Baruch and others. I don’t do real hiring, but do choose interns. And a strong resume of experience plus those schools on a resume impresses me.

          1. Chris*

            I went to Bates!
            But I’m also just finishing a Masters a “public ivy.”
            Want to send me job postings? I’d love you :)

      1. Tiff*

        I agree. I’m an Oberlin grad, and although the school isn’t super well known it’s raised a few appreciative eyebrows for me over the years.

  5. Heather*

    I almost went to grad school for a master’s in journalism. That would have been foolish, because there’s no comparison between the lessons you’ll learn in the business vs. those from a textbook. Not all fields are like that, but some just aren’t served by you having a master’s or better.

    My question is why more managers don’t see this. My husband is looking for PR work and they all want people with master’s degrees. But while their ideal candidates were reading books about PR to obtain advanced degrees, he has been building years of work experience and learning real-world lessons. Why is that not just as valuable to managers? I look at it as the difference between reading about driving and actually driving – who’s the better driver?

    Now, of course, some fields DO require master’s or PhDs and it makes sense to pursue them. But for stuff like this? I’m stumped.

      1. Ms Enthusiasm*

        Just curious what your thoughts are on if someone decides to go back to school to get a graduate degree (for example an MBA) after working for many years. This person would then have the degree + experience. Of course I understand it really depends on where this person wants to go in their career but if someone has the ability to get the degree while continuing to gain experience I would think they would end up being the stronger candidate (depending on the individual of course).

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Same principles apply. First figure out what you want to do, and then figure out if the degree is needed to get there. Anything else is doing it backwards. (And the mix of degree and experience doesn’t necessarily matter because of the other problems I talked about in my post at U.S. News.)

    1. Joey*

      It’s because ideally they want someone with both experience and a masters. And, right now those folks are out there.

      1. Piper*

        I can’t tell you how many job postings I see in my field that require a Master’s degree plus experience. I personally do not think it’s necessary for the field, but that’s the way the field is going and those who don’t have graduate degrees will soon be way behind the career eight ball.

        It’s always been a personal goal of mine to go to grad school and I have very specific reasons and ways I plan to use a graduate degree. I’ll be finished with grad school soon and I don’t regret it. When I started, I didn’t expect it to make it easier for me to get a job, but over the past few years with this new requirement of so many employers in the field wanted that Master’s degree, I think it will help me there, too.

        I’ve been working full time the whole way through school (in a related field) and plan to stay in this field after I finish, so I haven’t lost any time in the real world while pursuing a degree.

        I find the idea of graduate degrees to be absolutely polarizing. On the one hand, so many employers (in my field) are requiring them and then on the other hand, I’ve heard people actually scoffing at the idea of a graduate degree, as if it’s nothing for someone to accomplish finishing a graduate degree.

        1. Piper*

          I should also note that I didn’t go to grad school straight out of college, either. I waited about 8 years.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s unquestionably an accomplishment. It’s just often not an accomplishment that has a lot of relevance in many fields. (As Catherine points out below, there often ARE transferable skills — but this is often outweighed by the points I made in my linked article.)

          1. anth*

            The graduate degree (and specific institution) also “signals” to employers what your skills, motivation, and generally also some level of ability are. It’s completely irrelevant whether you learn new content or content you can’t learn on the job. [Yes, I learned this from a professor in grad school. What a way to make class feel worthwhile. :) But she was awesome.]

            Unfortunately, this probably also signals that you have the means to pursue a degree while being not fully employed, which would make pursuing the degree a less realistic option for lower income workers, thus continuing to keep them out of the higher echelons of the workforce.

            So yes, my graduate degree was in policy, as was my undergrad, but there are many positions in my field that really seek masters education regardless of skills you have from the field*. Plus, the personal/professional connections from grad school are HUGE.

            *There are exceptions to every rule.

            1. Piper*

              But there are people who worked full time while in school, too, so it can be done. I worked full-time (40+ hours a week) while taking 9 credits/semester, and maintained a 3.9 GPA. I sometimes point this out in my cover letter to demonstrate that I can successfully juggle multiple projects and management my time well, and also so people don’t think I’ve taken off work to go to school (since that is often looked down on).

              And agreed on the professional/personal connections thing. So important for networking with industry professionals.

  6. Tami*

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this. What you said is spot on. I know that when I am reviewing resumes, and I find someone with a graduate degree applying for an entry level job for a position that is not in their “field” that I am immediately hesitant. Are they going to be a long-term employee, or are they just trying to fill the void until they find the job they really want? Will they expect more money simply because they have a graduate degree? Why are they applying for a job as a data entry clerk or tire technician when they have a graduate degree in HR, finance, etc.? This is especially true if they have absolutely no experience related to the job for which they are applying.

    While I understand that this person may be a great candidate, and I could be getting a lot of bang for my buck when it comes to employing them, the opposite could very easily hold true. Do I want to use my time to interview them when there are so many other candidates with relevant experience and/or education?

    I’m not saying a grad degree is a bad idea, but AAM is absolutely right when she says that it may not be in one’s best interest to pursue a grad degree.

  7. Elo*

    I’m taking some time off now, but I do plan on going back to graduate school to get a Ph.D in Biology. Why? I want to become a University professor, though I’ll likely do a post-doc, go into industry, or get a lecturing position somewhere. I ultimately want to teach and do research. I know the market is tough, but at least there are a few options out there for people like me, and other scientists. I agree, though, that going to graduate school with no clear focus whatsoever is not a smart idea, and a waste of money.

  8. Vicki*

    I went to Grad School because my BS Microbiology only made me fit for a low-paying lab job and that wasn’t what I wanted. Grad School gave me not only the MS on my resume (an MS shows you can do some research) but also additional classwork and a thesis in an area that was closer to what I really wanted to do. That thesis got me my first job.

    So, sometimes, Grad School is a good “exploratory” option. I would _not_ be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to Grad School.

    1. Anonymous*

      ^This. My undergrad degree in Biology wasn’t good for much, either. In the sciences, a high-level degree is usually a requirement for a high-level job and grad school for scientists is not the financial hardship it is for those in the humanities. Most science grad programs provide tuition assistance (ie, the program or department pays the tuition) and stipends based on teaching or doing the research you would do for your thesis anyway. That being said, I have a PhD and, although it makes me eligible for higher-paying positions, it doesn’t make me stand out from the hoardes of other PhD-possessing candidates out there. As a previous poster mentioned, there are a lot of doctors of philosophy in the job market right now and the positions for tenure-track professors are few. Industry and other non-academic positions are not as common as they once were and they are not as stable, either. Grad school remains a good option for scientists, but make sure you work to stand out during your time as a student and postdoc!

    2. Piper*

      Thank you for saying this. I’m actually quite tired of hearing people rag on grad school and how bad of an idea it is (not specifically here on AAM, but in general) . I’m not even finished with school and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. And my thesis is definitely going to show some serious chops in my field (since I’m also bringing my experience with it and not just school/class work) and I anticipate it helping move me forward in my current career trajectory.

      And the reality is, lots of employers are requiring it now (or using it as a “nice to have”) simply because they can, whether the field needs it or not.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Well, again, plenty of career paths do require it. I have zero beef with that. My issue is with people who don’t really know why they’re going but have a general sense it’ll make them more marketable.

        1. Piper*

          I agree with this. And I also agree that it’s not smart to jump straight from undergrad to grad. Had I done that, I’d have gone for something completely different and not useful in any way to what I’m doing today or what my future goals are.

          That said, I have definitely noticed a trend where more and more employers are requiring graduated degrees for jobs that even just five or six years ago they would have only required a bachelor’s. It’s a strange phenomenon and a bit of a chicken/egg situation- did employers start requiring advanced degrees because they truly want those qualifications, thereby spurring more people to pursue an advanced degree; or are more people pursuing those degrees because they want to or think it will make them more marketable and as a result, employers are seeing more candidates with them and then thinking they should start requiring them as a way to weed out candidates.

          1. arm2008*

            It can be advantageous to go from undergrad directly to grad school when you’re dealing with engineering and other technical areas. It is quite painful to try to take graduate level classes in these areas when your math skills have gotten rusty, and it isn’t easy to just brush up on calculus. Experience in these areas doesn’t often include regular use of this type of math, but grad classes do.

  9. Anonymous*

    I want to print it out, then nail this article to my friend’s forehead. She’s been sweet-talked by some jerk of an advisor to go straight from her (2nd!) undergrad degree straight into their pricey MBA program.

  10. ChristineH*

    What PERFECT timing for this post because I’ve been wrestling with my career options. I already have an MSW and was initially planning to go into direct client/clinical services (the track I took in the program), but am now more interested in research, writing, and related functions, but still within social work or similar fields. However, it seems like the only people working as research assistants are those currently in graduate school, which leads me to think that another masters or a PhD is the way to go. Even on the night I graduated from the MSW program, my sister encouraged me to consider a PhD. I love the idea, but I agree that it is important to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re doing.

    So yeah, I’m stumped too. lol.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “it seems like the only people working as research assistants are those currently in graduate school”

      What about the people who have already graduated? If they’re not doing the job you want, this is a problematic path to take, because you won’t be in school forever.

      I’d say to talk to the people who have the job you want to have in 10-15 years and find out what they think on the best path to get there.

  11. Anonymous*

    I know that you’re writing for US work life – but: If anybody wants a career in Europe (exept the UK, maybe) a Master is more or less a must. I have plenty of friends, who came here with a Bachelor’s Degree and sveral years of work experience (from the US, UK, Australia) and really struggled with getting work. Here in DK basically everybody, who goes to university finishes with a Master’s Degree.

  12. Catherine*

    I agree that going to grad school to avoid the job market is not a good strategy, and that some fields require a grad degree for entry. Setting those 2 points aside, many grad programs can actually help students develop skills that they would not otherwise have a chance to develop at this stage of their careers. Teaching posts afford them the opportunity to develop leadership, communication, public speaking, evaluation/assessment, project management and teamwork skills. Research offers the ability to improve communication, synthesis, project management and other skills related to their area. I think the biggest problem is that grad students don’t know the value of the transferable skills they have learned, and they have no idea how to communicate them to a potential employer. They may also feel frustrated and apply for jobs that are not a good fit for their background, so hiring managers are suspicious of their motives.

    If anyone is wondering, I have a PhD in the Humanities and I am a career coach at a university. I had experience in the field before taking on my current role, but it was my transferable skills that sold my supervisor on my candidacy.

    1. Rana*

      That “translation” problem is huge, especially if you lack in-field experience to go with the skills you learned while getting your degree. I’ve been trying to figure it out for the last eight years, and it’s only now that I think I’m starting to get a handle on it.

      If you’re helping humanities graduates with this, bless you. The career counselors available to me when I needed them were next to useless, as they were incapable of helping me with that translation. (I still remember the one who had me take a general skills test and ended up suggesting that a reasonable career path for me (with a Ph.D. in history) was to be a nuclear submarine operator.)

      1. ChristineH*

        I think that’s *all* career counselors are good for. My career counselor, who I’m still in touch with, is a sweetheart, but I can never get her to just let me talk out my thoughts so that I can have a clearer picture of my direction. Something tells me that if I want that level of coaching, I’d need to pay somebody privately, and that’s money I do NOT have.

  13. HR nerdette*

    I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve been told since undergrad that I *had* to get a masters – by friends, well-meaning professors, and relatives. I live in an area where it seems like 85% of people have a bachelors, so there was a lot of pressure – but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I had worked in HR for a couple of years that it became my passion and career path.

    School will always be there when I am ready. I’ve had my eye on a great MA program designed for working adults, and I’ll be ready in about another year. For me, work experience plus the future masters plus PHR certification will get me where I want to go. If I had gone straight into a graduate program when I was pushed to, I’d probably have a ‘worthless’ degree right now.

    1. JT*

      Professors are likely to say grad school is good. But ask people doing what you want to do what they did – that’s a better source. Or look at their career paths.

      I went to grad school twice. The first time was for somewhat the “wrong” reasons – I didn’t know what else to do. But it was also sort of to get reacquainted with life in the US (I’d been living in a developing country before that) and it serves that role. Plus I got a fellowship, so tuition was free and I got a small stipend. I still missed forgone earnings for the two years, but that wasn’t too bad. And I got a job that my degree helped with. If I’d had to pay for it all I’m not sure it’d be worth it.

      I was a couple years out of college in that case, and I think if I’d gone in straight from college it would have been a much worse experience – some time working helps with perspective. This was an MA in international relations.

      I just finished a second degree which I paid for myself and frankly I did it in part for mental stimulation. I was bored, and I loved school this time around. Loved it. And it’s helping me a little in my current job, though not financially. It’s not clear it will pay off in terms of job opportunities with more money (because I’m way above entry level in my current field), but I knew that going in.

      In my new area – library and information science there’s decent blog that talks about this And lots of debate about the value, or not, of the degree on other library blogs.

      And I think anyone thinking of grad school for academic careers, especially in the humanities – should be reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to get a sense of what’s going on in academia.

      Lastly, there are a lot of YouTube videos created via Xtranormal about particular careers and degrees that are quite funny and have a basis in truth in them. If you search on “So you want to be [whatever]” you’ll find some odd insights.

      1. Rana*

        And I think anyone thinking of grad school for academic careers, especially in the humanities – should be reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to get a sense of what’s going on in academia.

        Seconded. But be cautious with the First Person pieces in the job seekers section – they have been painting a rosier picture than the grim realities (even while claiming to acknowledge it) for a long time now. When we were on the market, my friends and I used to joke about “Chronicle Land,” in which everyone was exceptional (but just like you, really!) and every story ended with a tenure-track job offer, and it’s not improved much since then.

        If nothing else, reading the comments on Chronicle pieces will give you a sense of what academic culture can be like, and whether it’s a place you’d feel comfortable. You might also want to read Tim Burke’s piece on grad school, which does a good job of explaining what you’re in for if you pursue a humanities degree. Google “tim burke grad school” to find it and related discussion.

        1. Catherine*

          I would also add University Affairs, for Canada, and So What Are You Going To Do With That (by Debelius & Basalla May) for those with advanced degrees who may be trying to figure out their next moves. The non-academic job search is more mainstream now, so there are resources available.

  14. Malissa*

    Even if you are in a field that rewards graduate degrees like accounting, it’s still better to work for a year or two before grad school.
    I’m in grad school now and I keep getting paired with people who’ve gone from undergrad, straight into grad school. Most of these people lack some fundamental understanding that can only be gained by real world experience.
    Also in the fields where a grad degree is a big assets, you’ll find employers will to help you get that degree.

    1. ChristineH*

      Exactly. I’ve heard a few people say that I don’t really need work experience to succeed in a PhD program, but I really don’t think it would be a wise move for me. At least in my field (social work/human services), you need that real world experience to have a first-hand view (as opposed to just reading about it) of the pressing issues in your area of interest so that you can more easily plan your studies and dissertation work.

      1. Martina*

        I feel the same way. After graduating with my bachelors in June, I decided to take time off from school to find work in human services, especially since I’m not quite sure what population/setting I’d like to work in. It’s been challenging, but having “real world” experience is worth it to me.

    2. PDX CPA*

      An excellent point, experience really must go with education in order for that high-level education to be meaningful (with some notable excpetions) but to go all type-A on you, accounting doesn’t actually require a Masters degree and at least in public accounting it’s not really rewarded either. You might get a small pay bump for having a MAcc or MBA, but it’s usually the same bump you get for your CPA which is way more useful and less expensive.

      In fact if you have an undergrad in accounting the only thing a MAcc help you wtih is 1) get you enough credits to sit for the exam or 2) help you raise an unimpressive undergrad GPA (high GPAs are absolutely vital to getting a “good” accounting job in most markets).

  15. Mikey's mom*

    I have a DVM (yes I am a Veterinarian), but I work in IT. My Master’s equivalent got me the job over someone with a BS in CompSci.

    The thing is, what you start out in won’t necessarily be what you end up in. An advanced degree proves you can finish what you start and that you are probably not entirely an idiot. That can get you in the door. One shouldn’t think of college studies solely as a training for your one job. You may not end up there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, but there are other ways to prove that you can finish what you start and that you aren’t an idiot, ways that don’t have the downsides I talked about in my article (linked in the original post above). I’m obviously not saying it’s never the right choice, but it’s a choice people need to make after being aware of all the downsides too.

    2. Cassie*

      This may be harsh, but to me, an advanced degree in a completely unrelated field doesn’t show me initiative – it shows me poor planning.

      Not in every case, but probably in many cases.

      Yes, the degree does prove that the person can finish what they started, but at what cost? So you finished the program, spent x amount of money, and what now? Sometimes you have to recognize when something is not going as planned and stop doing whatever it is that you thought was a great idea. I don’t want an employee who just continues because he/she doesn’t want to give up or is too embarrassed to admit that they may have made an error in judgement in the planning stage.

      I see this attitude sometimes with hiring managers who are unwilling to let an underperforming worker go. The hiring manager doesn’t want to admit that he/she may have chosen the wrong person to hire. This kind of attitude is just ridiculous to me. Sometimes you have to admit defeat (for lack of a better term).

      1. Catherine*

        AAM raised some good points in the original article about the need for experience outside of academics, the expense, and having a career plan. Those are all relevant, particularly for someone who *is still considering* grad studies.

        I have to disagree with one theme that seems to be emerging here about those who have already completed grad degrees – the idea that a university degree is some kind of job training program. It isn`t, and I think that the notion of declining a candidate because the hiring manager preemptively decides that they `made an error in judgement in the planning stage`is really poor. Either the candidate can communicate the added value their degree brings and why they want to work for X hiring organization or they can`t. Make the hiring decisions based on the same factors you would for someone with an undergrad degree, and if you`re curious why they`ve spent x amount on a PhD in Whatever, ask them!

        1. Cassie*

          I wouldn’t disqualify them *just* because they got an advanced degree in an unrelated field, but it certainly would be something that I would ask about in an interview. Like with most things, it can be both a positive and a negative. I know people who have master’s degrees but didn’t include it on their resumes when applying for an entry-level job. On the other hand, I know people who feel they deserve a higher salary simply because they have a master’s degree (again, in an unrelated field). The candidate has to explain what is it about that advanced degree that a) makes their advanced studies is equivalent to x years of experience and b) further illuminate why a higher pay should go hat in hand with (a).

  16. Ellen M.*

    “Instead, the appeal of staying in school is more about avoiding a difficult and competitive job market or avoiding figuring out “what to do” now that their undergraduate program is over.”

    So true… unfortunately.

  17. Grad School is Cool*

    I got a Masters in one of the most stereotypically useless subjects (English) and have yet to hold a job that requires an advanced degree. Nor is my salary any higher than it was before the Masters degree. HOWEVER, I would get the degree all over again, crushing debt and all. Why? I loved the academic environment, the course material, the discussions with professors and classmates, the study abroad program in London, and the feeling of accomplishment after finishing the program. Like me, many students may go into a graduate program for the wrong reasons (I thought employers would be impressed. Ha!). However, they can still get a lot out of grd school. In my opinion, college should be more than just vocational training and a way to make $$$$$$$$$$$$.

    1. Grad School is Cool*

      Also, I did get one job because the manager was impressed by the Masters. It wasn’t required though and I didn’t earn any more than the other employees.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually think love of learning is a very legitimate reason to do it, as long as you’re clear on the potential downsides (employers thinking you don’t really want a job because it’s not in your field, etc.). It’s when people go with just a vague sense that it’ll make them more marketable but no real plan that it’s problematic.

    3. Ellen*

      I love this comment. I’m not in grad school now, but I seriously considered going (and am not totally ruling it out for the future), as in took the GRE, visited schools and contacted potential advisers, etc. My reason was the same, love of learning. I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures in college and found those pursuits unbelievably fulfilling. My best friend from school, who shared my major, is currently in the grad program there and I am often very jealous of her. I decided not to go because in the end I felt burned out on school. Instead I’m trying to work part time/temp jobs so I can simultaneously work on a book on a subject related to my field so clearly I still feel very drawn to academic research type pursuits.

      I think that love of learning, or of studying a particular subject, is a great reason to go to grad school. People often think that the financial considerations are an iron-clad reason not to go to grad school but I think that some people value the experience more than the money, even if it doesn’t end up being remunerative/”a good investment,” and that this is legitimate. You can lead a happy life while still paying off grad school loans. President Obama famously didn’t pay off his student loans until after writing his book, well into his political career.

      1. Diane*

        If you really love learning, why don’t you sign up for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)? You get the experience of an academic setting (homework, quizzes, exams, classroom discussions) without the hefty price tag.

  18. erin*

    I loved your article. I did want to point out that if you do decide to go to grad school, you don’t HAVE to amass a mountain of debt. I got my Master’s in English completely free because I taught and tutored for the university, which also earned me a monthly stipend. I took out no student loans. Now I’m absolutely grateful for this fact since I decided not to pursue a PhD and become a professor, which was my original plan. I knew going into grad school in my particular field that the payoff wasn’t necessarily going to be huge, so I told myself I would only go if it didn’t cost me anything.

  19. Eve*

    This is very timely for me but I still feel like I am making the right decision. I have a BA in a social science (anthro) but discovered I am very good at marketing so I am starting a MS program for that next month. I am nervous about the debt and time spent but I think in the long term it will help me. Since I am trying to move into a completely different career path it seems necessary.

  20. Cassie*

    People would ask me if I was planning to go to grad school and my answer was always “no, I have no idea what I would study”. And these people would tell me I should go anyway, and figure it out later. Uh, no. I already have a bachelor’s in a useless field (useless for me, that is – more useful for people who want to teach or work in a museum or whatnot).

    Anyway, I work in a science dept at a state university. Seems like many kids go to grad school for their MS, and then some will join industry while others go for a PhD. We do have some older students in the PhD program – those with MS degrees who worked in industry for a while and now want a PhD (sometimes their tuition is paid for by their employers). For science/ technology/ engineering fields, having an advanced degree is definitely a benefit. But it is also possible to get positions with just a bachelor’s degree (if you did internships and research as an undergrad).

    In Taiwan, the unemployment rate is pretty high and kids are continuing with their education (masters & doctorates) because they can’t find jobs. And colleges are popping up everywhere (there are national universities which are reputable, but others are just diploma mills). So you have people who have hundreds of candidates with master’s degrees applying for a handful of sanitation dept jobs – not that there’s anything wrong with sanitation dept jobs, but these entry-level jobs do not exactly require advanced degrees.

  21. RKT*

    On the other side, I’ve seen two job ads lately that either require or ‘prefer’ a master’s degree- one was looking for someone to talk about city recycling programs to businesses, the other was Executive Director of an art gallery/event center. Both were full time, and both paid $30k/year.

    You can’t live on that, much less pay back your $80k in graduate loans.

  22. Emily*

    I agree. Don’t get a Master’s just because you’re avoiding doing something else. Get one because you really want a Master’s. It should be a positive motivation.

  23. Other Emily*

    I’m somewhat guilty of starting a directionless MBA.. but I’m not sure if it’s the same case. I work for a great company that’s paying tuition, have no children/major debt/other factors that would dissuade me, and am working on it at a pretty leisurely pace. I had no business courses in undergrad and only found the topic interesting after joining the workforce (in IT).
    I’m not sure where my career will go or if the degree will help me, but I’m enjoying learning and think of it as a challenge and a good foundation for future job changes (either horizontal or vertical).
    Could the “just for the heck of it” or “just because I had the time and money” reasoning be harmful in the long run?

  24. Dana*

    I have a master’s in public policy, and if I could do it over, I WOULDN’T. I had one year of admin experience and decided enough was enough, the economy tanked a few months before I graduated, and it was just awful. I am still recovering. Now I am literally making 5% more than I was 5 years ago, at 22, just out of college. And I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. Well, I have some ideas, but they’re some very hard fields to get into and/or making a living out of. So basically, I’m screwed. And I’ll probably just end up with a job that I would have ended up with anyway, except now I’m years behind.

    I love school. Love it. But that’s not a reason to collect degrees that are basically senseless. No one is impressed by a master’s anymore. I will concede that my master’s degree was a prerequisite to get this job, but that’s not exactly saying much since I want out.

    Seriously, this is excellent advice. Don’t do it unless you know WHY you’re doing it and it will give you an end, not some senseless debt and regret at graduation.

  25. Anonymous*

    While I would normally agree that going to grad school just to put off the “day of reckoning” is a bad idea, the article gives the impression that the choices are either: (a) go to grad school or (b) start getting great experience right away. In reality, right now the choices are usually: (a) grad school; (b) part-time retail/food service with a slight possibility of becoming a shift supervisor at some point so future employers can scoff at the experience on your resume; (c) nothing.

    Given that many people will qualify to get the cost of grad school covered by federal loans, and that IBR will keep their payments reasonable relative to income for years, grad school as a placeholder isn’t a completely stupid option right now. I could have been done with my MS by now if I’d listened to my gut instead of the people/job articles that said I was just hiding from the real world. Instead, I’ve been cobbling together any part-time seasonal jobs I could get, gaining absolutely no relevant experience AND no further academic credentials.

  26. James Peterson*

    If you’re thinking about grad school, please think about your future and read these two articles!! Peace!
    1. Rhon, Jennifer (2011) Give Postdocs a Career, Not Empty Promises. Nature 471, 7.
    2. Benderly, Beryl L. (July/Aug 2010) The Real Science Gap. It’s not insufficient schooling or a shortage of scientists. It’s a lack of career opportunities. Miller-McCune 3, 4.
    Still determined to do research? Bite the bullet and take that MCAT or PCAT. Having a medical license in your back pocket can save you a ton of grief!

  27. Anonymous*

    Advice in this post sounds similar to those that say that a liberal arts degree is meaningless because it doesn’t directly lead to a job. While I understand that taking on crippling debt to get a graduate degree is not wise, taking on manageable debt to further yourself as someone who can critically think and problem solve well can only be helpful to the candidate in the long term. Advice against it seems myopic and overly simplified.

  28. James Peterson*

    I earned a PhD in chemistry and did many years of research. It was good enough for others to publish but not good enough for me (and QUITE A FEW OTHERS) to get a job. My critical thinking here is this: Who is landing these jobs? What did they have to give up to achieve their success? Yes. They got jobs, but if you take an inside look at their personal lives you often find staggering tragedies. The system is broken and the victims are not always who you might guess at first glance. Secondly, please follow me as I put together ONE resume after nursing school and land a job before I graduate. How’s that for critical thinking?

  29. Kelly*

    I love this post and the comments as all of the advice is helpful. I’ve been contemplating the possibility of returning to grad school part-time for an MBA but am seriously reconsidering that path.

    I’m working towards my CPA certification and my new plan is to see where I get with that before adding on debt for a master’s degree that may or may not pay off.

  30. James Peterson*

    And now I’m over half way through nursing school. I have earned a scholarship and am competing very well with people half my age. The thing that is going to be honored is supply and demand. My skills are in high demand (thanks to compassionate nurses who maintain an autonomous professional organization and defend our profession with an active lobby) and nurses are in short supply. My father emphasized the first law of thermodynamics. It can be boiled down to this: “You can’t get something for nothing”. People with extreme points of view tend to lose sight of this. People looking into graduate studies would do very well to ask whether or not the field they are targeting with an advanced degree meets the definition of a pyramid scheme. See Wikipedia! Do they follow their graduates and assist them in finding positions? Do they quantify the success of their graduates in finding work in any measurable and credible way? Because I am here to tell you that this is one measurement scientists in the US would label “murky research” in a heartbeat. Germany is better to their PhDs. Japan is even worse than the US. Google Jennifer Rhon’s article “Give postdocs a career. Not empty promises”. Do you think it is not significant that this article was published in the UK, in “Nature”, but nothing like it has been published in “Science” here in the US? How does the UK differ from the US? The ironic thing about Ayn Rand is that her book sales do indeed prove her point: Most of us are sheep.

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