should you go to graduate school?

Thinking about going to graduate school?

Before you get too far in your planning, make sure that grad school makes sense for you and your specific career aspirations – and that your investment of time and money will pay off in the ways you hope. Too many new college graduates turn to grad school because they’re not quite sure what else to do or because the tough job market makes them think any additional credentials will be helpful. Neither of these are sufficient reasons for grad school, and they can in fact make a job search more difficult rather than easier.

First, let’s talk about when grad school is a good idea. Grad school makes sense when you’re going into a field that requires or significantly rewards a graduate degree, and when the program that you would enroll in has a high track record of graduates getting jobs in their field.

But you shouldn’t go if you don’t know what you plan to do with the graduate degree afterward. And you certainly shouldn’t go to grad school out of a vague idea that it will make you more marketable. Not only will it often not make you more marketable, it can actually hamstring your efforts to pursue the career you want.

Sound counterintuitive? The problem is that if you go to grad school even though you don’t plan to go into a field that requires or significantly rewards advanced degrees, the following is highly likely to happen:

  • Employers will think you don’t really want the job you’re applying for, since it’s not what you went to school for. They’ll assume that you’ll be dissatisfied and leave as soon as something in the field you studied comes along. That concern can end up being a reason they don’t hire you for the same job you might have been a strong candidate for before you got your graduate degree.
  • While you’re in school, you won’t receive full-time work experience. That means that when you finish your program, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more seasoned and thus more competitively positioned than you.
  • You’ll often rack up significant student loan debt. That debt will then limit your job prospects by requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need, in order to pay back those loans – and without actually increasing your earning power. When the job market is already tight, having a whole range of jobs that you’d otherwise be interested in end up off-limits to you because they won’t pay enough to pay off your students loans is a tough spot to be in.

So if you’ve been thinking about grad school, what does all this mean for you? Well, the next step should be to find out whether the career path you want to follow truly requires or rewards graduate degrees. If you’re not sure, start talking to people who do the type of work you want to do. Find out from them how useful a graduate degree will be. You might hear that it won’t have the payoff you’re looking for or that work experience will be just as or more valuable. Or you might hear that the graduate degree will be very helpful, in which case you should move to the next set of questions: Are there certain programs or schools that will help you the most? Are there some programs or schools that won’t help you much at all? If you enroll in a lower-ranked program, will it still provide the benefits you’re looking for? These are the questions you want to get solid answers to before you start making decisions.

And if you don’t know what you want to do with the graduate degree once you have it, that’s a sign to drop the grad school plans for now. There are much less expensive and time-consuming ways to figure out what you want to do for a living: internships, talking to people in your network and just trying out jobs that sound interesting. Grad school shouldn’t be one long and expensive career counseling session. Instead, get out and start working. If you eventually realize you want to pursue a career path that requires more schooling, you can get it then.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 235 comments… read them below }

  1. Dang*

    I am living this nightmare right now. I wish I hadn’t gone. My advice is to only go back if you know exactly how it will enhance your career trajectory. It will not make you more marketable on its own. I get told that I’m ‘overqualified’ for the jobs I’m applying to if they are not directly related to what I studied.

    1. Adam*

      This is one of the fears that kept me from going to grad school. It seemed like it automatically narrowed your options to certain specializations, and I was intimidated by the (likely) prospect of spending more years of my life and A LOT more money on a specialized field only to get out and find I had grown to hate whatever I’d chosen but was now stuck with it and limited to those types of jobs by default.

      1. Dang*

        Yes.. it’s a legitimate fear you should definitely listen to. I was young (one year out of undergrad), hated my job, and really wanted to do something else. But I had no idea how to actually go about it the right way.. which would be to figure out how it fit with my goals, not how it would get me to my goals.

      1. vvondervvoman*

        I think the issue then becomes “What were you doing during those 2 years?”

        1. Dang*

          Exactly. I had relevant work history at the time (and after) that was affiliated with my university that make it pretty obvious I was a student there. I’d have to take all of that out, and then I’d have not one but two long-ish gaps of unemployment that were glaringly obvious.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      This. I ended up quitting because I picked something that wasn’t right for me and I didn’t think it through before I did it.

      It wasn’t a total loss–I did learn things that I can translate to other areas, but it was pretty useless overall for me.

      1. Dang*

        Ugh, yeah, that’s the real bear of it all. I loved what I studied and learned things that are so translatable to other things.. at least I think so. The problem was convincing potential employers that the skills WERE relevant and translatable.

        But yeah, almost a complete waste. I absolutely loved the program and what I learned, but it really set me back… and years later I’m still paying for it (literally and figuratively).

        1. Anx*

          I’m not in grad school, but by the time some of my friends will have graduated, they will be champs at project management, presentations, writing, and of course….scrounging for funding.

  2. Adam*

    There are times I miss school. The regular shake up of routine, a constant stream of new and interesting faces to interact with, pursuing things that you find interesting rather than out of basic necessity. I always thought I would go to grad school after taking a little time off to recover from undergrad and work a little bit.

    But then that whole bit about actually having some money thing reared its taunting head…

    1. Laura*

      There’s always taking courses without pursuing a degree for all of that, although not at the intensity level of college. (And online, free, options if you don’t have the money or the local college to do it.)

      1. Sharon*

        I would love to do that, but every time I look at a college catalog, I’m intimidated by the registration process. They are all designed for degree-seekers, not “learning for the goal of learning” people. (And I have a BS, so it’s not like I haven’t done it before, but at this point in my life I’m not making the huge commitment that they try to steer you toward in the registration process.)

        1. Stephanie*

          I took a class at the local university, but it was a headache to get registered. The department also limited the amount of hours you could take as a non-degree student. And the class times are definitely geared toward full-time students.

        2. LQ*

          I’ve been doing online free classes because I do love to learn, but I don’t know that an advanced degree makes sense and I’m good with learning in that kind of environment. I’ve really been liking them. (I generally stick with a class for a week and then decide if I really want to fully commit time to do it or drop it.) And there is none of that huge registration process stuff.

        3. Fabulously Anonymous*

          I’ve had luck with community college. It seems more geared towards lifelong learners. OTOH, it’s only good for the basics and it doesn’t really cover advanced coursework.

      2. Young and the Old*

        Exactly – I’ve been taking numerous classes (mostly in programming) through edX online for the past year. Wonderful platform and, in most cases, totally free.

        Continuing your education doesn’t have to equate only to advanced degrees and college courses!

    2. KrisL*

      I still don’t miss school. What with a low paying part time job and studying for classes, being at college included being fairly broke with never ever feeling like I was “finished” with studying and could take it easy.

      Learning on the other hand – I still do that.

  3. Brett*

    You might want to differentiate between grad school and professional school or graduate programs that focus on professional degrees (like MSW) on the debt point.

    If you are going to grad school, you should have little to no debt. If you are going to be going into debt, then something is wrong about your choice of programs (or your admissions profile), and that alone should be a red flag on going straight into grad school. For professional schools and professional degrees, going into debt is more common and often normal.

    My grad department had two majors, and for the smaller major (~15 students) no one was even allowed into the program unless they were 100% funded for full cost of the program. The larger program (~50 students) allowed 2-3 unfunded students a year if they could demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover their full cost. Even those students were normally fully funded their 2nd year.

    1. fposte*

      That’s a really broad statement on the grad front, though; on the humanities side, especially at the master’s level, you’d be an optimist to expect “little to no debt.”

      I realize what you may be saying is “don’t go to humanities grad school,” but it was worth clarifying.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        There’s a great blog on humanities grad schools called 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School

        If I ever doubted I made the right decision dropping out of my PhD program, that blog affirmed I was right.

    2. Dan*

      I agree with fposte. I do believe your statements are true at the PhD level, but in my (reasonably well paying field) funded MS programs aren’t all that common. I borrowed for it, and am 110% happy with my choice.

      1. Dan*

        I want everyone to know that this “Dan” is an impostor. I would never say “110% happy…” :-)

        To Dan’s point though, I also went into debt to go to grad school and I would do it again in a heart beat…

    3. Brett*

      I don’t know humanities well at all, but it is common to do an MA/MS in humanities, or more common to go directly into a PhD program?

      There’s always institutional funding too. Many people in my major had institutional funding that was available regardless of major (though still competitive).

        1. Christina*

          That’s not necessarily true. When I was looking at Phd programs in literature, and when I worked in a department that accepted them, you could apply already having an MA, but most people came straight out of undergrad or with only a BA. You will sometimes get an MA during the process of getting the PhD, so if you drop out at the end of your first year review you have something to show for your work.

    4. Piper*

      Yeah, I think that’s a bit of a sweeping statement. I went to grad school, I wasn’t fully funded, and I have some debt. However, it’s also advanced my career and in my field graduate degrees are highly regarded and most job descriptions list them as a requirement.

      1. Brett*

        But… could you have chosen a different program and ended up better funded, with less debt, and a better reputation program? I know without help in picking my programs, I would have ended up with a lot less funding from a less prestigious program. Turned out there were much much better options for me.

        1. Dan*

          We can always make better choices. Some people have that guidance, some don’t. You make the best decision you can with the information you have in front of you at the time.

          Sometimes it’s hard to know the answer to the question you posed. Me? To this day, I have no idea if I could have done a better job managing the costs had I made different choices.

          In my field, “reputation” doesn’t count for a whole heck of a lot. Considering that I’m employed doing the things that I wanted to do when I went to grad school, it’s really, really tough for me to say I could have made a better decision.

          I work for the largest employer in my “niche,” which (the niche) is admittedly quite small. Every one of us has a different background, and brings a unique perspective to the work. A small minority get hired at my company straight out of college. Most of us have real world work experience. In my division (about 700 people) only 3% have “just” a BS. In fact, more people have no degree than just a BS! (A huge, huge % are MS or PhD though.)

          Undergrad’s a different story. I spent way too much there.

          1. KayDay*

            Yes, this. When my peers and I started applying to Master’s programs, I started finding out that funding for the Master’s level was much harder to come by than I previously thought (in my field). Furthermore, it’s really hard to know what type of funding is available before you apply, which makes choosing schools based on funding very difficult.

        2. Melissa*

          Not necessarily. Even outside the humanities, there are many unfunded master’s programs in non-professional fields.

    5. Schuyler*

      I’m not sure where this comes from? I work at a university, and while some of our grad students get funding, but most rely on federal loans. I can’t speak to all universities, but I think most grad students have to use some sort of loan funding. Grad degrees are still considered optional degrees, and schools put most of their money into undergraduates (assuming they have undergrad programs).

      1. doreen*

        I’ve seen this in other online forums as well. As best as I can figure out, there are certain (usually STEM) graduate programs where you basically don’t belong in the program if you don’t get funding. I’m not sure if the people who say this about “graduate school” in general have a very restrictive definition of “graduate school” or if it’s just that everyone they know has a STEM degree and was fully funded.

        If it’s the latter , my experience is exactly the opposite. No one I know with a graduate degree was fully funded , but there’s not a STEM degree in the bunch.

        1. Melissa*

          Even that’s not totally accurate, though, because not all MS candidates in STEM field are funded, either. I honestly don’t know where this sentiment comes from unless it only refers to the PhD level.

          1. Lora*

            In STEM fields all PhD students accepted into a program are not only fully funded, they have a small, food-stamps level stipend to pay for either teaching or research work. Mine was $17k/year, in MA, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I hear they’ve gone up a bit since. But students in expensive cost of living areas usually do take loans to cover the cost of living.

            People mostly don’t do STEM for MS–they start as PhD students and decide to change to a MS when they are struggling or when life gets in the way or whatever. Or when their employers are paying for it (which is what mine did). Or if they flunk their qualification exams or something. Or their advisor doesn’t like them for whatever reason. Or if their advisor loses his funding. Lots of reasons, really, but basically it means either your employer paid for your MS or your program somehow got cut short for practical reasons. The really sucky thing about that is, you can spend PhD amounts of time in a grad school program, only to get your funding cut after 5 years and have to settle for a MS because you have no money. Or your advisor doesn’t make tenure. Stuff like that, where you are just screwed.

            The only STEM MS that students pay for are the fifth-year programs, where students take on extra courses as seniors that are considered grad level, then do an additional year after that and a bit of research. They pay for that because they are not quite considered competent enough for the usual PhD jobs of teaching or completely independent research. This is not a slam on undergrads, lots are great, but since the fifth-year programs have basically the same entry requirements as undergrad, they are not willing to risk it with someone who won’t have work or previous research experience that would be a requirement for entry to a PhD program.

    6. AcademicAnon*

      This seems to only apply to STEM fields at larger universities not social sciences or SLACs (small liberal arts colleges.) And even then if you’re not single, you’ll probably accrue some debt, unless you have a partner with a good salary.

      1. MentalEngineer*

        There’s one humanities field where the “don’t go to grad school unfunded” truism holds – philosophy. There, it holds unreservedly: good programs fund everyone who’s admitted and programs that don’t fund their students don’t place their graduates. This applies to both MA and PhD programs. After all, if you’re going to be unemployable anyway, you really shouldn’t go into debt just to be unemployable.

        P.S. Having a graduate degree in philosophy does not actually make one unemployable. We’re just easy to make fun of.

  4. Ali*

    I was about to go to grad school this past January before I started having doubts. I would’ve had to take out a bunch of loans since the school I picked didn’t offer scholarships or grants to grad students (like a lot of programs I’d imagine) and I was going for a program that relied more on work experience than degrees (sports management). Furthermore, so many sports management jobs are low paying that it would be a long time, if ever, before my student loans would be worth the investment.

    I ended up pulling out before my program even began and am now looking at doing a social media internship, which will give me some good skills without requiring a massive investment. And, I can do that job without having to work in sports. I’m also still at my current job, and though I’m searching, the money is better than a lot of teams dish out. I also don’t have to work over eight hours a day, whereas with a team, it’s 12-14 hours a day on game nights, etc.

    I don’t regret not going to grad school. Trust me.

    1. AVP*

      Take it from someone else who works in a competitive, low-entry-pay field – it’s hard enough to find a job. You definitely don’t want to be forced into looking for one that pays enough for you to live and pay back a certain amount of loans every month! Unicorn hunting would be easier.

  5. Cruciatus*

    I went to grad school because I was told by my advisor near the middle of my 3rd year that I could actually graduate early if I just did an overload of credits for the final quarter. Saving money was good, but then I didn’t know what to do. She suggested grad school, knew people at a university and spoke to them and got me (a little) money and I was like “sure, OK” and bam, I went to grad school. I graduated there in 2004. The economy wasn’t quite bad then and I was still under the impression that just going and having a Master’s would help me out (it hasn’t!) But, with that said, I’m not sure I would change anything. I think I needed that extra time to grow up a bit. In grad school I lived completely on my own–had to actually go to the store to buy food, cook meals, etc. But I was still in a familiar environment. And I still have hopes it’ll help one day (though why did my interest have to be sociology!?) But it might be different if you’ve already been in the workforce for a while and then decide to try it. I think for me it was a good call, even if it hasn’t given me the job help I was looking for.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think, though, that if grad school were sold to people that way (“it’ll give you extra time to grow up and get used to living on your own while still in a familiar environment”), far fewer people would be interested :)

      People generally are going because they think it will help them in their careers.

      1. Cruciatus*

        Oh, I agree. I don’t think it should be marketed that way at all. But just for my specific situation where I was all angst wondering what to do next (a year earlier than I expected) it, grad school worked out. I don’t think I’m losing out on jobs because of the degree (not that it is particularly helping me with jobs, but at this point I’d rather have the degree than not). But this was also 10 years ago before everything happened with the economy. If I were in school now it’s possible I’d approach grad school very differently.

      2. Mena*

        OMG!! Extra time to grow up? Paying a mortgage, working full-time, traveling for work and going to graduate school.

        No, not sitting aroung and Mom and Dad’s house trying to grow up. LOL!

    2. Melissa*

      I’m really glad it worked out for you, and I say that genuinely. On a general level, though, I think most people can spend grow up a bit without spending thousands of dollars on a graduate degree. One can try to find a job in their hometown and live at home while saving up money to move out and learning to cook their own food, go grocery shopping, etc.

      In my case, going to graduate school really wasn’t that much different than starting a new job – I moved 900 miles away, I was working 50-60 hours a week, I lived with roommates in my own apartment and grocery shopped, cooked, etc. I was going to a different place than I went for undergrad, so it wasn’t like it was a familiar environment. My stipend was even about the average for new grads in my field, and none of my friends were making very much more money. The only difference was that my work was going to classes and acting as a research assistant, not office-based or something else.

      1. Cruciatus*

        As I hope I implied, I really do think people should think twice about grad school these days. I was just sort of wondering out loud (or typing out loud?) about my own situation and how it might be different these days and, if I could change things then knowing what I know now–would I? Probably not. Though I might have added some internships in there somewhere. I was 20 when I graduate college. I panicked. I went to grad school. I grew up a bit. Are there other (less expensive) ways of doing this–of course! At the time, I wasn’t going to grad school to “grow up”. But looking back, since I have very little else to show for it!, I figured there were other benefits that came from it besides a career. But if I were graduating college these days, I’d hope I’d be more aware of the economy and that a graduate degree is not a ticket to…anything, necessarily. I would put a little more thought into my education and what I need for a better future. Oh, hindsight.

  6. Anon Accountant*

    This is great timing. My state, Pennsylvania, recently instituted a 150 college credit hours requirement to sit for the CPA exam. (I’m grandfathered in so it doesn’t affect me).

    Many universities are now adding a 5th year into the 4 year accounting degrees so now graduates finish with a bachelor’s degree plus an MBA.

    I’m concerned that in a few years an MBA will become a requirement to be hired as a CPA in many companies and now would be a great time to start back to school as I don’t have kids but am not thrilled at more student loan debt.

    Hmmm. There’s a lot of thinking to do on this one.

    1. De Minimis*

      What I’m seeing is more schools pushing undergrad accounting students into staying an extra year to get a master’s in accountancy or perhaps taxation depending on their area of interest. Many times if a large firm is recruiting them they will fund their grad school.

      The main reason so many states have increased requirements is an attempt by the AICPA and state groups to “protect the brand” of the CPA and increase the barriers to entry.

      It seems like in many states students meet the requirements by taking random courses in community college to reach the 150 hour requirement, since an accounting undergrad already gives them the required accounting/business hours to sit for the exam.
      I don’t think you’ll get to a point nationally where a specific graduate degree is required for the exam, although they like the idea of increasing overall educational levels that would make it a little too difficult since many schools don’t offer graduate accounting [my grad school alma mater has suspended its program] and not all MBA programs would provide the necessary background.

      1. Malissa*

        A part of the changes is also for easier mobility. If every state has the same standards, then the licenses can be moved back and forth easier.
        The 150 hours is part of the uniform standards. As some one who has moved around a lot, I like the idea of easier portability of my license…assuming I ever get it.

        1. De Minimis*

          Very true, I know that was the big push behind the rule being adopted in my state of licensure.

      2. Anon Accountant*

        I sure hope it doesn’t ever come down to a national requirement of a graduate degree either. I think PA is specific on what the courses must be in but I’d have to check on that to be certain.

        1. Malissa*

          If they are grabbing the 150 requirement, there’s a list of required classes in there too. The only one I remember not being a standard class was the tax and jurisprudence, which was offered in my master’s program.

          1. De Minimis*

            CA used to be fairly loose….you needed a bachelor’s degree, didn’t matter what it was in, but you needed to have earned 24 credits of accounting and 24 of business [which could also include accounting credits that weren’t counted toward the 24 hours in accounting]—I don’t think they had anything that was specifically required other than the intro accounting courses could not meet the requirements.
            Anyone who had an undergrad in accounting only needed a few extra college credits under the 150 hour rule, at least initially…I don’t know if they’ve since beefed up the requirements.

            One thing I love though is that apparently since so many people have gone into the field and applied for licensure the Board has a surplus of money and have lowered the licensing renewal fees significantly. I’m inactive and probably will not attempt to get active status unless I get a different job, so it’s good to have the cost of keeping the license be so low.

    2. Malissa*

      If you are going back to enhance your resume. A Master’s in Taxation is a very good path. I see demand for that degree every day.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        Really? I’d never considered that path and I’m in public right now.

        Have you taken the CPA exam yet?

        1. Malissa*

          Taken and passed all four sections. I am in true awe of anybody who had to do that in a two-day session.

          1. Anon Accountant*

            It’s amazing that some passed in a 2 day session. Congrats on passing!!

            It’s very hard to wait on your license to be official.

            1. De Minimis*

              Tax is a pretty narrow area though…I would not commit to that degree unless I was really sure I wanted to do tax practice. I think even then I might be hesitant unless I worked in a city that had a lot of tax jobs in private industry.

            2. Malissa*

              Thanks! The road just from applying for my licence has been adventurous to say the least. But I have patience and I’m hoping that will be rewarded very soon.

    3. Bottle*

      I got a BS in Accounting and now I am pursuing a Masters of Science in Accounting. I am not sure if I can take the CPA Exam in the future. So I am wondering if having a BS and an MS in Accounting, but without a CPA license will be helpful for my career. What would companies think of my Accounting degrees and my lack of CPA license?

      1. De Minimis*

        In most cases they won’t care that you don’t have a license. You can’t actually get a license without a certain amount of work experience under the supervision of a CPA [passing the exam is only one of the requirements for licensure.]

        Public accounting firms won’t expect you to have a license.

        This is just my opinion based on my experience, but I think people should not even mess with trying to get a CPA license unless they have at least a year or two of experience working with a CPA [preferably more like 2-3 years.] Someone who has the bare minimum of experience [usually 1 year] and a license is not really bringing anything to the table, and most employers know this. Without a decent amount of experience, the CPA license alone does not really add value. I learned this the hard way, as someone who only had a short time in public accounting—enough to get my license, but not enough to actually have enough experience to where the license was meaningful. Mine is currently inactive, and I have never actually used it at all and may not ever unless my career path changes.

        1. Bottle*

          Thank you. I now feel assured that I am not making any mistakes by delaying a CPA. I currently do not have any accounting experience nor have worked with a CPA. I will definitely wait to see how things go after I got my Masters.

      2. Malissa*

        I see a lot of position that ask for a CPA or Master’s degree.
        In your position I would wait until you get experience before you test. I know my experience actually made parts of the test easier. Also if you get hired on by a firm that thinks it is important they’ll pay for most of the study courses and test fees.

        1. Bottle*

          Thank you, Malissa. I also think that it is good to wait to see if I can get hired by a company that pays for the CPA. CPA preparation can be costly. I am already paying a lot for graduate school right now, but I enjoyed that it helped me better understand the accounting concepts and procedures.

          1. De Minimis*

            Definitely the case, many public accounting employers will pay or at least help pay for the exam fees, and possibly exam preparation.

            The material on the exam is not generally too difficult especially for a current student or recent grad, but there s a lot of it and the consensus is it’s very tough to pass without some sort of exam prep course.

          2. TCA*

            When I got my CPA license, I also got a new job that came with a 50% increase in pay. My old company didn’t pay for my Wiley books ($160) or the exam ($1k), but it was definitely worth paying out of pocket.

            1. De Minimis*

              There’s a real difference between what someone with experience can get with a CPA license and someone who only has a bare minimum. I know I was told again and again that I was kind of “neither fish nor fowl,” since I had the license but almost no experience. The traditional path is for someone to work 2-3 years at their first job and get the license while there, then move on to a better job. People who deviate from that tend to confuse employers, especially those who may not actually understand normal career progression in accounting. I know I was often not considered for jobs in the private sector because “you have a CPA license and we think you’ll just go back to being a CPA when you get an opportunity.” They didn’t realize that most people only work in public accounting until they get a CPA and then they move on to private sector.

              1. Bottle*

                So does not mean that the private sector does not require the CPA license as urgently as some people might think?
                I was told in college to take the CPA test and get the license as soon as I can. But I never find that to be feasible. (It may be a marketing thing of CPA test prep companies).
                What if I do not want to go into public accounting? I heard that those firms pay you little and have you work long hours; thus, many people quit within two years.
                Is it possible nowadays to have a BS and MS in Accounting and just start looking for accounting positions in the private sector. If so, what job titles are appropriate? Accountant? AP/AR Clerk? Accounting Assistant?

                1. De Minimis*

                  The CPA can get you better jobs, but you have to do your time in a public accounting firm. The ideal is to work a few years, get promoted, and usually get hired for a mid-level job with a client or a company in that same line of business. Usually, the jobs you get at that point will be better than the jobs you’d get if you didn’t ever go into public accounting and just started out at a lower level job with a private company and slowly worked your way up. The CPA backed yo by a few years of public accounting experience is a pretty strong credential, but a lot of stuff has to go right. It’s true that most people quit in 2-3 yeras, but it’s not because it’s a bad deal for them, they do their time and go on to better jobs than they would have gotten without that experience,

                  Very few people who start out in public accounting spend their whole career there…most do end up in private industry or somewhere else. For most it’s kind of a finishing school for accountants.

                  The thing about just trying to start out at A/P person or accounting clerk is that technically, those jobs don’t really require as much education, so you’re kind of setting yourself up to be at a lower tier and it may be hard to break out of that and move upward.

  7. Traveler*

    Don’t go to grad school if there isn’t someone else paying for it (the school, your job, etc.). This piece of advice was given to me awhile back and is so invaluable. If the school or your job doesn’t deem it worthy enough to pay for you to go, you probably shouldn’t be spending your own money (or worse yet borrowing money) to go. (Yes MBAs and JDs are often an exception to this rule given the nature of the programs and the fact that funding is rare.)

    1. Dan*

      I believe this advice to be true at the PhD level, not so much at the MS level.

      Speaking as a guy who has an MS, paid full freight for it, and have a good enough job to show for it.

    2. Maddy*

      I got this advice from my Dad, and totally ignored it. My field just doesn’t have funding — there’s no such thing as T.A.s since it’s not a program that exists for undergrads, no research assistantships since the classes were usually taught by contracted lecturers who had a full-time job in the field, not the university — and this is at one of (if not the) most expensive grad schools in the country (not counting med or law school).

      I think the funding stuff is more common for science or business fields, but really not at all for humanities. However, an M.A. is seen as entry level in my field for a first job that will pay between $25k – $35k.

      There are times I regret taking out all those loans, but it was because of my grad school connections that I landed my first job and worked my way up into management within 5 years.

      1. Traveler*

        It’s a very personal decision, and as you pointed out – it can turn out well (And I’m glad to hear that! I really hope we turn a corner at some point where that’s the norm). I just think situations like yours are often the exception to the rule. I know so many people who graduated during the recession and went on for grad school in both the humanities and sciences, that can barely make their loan payments with the jobs they ended up with- even with great connections and stellar backgrounds. Even prestigious positions can pay low salaries – which while rewarding, won’t let you pay back your loans in an expedited manner.

    3. Jen*

      I agree with this. Right now my employer is paying for me 100% to get a grad degree. I sat down with the VP of the department to go over the skills I need to obtain to move up and picked a program that will give me those skills. Previous jobs would have paid 80-90% of a grad degree.

  8. Lamington*

    i regret going to law school. A lot of times that JD is like a scarlet letter that will be on your way trying to get a job. a lot of people assume that being a lawyer makes great money and that there is something wrong with you if you don’t want to practice law. All that saying that law has a lot of transferable skills is not true either. Unfortunately it pigeon holes you and the job market is way too saturated.

    1. Elysian*

      I can’t encourage people enough to not go to law school. For Lamington’s reasons and others – Don’t go.

      1. Cruciatus*

        A friend of mine went to law school and graduated in 2008. He is still unemployed. He even had a reference from a senator in his state. He is deferring, deferring, deferring his loans by going to school more and more and more. I told him it was time to just get a job ANYWHERE but he claims that the loan people will take all his money, and that the minimum amount he can live off of is $50,000 (though he said he has applied to just about everything). Plus, it doesn’t help that he wants to leave his state for warmer climes. I don’t doubt the loan people want his money, but I feel like they can’t take what you don’t have if you’re only making a little. (Maybe they can–I don’t have much experience with loans, but I do know they are often an evil business). But by putting off actual work experience so long and just staying a permanent student, I’m very worried about his future. I’m underpaid and overeducated but I (mostly) like going to work every day and, you know, earning money, and pretty soon I’ll hopefully move up the ladder now that I have years of work experience behind me. For him, I think at this point working somewhere/anywhere is better than not. I wouldn’t say that in all cases–but 6 years post-law school? Yeah. Sigh. I can’t get through to him (not that it’s my job t0). Just wish he saw the light already!

        1. De Minimis*

          It seems like he’s just digging a deeper hole by getting more and more loans. I can understand the desire to reset and have a clean slate as far as deferral/forbearance options, but there are so many payment options now that even someone not making a lot could at least get to where they were in good standing and making payments of some type.

          I don’t see how the loan people would take all his money unless he was in trouble with them, and if that’s the case, how could he continue to get loans?

          1. Senor Poncho*

            2008 grad date, I would expect some combo of private loans and/or pre-IBR/PAYE/PSLF fed loans, although I could be wrong.

            And, yeah, the JD can be a pretty bad scarlet letter.

            Still, I agree with the general sentiment that, at some point, you’ve just got to take some job. Retail, tutoring, whatever. If the guy’s going to stay in school, maybe welding/electric/plumbing/EMS/some other trade? Alternately, police dept or military an option?

        2. Stephanie*

          2008 grad date, the legal market was probably a wreck. The JD’s not super portable to other fields, since legal skills are so specific (most fields don’t want “hereinafter” in work products). Plus, there is definitely a perception that all legal work is high-paying and glamorous.

          My old roommate has a BA, MA, and JD. At one point, he was looking into PhD programs. I was just thinking “OMG, stop getting degrees.” Paradoxically enough, he also only wanted public sector jobs, so he could stay on IBR to repay his grad school loans.

          1. Melissa*

            Perhaps he doesn’t know, but you don’t have to work in the public sector to get IBR. You do for public service loan forgiveness, but IBR is for anyone whose loans exceed a certain percentage of their income.

        3. Elysian*

          Part of the problem is that after everything collapsed in 2008, the legal market shrunk and has not expanded yet. That 2008 class is basically a “lost generation” – if you didn’t get a job that year, you have very little hope of every getting a legal job. There were massive layoffs in 2008, leading to a glut of of experienced people, and lots of jobs are reserved for new grads. A bunch of places (firms, gov’t, etc) didn’t take a ‘new grad’ class in 2008/09 and so people who ‘should’ be been hired that year are just stuck now. They don’t have experience because they could never get a job, and no one will hire them now for entry level.

          It’s awful. I don’t know your friends circumstances, but I’m sympathetic.

      2. Cat*

        I think there are still a few circumstances in which it makes sense to go to law school. I’d say you should go if:

        1) You have explored what it means to practice law (through internships and talking to people in the field) and you actually want to do this; and

        2) Law school is fully paid for and you’ve gotten into a decent regional or national school; OR

        3) You have gotten into one of the top schools in the country – one of the ones that still have very good employment rates as well as decent loan repayment assistance if you take a public interest job.

        Law can actually be a great profession for people who love it; and there are still some schools where it’s not a bad investment.

    2. Stephanie*

      I originally planned to become an IP lawyer after graduating. Got into IP and found it awful. At one point, I applied to law school. I applied way too late in the rolling admissions cycle and applied the year everyone was trying to go to law school because of the economy (2009-2010). I also was picky and only applied to selective schools.

      I was disappointed when it didn’t work out, but I am so, so glad now. I already feel a bit pigeonholed just with the IP experience. Plus, my friend who did land one of the cushy firm jobs pretty much hates his job/life right now.

      1. Elysian*

        I don’t like myself for this, but I love those stories about people how ‘lived the dream’ and got the big firm job and then hated it. I thought I wanted one of those, but mostly what I wanted was job security. Turns out the big firms don’t have much of that, either. I’m so glad none of those big firms actually hired me. Blessing in disguise.

        1. Stephanie*

          If you really want to feel better/hate yourself more, this friend also says that despite the large starting salary, he’s not making bank when he factors in cost of living in the Bay Area, local taxes, and giant loan payments. He said lots of newly-minted tech millionaires have driven the cost of housing up there. I was actually surprised when he said he was looking for a roommate.

        2. De Minimis*

          It was definitely a mistake for me to go there. In my case I just wasn’t cut out for the Big 4, but I think my starting group [hired in 2008] had a higher than usual amount of layoffs/attrition. Very few remained by the end of 2009, which is not normal. Most did not even make it two years.

          We were still better off than some of the other Big 4 in the area, some of them went ahead and laid people off before they’d even been there a year, which seriously hurt their prospects as far as CPA licensure.

    3. Melissa*

      I think that’s starting to change now. When I was in college everyone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. Now I work with college students and they all want to be doctors, engineers, or go into finance. Few of them want a JD, and if you probe, they’ll tell you it’s because the field is saturated and lawyers don’t make as much as people think they do. Apparently these students keep up with career trends, at least to a certain extent.

  9. Artemesia*

    Colleges have masters degree programs that have fairly low standards of admission and are viewed as cash cows. There are rarely scholarships to masters level programs whereas PhD candidates can count on a full ride (and no one should pursue a PhD without it as the odds of employment afterwards are not good if you are not among those selected for a full ride at a top university in the field — it isn’t that easy even if you are).

    For a college, PhD programs are expensive to run. Masters programs are cheap to run with large classes often taught by adjuncts. Thus they may not be very honest with you about your odds of employment subsequent to getting the degree.

    Never enter a masters program without knowing what kind of placement record and assistance they have for students. Don’t let them get away with vague statements here. What are their numbers; who are some recent grads you can talk with; what specific process is in place to help with a job search. University career offices are useless; if the masters program or its college doesn’t have a specific targeted program for their own grads, you won’t get much help from the University.

    Sometimes people have jobs for which an advanced degree will open up opportunities, but to start a degree with the idea that this will make you marketable is rarely wise. And amassing debt for this dubious credential is particularly unwise.

    So yes — only do an advanced degree where you have a very good idea of how it will advance your career options. Too many people hope the program will somehow guide them to a career; this doesn’t really happen.

    1. Mimmy*

      Where were you in 2003 when I was applying for my MSW?? lol. I’m beginning to wonder if my program had fairly low standards, and perhaps still do? Every year, I could swear the number of graduates keep going up. I get that there is a need for social workers, but wow. I really wish I’d done my homework back then with regard to what’s available to help students prepare for post-graduate employment. Especially for me since I can’t drive–social work often requires being out in the field. D’oh, silly me!

    2. Annie O*

      Is it true that funding is scarce for masters level programs? That wasn’t my experience, but I’ve been out of a school for quite awhile now. In fact, I remember hearing that acceptance without funding was synonymous with polite rejection.

      1. Dang*

        That wasn’t my experience either. Basically the only people in my program who didn’t get funding were the ones who entered as ‘non degree’ and were accepted eventually.

      2. Stephanie*

        It really depends. Even in engineering, I’ve seen programs at very reputable programs at the masters level that expect self-funding. My buddy got full funding for her MS in aerospace engineering, but her lab happens to be really well-funded (and is cutting back its admits because of defense budget cuts).

        I think the polite rejection idea does hold for PhD programs.

      3. fposte*

        It’s a big “it depends.” Different programs/institutions do things very differently, but certainly funding is no across-the-board guarantee.

      4. Ellie H.*

        At the school I work at, while we do have some funding for master’s students, we have unusually expensive master’s degrees and there are very few master’s students who get full tuition scholarship. Many get half or ~40% and some get none.

      5. Melissa*

        It depends on the degree, the program, and the school/university. But yes, that statement is generally true in most fields. Definitely for professional programs, but even for many academic MA programs.

  10. Libra*

    I think graduate school needs to be broken into two schools of thought. An MBA gives you a potential path into management for whatever your field is. There are also similar management degrees. Not long after I got my MBA I got a promotion into management.

    On the other side of the balance are the specialization masters degrees which give you deeper knowledge of a smaller field. These may or may not help depending on you, your goals, your company and industry, etc.

    1. Sarahnova*

      On the other hand, though, lots of people get promoted into management without MBAs, and if a company really believes you’re worth it, many of them will pay for your MBA. MBA programmes have exploded, again mainly because they’re university cash cows; I would be cautious about doing one unless someone else is willing to pay.

      1. Stephanie*

        The elite programs would probably give you some advantage in terms of job opportunities, but those are insanely expensive and have really competitive admission. You’d almost have to go slave away in management consulting or banking to service the loans from some of those programs.

        1. Melissa*

          I have a couple of friends who graduated from our university’s elite MBA program and that’s exactly what they are doing now. They go work in finance or consulting for several years to repay those loans (or at least significantly pay them down), and then they move into typically less frenzied/more settled jobs. That’s why those consulting firms are always recruiting; they are always looking to replace the class they hired 2-4 years ago. But the median starting salary out of our MBA program makes the MBA pretty much worth it.

          However, another thing I discovered is that a lot of students at elite MBA programs (or at least ours) come from wealthy families and are getting part of, if not all of, the program financed by their parents.

          1. Stephanie*

            My friend’s at one of those elite programs and she said there are a lot of wealthy students. She herself comes from a wealthy family (and is paying for b school partially through family money).

            The tuition and lifestyle seem out of reach unless you’re wealthy or willing to take on gigantic loans. The MBA students do things like taking ski trips or traveling abroad.

    2. Artemesia*

      An MBA can be valuable as a credential but it is not likely to be for a spanking new graduate of a second or third rate college. If you already have a job and the MBA from said third rate college helps you advance internally — that is entirely different. MBAs are a dime a dozen and the debt doesn’t justify them most of the time. The one gazzilionaire I know got there as a result of his MBA from Harvard as well as his very excellent talent — but that is not at all the same as the MBA from local state school.

      I find it sad that CPAs are being forced into more expensive credentialing and that so many jobs require masters degrees for no particular reason other than that they want to make access harder. Just what we need in the US — more overpriced irrelevant education and a harder time for talented young people to get decent jobs to pay off the huge debt.

      1. Stephanie*

        Plus, it seems like an MBA wouldn’t be specific enough for accounting. I know some programs are more quantitative and do have focus areas/majors, but MBAs seem to be a more general credential. I can’t imagine an MBA would go as in-depth as a specialized masters, since MBA students have a variety of backgrounds (while a specialized program would have specific prerequisites and can go more in-depth).

        1. De Minimis*

          That’s the way it would seem to me too, the MBA would probably not be in-depth enough from a technical standpoint to really help someone in the field of accounting.

          One of the things that accounting has to contend with as a profession s that it just doesn’t require as much academic rigor. It’s not like medicine or law, and I think the powers that be are a little sensitive about that.

        2. Malissa*

          An MBA is really an option for accounting, not a requirement. The only requirement is 150 hours of classes and a list of specific classes that are required if you want to sit for the CPA exam. A one year Master’s program gets a person all of their credits.
          That said CPA’s are well compensated for their body of knowledge. The average salary is around $81,000.

          1. De Minimis*

            I would advise people not go into it lightly, though, especially if they are older career changers. You have a very narrow window of opportunity for the better jobs, and once that closes your options are more limited. I’ve been lucky to land in government, but don’t use my license and $81,000 will be the best case scenario of what I’ll be earning if I can make it someplace with more promotion potential [my current job tops out at $62k right now.]

  11. Brett*

    One thing that was extremely helpful for me was sitting down with a couple of my undergrad professors and discussing grad school with them.

    They told me my exact prospects, how much funding I should expect, and which schools I should consider based on my admissions profile and research interests. With all of that discussion, they not only wrote me awesome letters of reference but reached out to professors at my target schools to let them know I was interested.

    For less than 8 hours of my time, I went into grad school with perfectly clear expectations and a precise idea of how to connect grad school with a career. Using their advice, I not only got into all three of my top program picks, but landed fellowship offers from #1 and #2 (including a rare MS fellowship that I eventually went with).

    1. Prof*

      This. Most professors will be happy to give you some free advice. The one thing to worry about, however, is that professors have generally navigated the academic world successfully, so (especially older) faculty may give you a view of graduate school through rose colored glasses.

      I am a young, recently-graduated PhD. I went to a PhD program that was fully funded, in a growing field (note: growing at the undergraduate level, meaning more demand for professors, and at the research level). I worked with an adviser who had good grant funding. I graduated in 5 years debt-free and landed a tenure-track faculty job at a top-ranked research university making a 6-figure salary. Yet it felt like winning the lottery—despite having been successful personally, I know so many people who faltered along the way. As a result, I am constantly advising my own students to proceed cautiously.

      I agree with Alison’s and Brett’s advice. Do not blindly go to graduate school. Understand what you are getting into. Ask about job placements. I interviewed PhD students recently and almost none of them asked about placements. Seriously? Look at those recent graduates because that is where you are likely to end up in 5 years!

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Yeah, I was in a PhD program for no good reason other than I was good at school and it felt like I should keep going to school.

        HATED it. Most of the professors and fellow grad students were miserable, maladjusted human beings and it was such a god awful environment. So competitive, and for what? An infinitesimal chance of getting a tenure-track position, and more likely doing the adjunct shuffle? I didn’t care about my field enough to do that. So I bounced and it was the best decision I ever made.

        I could have spared myself a lot of heartache by some honest conversation about what I hoped to get out of the grad school experience. Screw love of learning – at some point bills need to get paid.

      2. Brett*

        I think it was important that I talked to several professors too. I not only received different views from each, but I received different views of different subfields too.
        Two of them even gave me advice on my proposed initial major advisers and how I would probably do working with them. Thanks to that advice, I was working with half my eventual committee before I even enrolled in my first class and never had to change a single committee member.

        1. Melissa*

          Yeah, the best advice I got was to try to write all of my seminar papers on my dissertation topic. I formulated a dissertation topic quite early and followed this advice, and as a result the literature review of my dissertation was written pretty quickly, pulling from seminar papers I’d written in earlier years and just adding what new literature had emerged in the 2 years since I finished coursework.

      3. Melissa*

        Congratulations to you, Prof – living the dream :D (I’m in a similar place – a fully-funded PhD with little debt in a field that is growing at the undergraduate level; more and more universities are adding schools and programs in my field at all three levels, and so I feel that professor positions are growing. So hopefully I can get to where you are in a few years – I’m doing a postdoctoral position first.)

        But I agree – and I always advise the undergraduates I teach to ask all of these questions and really probe inwardly first to decide whether they REALLY need a graduate degree, especially a PhD. I asked about job placement before I accepted my place at my program and although I eventually got an answer, I could tell that I was one of the first grad students to ask that question because the person I talked to on the phone did have an answer ready for me.

  12. Hedgehog*

    Interesting points. I am seriously considering going to school to get my MSW and corresponding license. While I will almost certainly be taking on debt in order to do this, my field is one that has demonstrated an increase in both responsibilities and compensation along with the degree (still not much in terms of compensation, but more than I’m making now!).

    At this point, it’s the details surrounding my current work that’s making me hesitate. Can I stay in my job in my field and go to school full time? Can I ask my manager for a letter of recommendation to enroll in school a year from now (starting fall of 2015) or is that akin to letting your manager in on your job search? Should I stay in my current city or look at programs across the country? And, ultimately, is now the right time?

    1. Mimmy*

      MSW grad here!

      I think it depends on your job and your agency. If you’re in a direct service role currently, an MSW can help you grow within your agency and perhaps move into higher level positions that are held by MSWs and require licensure.

      If not – then you have to know how your manager responds to those who plan to move on. I had a full-time job when I started my program (though was a part-time student). When it came time to move towards the advanced portion on my program, I let my manager know well ahead of time. I honestly don’t recall the details–I don’t think I laid it out all at once…I think they knew I was in school for an unrelated degree, so it just kinda happened naturally.

      It’s hard to answer your other questions without knowing whether or not your current job is related to your post-MSW plans.

    2. Doreen*

      I agree that it’s going to depend on your agency. Both my current employer and the previous one have been very accomodating to coworkers in MSW programs- flexible schedules or even release time to attend classes , arranging work assignments that can double as field placements etc. And with no committment to the agency-thst was only required if your tuition was paid by the agency.

  13. Mimmy*

    This is part of why I’ve been hesitant to do the PhD, which I’ve been contemplating for several years. I see profiles of people and say to myself, “Ooh I really want to do something like this!” But then I start doubting whether or not I CAN take on similar roles. Plus, a professor at where I got my Masters said the things I’m interested in can be done by Masters-level people, i.e. doesn’t require the PhD.

    Alison – What’s your stance on graduate certificate programs? The one I just applied to is promoted as being good for those who aren’t sure whether the full Masters program is worth one’s while (Both programs have the same list of course offerings; one requires 30 credits, the other only requires 12 credits). It’s not geared towards any one profession, but it’s an area that I have REALLY wanted to study and get more knowledge in, and I think the courses will be helpful in my work on one of my councils.

    1. Jess*

      I’m also Interested if anyone has advice here – I’m looking at a graduate certificate (much cheaper, and in an area that would expand my knowledge base in a particular field of study). I’m already in the field and have 10 years experience, but feel this would help me dig into other areas.

    2. Brett*

      Same issue of figure out that “why” of going to grad school. Often what an employer wants out of an advanced degree is proof that the person can do research and apply it to a long scale large scope project. And that new employee is coming loaded with academic connections, knowledge of the current edge of the field, and high level perspective for the future. After that, the extra coursework knowledge is secondary.

      If that is what an employer wants from an advanced degree holder, then the certificate program by itself is not going to substitute for that, because often those parts are exactly what a grad certificate cuts out.

      Where a grad certificate can be very handy though is when you did an advanced degree in one field and your grad certificate in another. Your degree shows you have all the transferable skills to do research, put together a project, and understand a field as a professional; the certificate shows that you have taken steps to apply those transferable skills to your new field and have the coursework knowledge expected of an advanced grad in that field.

      But… you have to know your field. In some areas, the coursework knowledge of a graduate program is extremely important and research work is not as important. For those areas, a grad certificate alone could be helpful.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve never once been impressed by a graduate certificate, but I suppose it’s possible that there are jobs where they truly matter, and matter more than work experience. I just haven’t seen those jobs.

      1. itsame...Adam*

        If you want to be a licensed Structural engineer in Chicago/Illinois area you really need to consider a Master. Even though the job postings say preferred most of the times it means required.

  14. Laura*

    This is great timing. I’m currently considering applying for a PhD program and have been having doubts. The program would be fully funded (I’d actually be making slightly more per month than I currently do with slightly better benefits, though significantly more job insecurity), as it’s a place on a research team I’m currently working in the field, but more on the communications side of things and less research, which is what I’d like to do. I’m part of a small team with virtually no chance of moving up internally, but I’m concerned that I’d be dedicating four years of my life to a project (albeit a very interesting one) that results in a degree that may not be transferable outside academia. Has anybody here completed a PhD that was of any use outside an academic setting? I haven’t outruled a career in academia, but I’m not particularly sold to the idea either.

    1. Annie O*

      “Has anybody here completed a PhD that was of any use outside an academic setting?”

      Yep. I’m in research outside of academia. Having a PhD is absolutely required for my current position, which is why I went back to school in the first place. Most days, I’m happy with my choice. One of the consequences, though, is that I feel like I’m restricted to this niche area of my field based on my doctoral concentrations and dissertation topic. I felt like I had more career flexibility before getting the degree.

    2. Melissa*

      Although I’m not quite finished, my PhD in in a field that actually originated outside of academia and many PhDs in my field work outside of academia – mostly for local/state/federal government, but some in the private sector. I personally was not completely sold to the idea of academia when I entered and I’m still not. I wanted to work in the public sector (preferably at a specific large federal agency in my hometown) and I still do.

  15. BRR*

    Don’t treat grad school as an alternative to a job.

    Oh I can’t find a job, I think i’ll go to grad school or oh I can’t find a job, I’ll go to grad school for more skills are reasons to not do it.

    1. Mena*

      I completed my MBA and it was very beneficial to my career and BRR is so right … too may people keep going to school because they can’t find a job.

    2. Noelle*

      I think after a certain point it REALLY hurts your resume, too. When I see a resume with literally no work experience but four different degrees, I get very leery. At that point, they are basically professional students. Most of them do not have any office skills and they also don’t take constructive criticism well (although I’m not sure whether that has anything to do with school or not).

        1. Anx*

          Would would you suggest to someone who can’t break through or out of service, part-time work otherwise? Wouldn’t perpetual volunteering have some of the same issues? And would it diminish the value of the jobs they’ve had if they’ve also had a long time working?

          Would a long under/unemployment gap be preferable?

      1. Melissa*

        I think it does. If you’re an excellent student, you’re used to getting praised heaped upon you. In fact, many people who were good to excellent in high school and college continue to grad school precisely because it is a familiar environment in which they know the rules and the stakes. So think – if you have two consecutive master’s degrees after college and HS, and you were a pretty good student, that means your whole young adult life up to – what, about age 25? – you’ve probably gotten mostly praise from teachers/professors.

        Graduate school is also a complete mess compared to an office. I did a full-time summer internship as a PhD student one summer – precisely because I didn’t plan on going into academia – and I was (very, very pleasantly) surprised at how different the environment was from grad school. The biggest difference being what Katie the Fed alluded to upthread…the folks who worked in my office were intellectual and intelligent but also very friendly, socially well-adjusted people in general.

  16. Kristina*

    I graduated with an M.A. in Communications Management with the thought that I could get into a public relations position or something along those lines. *Sigh* It hasn’t helped. I even was told after getting rejected for a temp job through a temp agency that I was overqualified. I am starting to leave it off of my resume unless they require it on the job application.

      1. Kristina*

        Yes. I do have public relations internships and have learned more through them than what I learned in class. Luckily I am all paid off on my loans!

  17. SJ*

    While it’s not perfect for everyone, I got my MBA part-time and it was the best decision for me. Sure, it was hard to focus on school work when I was done with my “real work” for the day, but the ability to keep my job and not get into any debt while getting the degree was perfect. I just tightened up my budget for a couple years and paid each semester in full. Then when I was done, I was still employed, not in debt, and ready to move into a management position.

    1. Sharm*

      I am considering this myself. I just can’t give up my full-time income, but I really feel like I need an extra boost on my resume for those jobs I see that prefer to have an MBA-holding candidate.

      For you, were you concerned at all about the “status” of your program? I live in a place where there aren’t many part-time options, and they aren’t ranked as highly. I’d like to move to a place with a stronger program, but I think that’s still a couple of years away. Not sure if you can transfer part-time MBA credits?

  18. kdizzle*

    I’ve come here to echo the people who have said not to go to grad school unless someone else is paying for it. I went straight after undergrad into a full-time master’s program with free tuition, and a stipend. Although it was hell on earth at the time, I left with no debt, and it’s the best thing to ever happen to me. Not because it helped my career, but because it could’ve been a two-sided disaster…it could’ve not helped my career AND put me tremendously in debt.

    Keep in mind that if you are entering a master’s program full-time after undergrad, that in addition to paying tuition and living expenses, that you are taking yourself out of the labor market for two years. Forgone wages! Opportunity costs! This will put you behind your peers in earnings…and depending on your field, it may be a deficit you never recover from. For some people that’s fine, but I’m 32 and only now catching up to my peers who never went to grad school.

    1. Anon.*

      Agreed. I wanted to keep on going, even naively toying with the idea of being a professor. I got a master’s in Mass Comm, which has been the butt of a joke in more than one Simpson’s episode (to tell you the overall sentiment to that), and additional classes and adult ed., instructional design, and ed. psyh. I did get funding and RA- and TA-ships or I wouldn’t have gone. It was a highly regarded program (allegedly one of the top five in the nation) at a Big Ten Uni.

      I didn’t come in with a great plan, didn’t know what to expect, and really had a love/hate relationship with the program. I was glad not to pursue a Ph.D. in the program, and be part of the great unwashed leaving the place with merely a master’s degree.

      It did give me unique opportunities that I would not have been able to do elsewhere, like work at a multimedia facility and learn a ton of multimedia tools and the ability to learn them on the fly, unlike a lot of my cohorts who struggle with them. I became a much better writer and researcher. For more job-specific programs (e.g. education), you get the foundations, which helps. I’m an instructional designer, so these skills are important and an advanced degree sometimes means something. Sometimes.

      On that note, having gone to a regular, old public university for grad school in a competitive program, not all advanced degree programs are created equal (IMHO).

  19. JM*

    Myself, an electrical engineer by training working in IT consulting for the past eight years. Started off as an entry level person at the firm and worked my way up.

    Yeah and I am also one of those who wasted money on a graduate program in IT from one of the prestigious universities in NJ. It didn’t give me anything other than the degree. Why I did this – to get some background on the fundamentals as my original background was not IT. I was a part time student while working full time. My employer did not pay the tuition nor did they acknowledge the fact that I took the degree in 2.5 years while working full time.

    So think well before you do it.

  20. Ash (the other one!)*

    I loved getting my PhD, but I’m at the point of regretting having it. If I don’t get a job soon I’m going to start experimenting leaving it off my resume entirely. I’m lucky to have been working throughout the program so won’t have a gap, but it makes me both overqualified and under qualified at the same time. I don’t need it for what I’m trying to do and never wanted to be an academic. But, I still value the experience.

  21. OriginalYup*

    I went to graduate school and have no regrets, but I totally support Alison’s points about making sure it’s a deliberate step in a fully informed process. If I’d pursued a masters at the time I first entered my field , I would have ended up with the wrong degree. By waiting til I’d been working in my field for nearly 10 years, I learned that although MS-ABC is the most commonly held in my field, MS-XYZ is actually the one that I need to improve the kind of work that I do.

  22. Lanya*

    My alma mater is now offering a Masters program in my field of Graphic Design. I was almost offended because it feels like an unnecessary grab for more money by the school. While a Masters would be necessary for teaching in my field, it would not be a good idea in terms of trying to find a job. More and more companies are satisfied to hire designers with less education for less money, so the competition is already pretty tough if you have a bachelor’s degree, let alone a graduate degree.

  23. Stephanie*

    Oh, this is timely. I find myself debating this daily (I’ve even sat for the GRE).

    My bachelors is in an engineering field. After I graduated, I worked in a related field that wasn’t engineering (intellectual property). A job loss later, I’m finding it really hard to get interviews for “traditional” engineering jobs. The low level ones specify that they want candidates within a certain time frame of graduation (i.e., within 12 months of graduating) and the mid-level ones want specific experience.

    I was (and sometimes still am) considering graduate school as a way to reset the clock. Thing is, most MS programs are self-funded. It seems like it’s only really value added if the MS is from a top program or local one with strong regional ties. Plus, the MS starting salary only seems like it’s about $5,000-10,000 higher than the BS starting salary. Talking to people in my field, I get a different answer from everyone.

    For now, my best strategy job wise has been looking for roles that want the technical background, but aren’t “traditional” engineering roles (so things like technical consulting, competitive intelligence/strategy, compliance). I’m also trying to find more hands-on technical volunteer work. It’s hard (doesn’t help that there’s a perception of IP being super glamorous and high-paying).

    1. Mimmy*

      OT: Stephanie – When you did sit for the GRE? If it was recent, I’d love to pick your brain about it. We can chat offline or in the Open Thread so as not to derail this thread :)

      1. Stephanie*

        Back in February. Feel free to email me at stephanie dot m dot jennings at gmail dot com if you have questions. :)

    2. Dan*

      At my last job, I worried about the “pure” engineers we hired, for exactly that reason. The aerospace engineers were doing exactly nothing to help them prepare for the next aero job.

      Stephanie, consider other things that require “left brain” skills, like data analytics. You can go to grad school in one of those fields, get the skills, reset the clock and do just fine. “Starting salaries” might not be a whole lot different (I think your numbers are reasonable) but you’re not making a $10k comparison, you’re making a comparison against nothing.

      1. Stephanie*

        Thanks for the tip. Actually, I’ve been meaning to contact you about OR (I surmised that’s what you’re in). I took a class in it and am curious to learn more about it. If you’re willing, my email’s in the above reply comment.

        1. Dan*

          Yeah, you figured that out too. It’s fascinating, actually. Sure, I’ll shoot you a line.

  24. De Minimis*

    I did it as part of a career change, but my program had fairly well-established job opportunities after graduation [and included a lot of on-campus recruiting.]

  25. Noelle*

    I went to grad school at night and kept working. I never would have gone if I’d had to quit my job. It was a hard couple of years, but it was worth it to have both the education and the continuing job experience on my resume.

  26. Xay*

    I’m currently working on my MPH part-time and working full time. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone get an MPH without getting relevant work experience first – there are a lot of MPHs on the market right now, many with experience, and although there are more fellowships for new MPHs with 0-2 years of experience, there aren’t a lot of entry level positions. I do wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did because I would be able to move forward in my career, but I am glad that I have the personal, financial and career stability to make it possible for me to go to school part time. Also, I have received funding from my school as well as tuition reimbursement from my company, so don’t give up hope on financial aid for a professional degree even as a part time student.

    1. De Minimis*

      My wife is considering getting an MPH. She has a few years of public health experience but is concerned about finding work graduation. Seems like the jobs can be tough to find.

      1. Xay*

        Having some experience vs. no experience helps a lot as well as what type of organization are you interested in/willing to work for as well as are you willing/able to relocate. I have former collegaues who would be very highly sought in Atlanta but they aren’t in a position to relocate.

    2. wanderlust*

      Can I ask what you would consider to be “relevant work experience”? I’m considering going back to school to get an MPH and my work experience is in the nonprofit sector (program management, operations, etc). Much of it is tangentially related to public health, but I’m just wondering if you have any more specific insight. My situation might be a little different because I’d like to go to an MPH program that will also allow me to get an RD certification.

      1. Xay*

        When I say relevant, I mean relevant to what you want to do in public health. If you want to be a biostatistician, you should try to get data analysis work experience. If you want to be a health educator, you should get some health education experience either through work or as a volunteer. As far as dietician (assuming RD=registered dietician), I can’t speak as much to that part of the public health world – I know a few, but I’ve never been involved in hiring one or writing/administering a program with them but I would think it would depend on what kind of positions you want. If you are looking for an leadership/program manager position over workplace wellness programs, you would probably be fine. But if you want to do on the ground dietician work, I’m not sure.

        My concern is when I talk to undergrads who want to go straight into their MPH with a semester of volunteering for the Red Cross and think that when they finish, they will be hired by Clinton or Gates.

  27. Malissa*

    I went to Grad School and worked full time. It can be done. Was it hard? Extremely. But I also chose a program that was tailored to my needs. Shortened classes so I was never in more then two at a time. I also picked a specialized degree that got me to my objective in a year’s time.
    My degree was very much worth my time. The difference in my pay before and after my degree was more than the cost of my degree.

  28. SD Cat*

    I just finished a Master’s in Public Health and am doing my post-graduation job search. About half the people in my class year have jobs, and people in my specific department (epidemiology) seem to find them within 6 months or so. I’m trying all the different methods I’ve heard of (postings + reaching out to current network + meeting new people) and hope something will work out eventually. I’m slightly under qualified for some of the jobs I’m looking at (probably should have had at least another year between undergrad and grad school). I’m also looking at overlapping fields, since they use some of the same skill sets, and worked part-time jobs in my field throughout school. Also have student loans, but they could have been a lot worse/more than they ended up being.

    1. Xay*

      What kind of positions are you looking for and where? Epidemiology is a hot field, but very organization specific in terms of what is considered qualified.

      1. SD Cat*

        I’m looking pretty broadly- I’d like to use data management, data analysis and/or writing skills and I’m not too picky on where I start. I’ve been looking at fellowships, health departments, places doing research (non-profits, medical centers, universities, research consulting), and insurance companies. People I speak to continue to mention new things I hadn’t thought of, so it’s all still developing. I have about 1-2 years of experience.

        1. Xay*

          It sounds like you’re looking in the right places. My only advice is (if you haven’t heard this already) look for disease intervention specialist training programs. Several states have them in their STD departments and most of the non-PhD/MD epidemiologists that I know started there.

            1. Melissa*

              The CDC also has one, although this might be included in the fellowships you’re already looking at:


              You also may want to look at just regular consulting firms – I have a friend with an MPH who works at a regular big consulting firm and she works on government contracts to do research and re-organization on health-related stuff. She only had one year of experience before doing the MPH.

  29. Dan*

    I went to grad school with a plan and no funding other than Sallie Mae. I called the program chair, told him what I wanted to do with my degree, and asked if he could help. Sure, he says. My old program likes to advertise where their graduates get hired, and a well-known name in my industry had hired one of our kids, so I was sold.

    I borrowed the full price tag plus living expenses, and don’t regret. My first job out of grad school was good, and my current one is even better. It hurts writing that student loan check, but it was well worth it, IMHO.

    As other people have said, it’s ok to go if you go with a real plan.

  30. Diane*

    I’ve been thinking about doing the Masters in Human Resources Management certificate from Cornell. Has anyone here done that? I work specifically in compensation, and want to get over into the HR management side, and having a hard time with transition. I’m hoping this will give me a leg up with more HR (instead of compensation based) knowledge.

    1. TheHRLady*

      It may depend on what industry you are in. I am a human resources manager in manufacturing and while a BS is generally required, experience is given more weight than a masters. I am currently doing a MBA program while working full time, but only because my employer is paying for it.

      I understand your frustration as I have looked at opportunities outside of manufacturing (generalist roles) and have had no luck in making a transition.

  31. JC*

    A lot of people have commented on here to not get a graduate degree unless someone else is paying for it. Even if you’re not paying for it, it is important to consider the opportunity costs of the degree that Alison outlines in her post. I have a PhD; I did not pay tuition when I got the degree and received a ~$20k stipend each year. I did not have debt when I graduated, which is a good thing, but I also was missing out on 5 years of work experience, which is not so good. I work in a field now where I needed my degree, so I am glad that I have it, but it is still important to keep in mind that free doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea for you.

  32. Red Librarian*

    As a librarian, grad school is somewhat necessary in my field (although whether or not it really needs to be is a question for another day). I was lucky and had an assistantship that covered tuition during spring and fall semesters, my summer courses were covered by a scholarship, and I had a stipend on top of that.

    I graduated in December 2008 and had a job within two months, but it’s a very saturated field these days.

  33. MR*

    I went to graduate school, because I did my undergraduate degree in three years. As a result, I was told by more than one professor that I should go to graduate school because few employers would believe I graduated so quickly.

    So, I went to graduate school and finished that in one year.

    In a period of four years, I went from a high school diploma to a M.B.A. at a one of the world’s ‘100 top business schools.’

    Seven years later, I’m dubious at that claim, but a lot of it just depends on where you end up after school. To me, it’s more luck than anything.

    1. Mena*

      They took your money. Employers are looking for business experience between undergrad and graduate school. ‘Real world’ must come into play – not perpetual student. Working between undergrad and graduate school enhances the meaning of the MBA. Congratulations, you are a great student, but not yet quite a business person.

    2. Melissa*

      I don’t understand that professor’s logic. Why would no one believe you have graduated in 3 years? Most employers, I think, are familiar with AP classes or the ability for students to take community college classes in high school or overload on classes in college. I’d be willing to wager that most employers themselves went to college. Three years is not outside the realm of possibility, especially for someone who went to college during summers.

      The other thing is – how would they know you graduated in 3 years? Once you get a BA you don’t put high school on your resume anymore, so all you would have is BA, 2009 or whatever. There’d be no indication that you took 3 years.

      And, if for some bizarre reason an employer did find out and was skeptical, all you have to do is produce a copy of a transcript or diploma.

    3. Stephanie*

      I’m surprised you got into the MBA program (unless it was just a cash cow). Most seem to want work experience so you can connect your coursework with experience. An MBA without work experience doesn’t seem super useful either, since the curriculum doesn’t go in-depth into one area.

      I did have a college classmate who had some trouble getting into med school since she was so young. She graduated both high school and college early, so she graduated at 20, I believe. She said the interviewers thought it’d be better if she took off a couple of years before she spent the next decade in med school/residency.

  34. Jennifer*

    Be thoughtful about grad school if you plan to teach in public school and don’t plan to go into administration. My college roommate got a masters because of family pressure and it has been a hindrance ever since. Because of the way pay is structured by degree and years of experience, she’s priced herself out of some school districts in our area. In this scenario I think it’s better to wait until you’ve been teaching a while and do decide you want to go into administration. Go back to graduate school at that time (which is pretty common).

    1. Callie*

      Some states require a masters degree after a certain number of years of teaching in order to receive a continuing contract.

      1. Muriel Heslop*

        Both of the districts for which I worked that required a graduate degree paid for it or heavily subsidized it. That’s how I got my masters paid for and I boosted my GPA.

        1. AGirlCalledFriday*

          I was in the same position. I was originally getting a PhD in history, and decided to switch my major to Elementary Ed. I was accepted into the Masters program and received an M.Ed. I graduated to find out that I’d priced myself out of a job – the only teachers anyone wanted to hire were cheap ones, and with a masters I was in a different pay grade. The only schools that have ever interviewed me were private schools in which I would be receiving substantially less pay, and international schools because overseas they look for teachers with experience and advanced degrees, not merely the cheapest teachers available.

          I’ve been told that while job searching, some teachers leave advanced degrees off of their resume, and many who are interested in pursing advanced degrees won’t do it unless they’ve received tenure and are confident they won’t be leaving any time soon.

        2. Young and the Old*

          It’s amazing how much the reimbursement can vary by district/state. My wife has to get a Master’s to renew her license and the district pays all of about $400/year towards continuing education. On the flip side, she’ll actually receive a decent bump in salary (10% or so) with the degree. Still, that’s a solid 3+ years just to hit the break-even point.

          We’re footing the bill out-of-pocket because it does make the most sense long-term… but yeah, teachers definitely don’t get free/cheap grad degrees everywhere!

  35. A.*

    I say this all the time. So many people think a graduate degree is the natural and automatic next step after obtaining an undergraduate degree. If you don’t NEED it for your career path, don’t get it. Many, many careers don’t require it and view experience as being more important than simply getting an advanced degree. There are also many instances when it hurts your employment chances because employers are afraid you’ll demand or want too much money.

    1. CanadianWriter*

      This happens a lot with aspiring writers. You don’t need an MFA in creative writing to be a novelist or short story writer. Or any degree at all…

      1. De Minimis*

        I did creative writing as an undergrad, I was crushed when one of my professors said I probably would have to wait till my 30s to have a shot at admission to an MFA program, but I’m so glad now that I didn’t try it. It seems like the MFA is usually more to help you get a teaching job.

  36. Anonathon*

    My advice: do not go to grad school straight from undergrad. I almost did, and bless the professor who talked me out of it. I took an internship in that field instead and …. learned that I didn’t really like it. Fortunately, an internship was a fairly low-cost, low-risk way to figure that out.

    Basically, try out the field in a real world context before you put the time and money into a degree. Make sure that you like it in practice, not just in theory, and that you have first-hand knowledge of how graduate school would help you move up.

    1. Ellie H.*

      I totally agree not to go straight, if you go. I had originally planned to go straight from undergrad and then decided not to. I’m entering a PhD program in the fall and the work experience I have had is INVALUABLE. I work in higher education so much of it is directly relevant in terms of content, not just lifestyle stuff like time management and organization learning to work with different people, which is obviously not the case for many, but even if it were just the life skills stuff it would still be incredibly worth it. I’ve also had four years to consider whether I really want to do it. I would have had far more doubts if I hadn’t taken so much time to seriously consider the options. Plus, the benefits of being older and more mature, having some savings, and having established an “adult” life apart from the “student” identity.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Yes. So much this. Wish I’d read this before my ill-fated attempt in a PhD program.

    3. MentalEngineer*

      I want to second this also, but for a slightly different reason. At least for philosophy, and probably for a lot of humanities majors, taking some time before going to grad school helps get you well-adjusted to the fact that even if you go to a great school, love your time there, do well, and graduate without debt you still won’t get a job in that field. Nothing preserves my sanity in the face of the philosophical job market like knowing that I could do something else with my life if I had to and still be perfectly happy. Plus, I think sticking with a path that one chooses clear-eyed rather than blinded by ‘follow your passion’-type guff makes one that much better at it.

    4. Melissa*

      So. Much. This!

      I went to grad school right from undergrad and I regret it. I don’t regret doing the PhD, and I love my field and have a job lined up after graduation that requires it. It’s just that while I was in grad school I discovered several other fields I would’ve loved just as much that didn’t require a PhD – and a few are much more lucrative. With just a few years of working I might have uncovered them before embarking, and I probably wouldn’t have done the PhD after all. I also do have quite a few friends who either dropped out of programs or stuck with it but hate their fields now.

      I say this especially to undergrads who are trying to choose between 3 or 4 different fields, especially when those fields are unrelated. Don’t go! Just go work for a few years and figure it out without putting yourself into debt!

  37. L.*

    “While you’re in school, you won’t receive full-time work experience. That means that when you finish your program, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more seasoned and thus more competitively positioned than you.”

    This is me right now, except I didn’t finish my program. I worked for a few years after college before enrolling in a PhD program. I realized early on that I didn’t want a career in academia but I tried to stick it out until, two years later, I couldn’t take it anymore and quit. My job right now is basically the same as the job I had right out of college…and I graduated in 2007. It’s depressing to look at friends who made serious career advances during those years I was floundering and trying to convince myself that I wanted a PhD. On the other hand, I’m still relatively young and my program was fully funded, so I don’t have student loan debt hanging over me.

  38. Poohbear McGriddles*

    I went to grad school to make myself more marketable. After almost a year of unsuccessful job-hunting, I had the bright idea that an MS with a good GPA would look better than a BS with a mediocre GPA.

    Turns out, I was right. Fortunately, some of the good reasons listed in the article also applied. I just wasn’t focused on those back then.

  39. CC*

    Each time I’ve been unemployed and looking for a job, people have suggested going back to school. Graduated into a recession, no job postings at all for months on end? Why not get a masters! Layoffs during a recession and barely seeing any job postings? Have you thought about going back to school?

    (I just had somebody suggest this yesterday, too.)

    1. Felicia*

      I’ve had the same experience. Yet they don’t seem to be able to specify what I should study and how it would benefit me in getting a job. So their advice is the stupid advice of going back to school just because you don’t know what else to do.

      1. CC*

        That about sums it up. It’s as useful as going to university without picking a major. Sure, you’ll learn stuff, but will it help your job search?

    2. Stephanie*


      I hate that advice. I also had someone tell me “Hey, you know you can go to school to avoid this whole job search thing, right?”

  40. Sabrina*

    My bachelor’s degree hasn’t even proven to be worth it yet, I’m certainly not sinking more money into this endeavor!

  41. Eden*

    I guess I am the product of an earlier time, because I don’t at all regret getting my MA–in a field I never even worked in. Now, my degree was fully-funded, which does make a difference. But overall, people seem to respond well to the additional education, and I had a great time in grad school. While I never “used” my degree, I enjoyed learning more about an interesting area of the humanities. It also helped me clarify to myself that academia was not the right field for me, and bought me some time after learning that law wasn’t right for me, either.

    I think (and again, it might just be me) that a clear career trajectory is a lot to ask of a recent college grad. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going back to school and earning another degree while you figure it out, provided you have a way to pay for it that doesn’t involve going into debt.

    1. Ajax*

      I was going to write a separate comment but you’ve said everything I wanted to say! I believe that the grad school decision is about money and time rather than future career prospects.

      I entered a humanities program intending to get a PhD, realized I didn’t want to be a teacher and exited with a terminal MA. My MA was paid for by the university, and I received a stipend for a TAship while studying. I paid off my small student loan within a year of graduation.

      I now work in what you could call a dream job in an unrelated field. My MA has never hurt me, and I use skills that I developed in grad school everyday on the job. I have no regrets – but that would be a different story if I were still burdened with debt.

    2. Melissa*

      I think the problem is that it’s possibly easier to figure it out while working and actually making money (and contributing to retirement, putting money into savings, etc.) and also that many career fields want a master’s + experience, not just a master’s. Even without accruing debt the average grad is also forfeiting two years of salary and experience.

      Although I wish I hadn’t gone straight from undergrad to grad school, I did have a clear career trajectory when I began my PhD. So I don’t think that’s a lot to ask of recent graduates. They’re young, but they’re adults. Grad school is ideally supposed to be a tool to get you into a specific career, which is why I think folks say that.

  42. NavyLT*

    I went to grad school straight out of undergrad; it was pretty much a requirement for the field I wanted to enter at the time, and I got into my top choice program. It was a good experience and I’m glad I did it. All that said, I also know a lot of people who went to grad school (or God help them, law school) because they didn’t know what they wanted to do, and thought a few more years of school would help them figure it out. It worked out for some, but others have ended up with more debt and fewer job prospects. I wouldn’t say don’t go to grad school, but I would advise anyone thinking about grad school to be realistic about why you want to go and what you expect to get out of it.

  43. AustinP*

    There isn’t much mention of the actual economic benefits of a master’s degree here, so I’ll lay out a bit in terms of net present value (NPV, a measure of how much future cash flows are worth in today’s terms).

    Assumptions: 10% discount rate (a dollar today is worth 10% more than a dollar in a year), and 5% raises per year for all scenarios

    Scenario 0 (baseline) – just received a bachelor’s and can make ~$30k/year – 5 year NPV of $146k, 10 year NPV of $240k.

    Scenario 1 (master’s) – you decide to get a master’s instead, with no tuition assistance, so you’ll be missing out on two years of salary and spending $20k/year. Assume a master’s will bump salary to $45k/year – 5 year NPV of $91k (less than scenario 0), 10 year NPV of $219k.

    Scenario 2 (PhD) – scenario 1 but with additional PhD in another two years, with stipend bringing net income to $10k/year for these two years. Assume PhD will bump you to $60k/year starting – 5 year NPV of $52k (less than both scenario 0 and 1), 10 year NPV of $207k.

    So as you can see, in terms of today’s dollars, there is very little benefit to getting additional degrees. For my personal situation, I make $84k two years out of college (oil + gas engineering), and a Master’s will basically never pay out unless my salary is bumped by a factor of 2 or greater. Zero/negative income in early years is very detrimental to net present values.

    1. Prof*

      Your analysis depends pretty heavily on your assumptions… 10% discount rate and all you care about is 10 years into the future? Shouldn’t a recent grad have ~40 years until retirement?

    2. Brett*

      It depends a lot on the numbers too (and hopefully I am calculating mine right).

      I had full tuition plus a $23k 12-month stipend for my master’s degree. I could make about $45k with a BS, so I was only losing out $22k per year while getting my degree. My immediate salary bump was $15k/year after my degree.

      More importantly, there have been no raises whatsoever in my field since 2008, and even before 2008 raises were typically 2-3%. Entry level pay has gone up (I actually make less than entry level for a MS right now), but no raises.

      So, if I had not gone to grad school in 2005, my NPV in 2005 of my next 10 years earnings would have been $307k, or $267k by 2012 (assuming 3% raises before 2008).

      By going to grad school, my 2005 NPV of my earnings by 2012 were already $271k. My 10 year NPV was $352k. And this is before taking into account the extra $25k in teaching and consulting gigs I now get because I have an MS + 5 years experience, which I explicitly could not get with a BS + 10 years.

      If raises had not stopped in 2008, I actually would have matched NPV by 2011 and the gap would be widening now.

      1. Anonymous*

        It absolutely depends on the numbers, which is a good reason to figure them out.

        I earned an MSc in a professional field. It was a career change to a field I had dabbled in and wanted to pursue seriously. While the master’s was not strictly necessary, it provided a very solid grounding in theory and best practices that a lot of practitioners lack. I couldn’t land a full-time job after graduating but was able to get experience through freelancing.

        I used federal loans for tuition, totaling around $12500, while working part-time. My last full-time salary (in my old field, in line with the market for the position and industry) was $39000. One year of freelancing experience + MSc in the field + knowledge from the grad studies + fantastic advice from the AAM community = great new job at around $70000.

        So it can pay off, but yes, think about the cost/benefit before signing up with Sallie Mae. If it makes sense, then go ahead.

    3. Cath in Canada*

      “Assume PhD will bump you to $60k/year starting”

      That’s a hell of an assumption. Postdoctoral fellows in my field make around $40k. My starting salary in the private sector (following a PhD and 3 years of postdoctoral work) was $55k. Those are Canadian dollars, and our tax rate’s higher here – but the US figures aren’t too far off that based on my American friends’ experiences.

      1. Melissa*

        In the U.S., the average starting salary for an assistant professor is about $60,000, so it’s not too much of an assumption. It of course will vary by sector in the non-academic world, but at least in my field it is not too much of a jump to assume that a PhD in their first permanent job (postdoc notwithstanding) will make around $60K.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          I don’t know a single person who got an assistant professor job straight from their PhD, though. I understand that it does happen in some fields, but in the life sciences you’re looking at a minimum of 2-3 years of postdoc work before you can even apply. I know plenty of people who did 5-6 years.

    4. Melissa*

      PhDs take longer than 4 years – on average they take 5-6, longer in most humanities fields. But the average stipend is about $20-30K. My first year stipend was $31K, and even this year with my stipend being $22K I have a part-time job that brings it up to over $30K.

      There’s also the argument that value isn’t just about money, but also about enjoyment of one’s careers – perhaps the job you want to do requires a master’s or PhD. For me, that was the case, which is why I am in a PhD program now.

  44. Chris*

    A couple things:

    There are much less expensive and time-consuming ways to figure out what you want to do for a living: internships, talking to people in your network and just trying out jobs that sound interesting.

    A lot of internships require an applicant to be pursuing a B.S. / M.S. / PhD. It is very difficult to acquire an internship if you graduated with a B.S., but aren’t on track for grad school. I don’t like it at all, but it’s the way it is.

    “Trying out other jobs that sound interesting” suggests that you are pursuing a path that you weren’t intending to follow, which likely means that you are not the highest qualified candidate for those jobs in the first place (as compared to someone whose either worked in “those other jobs” for awhile, or is someone whose “those other jobs” were their life dream and ambition.).

    After graduation, neither relying on getting internships or doing “other jobs that sound interesting” are reliable failsafes. 5/6 of the internships will be blocked out, and, if you’re applying for an “other job”, you’re probably not the highest qualified person applying for it (as compared to someone who doesn’t see it as an “other job.”)

    Nothing wrong with networking, but being a successful networker requires value. To keep a long subject short, that value comes from:

    – what you know (Did you hack into the Pentagon? are people impressed with what you do? )

    – a charismatic attraction that draws people in (innate appeal in leaders / make others feel good around themselves when around you. This is something you are born with, or something you have to train your personality to become like (Tom Cruise / Brad Pitt movies, JFK speeches, anything with someone gravitating. ), especially if you are introverted.)

    – value via association (the hard work is done with friends and family and family friends. A friend is just a soul dwelling within 2 bodies, so they’re already interested in you. Family obviously. And family friends are interested in you via association by your family. These 3 types of people you’ve done the work already to get them interested in you.).

    Short on time, so tl;dr, successful networking is about properly displaying your high value. When high value is displayed, people want to associate themselves with that value, which means you’ll be more likely to get people who want to help you.

    While you’re in school, you won’t receive full-time work experience. That means that when you finish your program, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more seasoned and thus more competitively positioned than you.

    This is all based on the assumption that you can get the relevant full time work experience in the first place. As it turns out, getting entry level jobs (even those in STEM / Engineering fields), is difficult as hell.

    Regarding grad school, my opinion on college is that research > coursework, and coursework with hard skills (CAD, programming (sort of; there’s a lot of online tutorials for programming), shop, designing a controller) > coursework with information (are you doing well or getting 4.0’s just with Wikipedia? In case you are wondering, I got a degree in Aerospace Eng., and the speaker we chose speak for our class made the line “thank you Wikipedia!”, which some of my family members clearly didn’t ignore.). The other part is money; if you’re going out of state, you may be shelling out 20 – 40 K per year. If there isn’t some research project you really want to be on, it might be best to just go in-state and do less than 20K per year. Depends on the school.

    1. E.R*

      I agree with your points here, but just want to add: if you don’t have a perceived “high value” yet, you can successfully network by having a genuine interest in the lives and careers of other people.

  45. SD Cat*

    I interpreted Allison’s mention of talking to people as more along the lines of informational interviewing. If you’re polite, friendly and show interest in people you can learn plenty about what they do and get advice, which can help you figure out what you do (or don’t) want to do as a career path. You don’t have to be super charismatic.

      1. Chris*

        If you’re polite, friendly and show interest in people you can learn plenty about what they do and get advice, which can help you figure out what you do (or don’t) want to do as a career path. You don’t have to be super charismatic.

        Nothing wrong with the above. If you want to learn about the industry (or a specific job role), then talking to people in the industry is easily the best way to learn about it. The unsaid message here is that, if you’re interested in the industry (or job role), you’re naturally looking for a job in that role and, hopefully, that person can help you get there (considering competition is so intense). Of course:

        -not everyone can help you directly. Either the person is retired, doesn’t have a Linkedin or business card, or the HR company has too many procedures involved or there are too many applicants such that personal referrals aren’t helpful in the early stages.

        -flakes. This is why displaying your high value is so important. The better you come off, the more likely that the engineer or whomever will remember you and / or want to help you. Even if you get a guy’s business card at a conference or whatever venue you’re in, if his interest in your value was lackluster at best, the more likely that email will get the Simon and Garfunkel treatment:

        and also:

        – some personality types are more geared toward helping people than others. Don’t know what causes it, but some people get a value kick from helping someone else out, some don’t. If you run into someone like the latter, any follow up is probably going to end up in Exdeath’s lovely void (regardless of how well you displayed your value). Some people you just have to tell them who you are and what you want to do and they’ll refer you to the guy you need to talk to or give you multiple recs. The other person’s personality type cannot be ignored in the networking equation.

        tl;dr: It’s good to network to learn about the industry, but don’t forget the ultimate objective: getting a job in that industry. Also people flake, even if you are trying to follow up to ask about said industry. The best way to get people to remember you when you attempt to follow up is to have displayed high value in your initial interaction. And the other person’s personality type matters too.

  46. Anon for this*

    I just finished my first year at the #1 Ph.D. program in a rapidly growing hard science field where a Ph.D. is expected. I work in a much more understanding environment than most, but it’s still difficult. If you really want to go, you should know that not everything is quite as advertised. The following applies to my somewhat limited observations in this particular situation:

    *Some advisors delay the progress and graduation of people with lots of background knowledge. They’ll nudge people into desired career paths, and I’ve seen varying results. Make sure you want to go into academia if most of the advisor’s students do that.
    *Long hours (100+/week during the semester) are normal. I know a couple law firm associates, and all of them work less than Ph.D. students in their first few years here. Later years are slightly more sensible.
    * There is fantastic support for academic issues if you’re proactive enough to seek it out early on. Standards are rigorous, but research matters and classes basically don’t. I haven’t heard of anyone who’s received below a B, the minimum standard–but I also haven’t heard of anyone here who isn’t a slightly quirky workaholic.
    *You’re expected to pick up research skills (new programming languages, physics and chemistry concepts, etc.) quickly. There’s support from other students, but they sometimes co-opt research topics in the general rush towards results. Coming in with a background knowledge deficiency will seriously handicap you, although everyone is reassured that they’ll be able to learn on the job.

    Some people thrive in this environment, and with dedication and strong personal relationships, many of these problems can be averted. I’ve seen people who were happy here–in fact, one of them encouraged me to apply. If you’re sure about going into a field where Ph.D’s are the norm, a competitive program can provide a vital edge and make you a much stronger worker.

    Wow, that was long. I hope it helps someone considering grad school :)

  47. TV Researcher*

    I went to grad school and it was the right thing for me to do, but not wholly necessary for me to move ahead in my career. I was stuck in a job that I liked, but there was clearly no place for me to go (as it was a very small department and people just didn’t leave). There were also things happening for me personally that made leaving my current city a good idea. There were three programs I was interested in and so I applied to all three and got into one. Luckily, that one offered me a TA position, and that with money I had saved up meant that I didn’t have to take out loans to go to grad school (also very key in my decision).

    What grad school did for me was that it took me out of the work force for a year (a one year program was another point in my program’s favor) and let me see what else there was out there within my admittedly broad field (entertainment). My program had a boot camp where we had to take a Research class and that class taught me enough to get a paid internship in TV research after graduation. And six years later, I’m still here. But, there are others in my program who when asked say that they don’t necessarily regret the decision to go to grad school, as they met some great people, but the friends they made are $40,000 friends.

  48. KrisL*

    Also, it’s a good idea not to get too far along in college without figuring out why you’re there. If you’re not sure, you might try a community college and a part time job so that you spend less while you’re getting your core classes done.

  49. Formerly in college admissions*

    The only thing I would add is that you have to know the culture of your field. In my old field, almost ANY grad degree is an asset, as it speaks to you own valuing of higher education, that you too out your money where your mouth is.

    Nearly everybody I spoke to told me I needed a master’s degree at some point along the way. No real opinions on where – just having one and showing my commitment to the field was symbolic enough.

    So if you find yourself with an MA and no real experience (like the MA in Communication Management I saw up thread) I wouldn’t write off college admissions.

  50. Melissa*

    Dear Alison: Thank you so, so, so much for writing this! I’m finishing up my PhD and I teach at my university, and students ask me all the time about graduate school and whether they should go. Eighty percent of the time the answer is no, and I always explain this to them. But now I’m glad it’s in article format so I can just send it to them. I bookmarked it :D

  51. FatBigot*

    I think you have to be very careful what you are getting into.

    Look at the thread of comments from GradDirector here:

    “Many universities (several Ivy league schools come to mind, but other research universities are also doing this), have 1-2 year long course work only MS options in STEM that cost upwards of 50k per year to attend. The notable thing though is that the courses are “specific” to these programs, which is code for “not up to the standards of real graduate level coursework” and “not taught by full time professors”. Students who get 4.0 GPAs in these programs are not even qualified to switch to a Ph.D. level program at the same school for this reason.”

    “they do not give students any of the skills that employers are looking for in STEM hires. In the end, these programs are using the prestige of the school’s name to market very expensive, sub-standard education to the naive.”

    1. Xay*

      This is such an important issue. My MPH is through a large research institution distance learning program. When I was doing the research process, I carefully weeded out schools for exactly this reason – so many non profit universities offer a distance MPH but they are actually siloed for profit programs with all of the credibility and quality problems of many for profit universities. The program I enrolled in is well integrated with the overall school of public health and most important – the classes open to any student whether distance or residential and in any track. Most of my classmates are distance, but we also have residential MPH students and the occasional residential MD/MPH student.

  52. Sharm*

    This is on my mind right now. A family member just graduated from an elite business school with an MBA (think top two in the country), and I feel so inadequate in comparison. From what I’ve heard, business school is not worth it unless you get into the top ten schools in the country. With my college GPA (even from a top 20 school), and job history (it seems all MBA students had laser-like focus after undergrad and all did consulting/financial/analyst jobs for several years without any hops or gaps), there is zero chance I’ll get in to one of those programs.

    It just bums me out to know I’ll never get into an elite institution again, and the rewards that come with them (I think all of their starting salaries are six figures, and I realize they incurred $150,000 in debt, but still).

    Having said all that, I am not willing to work 80-100 hour weeks and am not a party person, so I don’t even know if I’d fit in. But it feels like I’m never going to earn more money following the path I’m on now. I constantly see the jobs I want preferring to get someone with an MBA. But because I won’t go on the elite path, it just doesn’t feel like a slam-dunk to me.

    I am so, so conflicted.

    1. Stephanie*

      You’d be surprised. Some of those elite programs really want to diversify beyond admits from consulting and finance. I think they’re just represented so much because those industries push people out after a couple of years of work (i.e., it’s up or out and up requires getting an MBA) and heavily recruit there. I think the really big thing is how you package your application.

      I don’t think you necessarily need to go to Harvard/Stanford/Wharton to do well, especially if you’re not interested in the really elite consulting firms or finance. If you’re near a well-regarded regional school, you could probably do just as well.

      And I can empathize about the middling UGPA from an elite undergrad. *sigh*

      1. Sharm*

        I hear that all the time, but think I’m not unique enough!

        I guess my problem is, I had a solid five years at one well-regarded institution (that actually would be a huge selling point for me), but then I moved, and have already had two employers in two years. So I look haphazard and stupid, although I was just trying to take on more challenges.

        1. Stephanie*

          A friend had really random experience (waiting tables, interning at an embassy, working for a nonprofit, running a travel blog) and managed to get into an elite MBA program. I’d guess it’s just all how you spin it.

          I have heard, though, that you shouldn’t apply the last round short of having an Olympic medal on your resume.

  53. Sharm*

    Aside from the woe is me stuff, it seems like to get a Master’s, you have to have had undergraduate and/or work experience in the field. But what if you want to make a career change? Isn’t that the point of further schooling?

    In other words, is there any way for someone with a marketing background to go into the STEM fields? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

    1. Stephanie*

      If you’re willing to start over and go through school again, some university programs allow second bachelors students. I met a woman who worked in marketing actually and went back to college to get a BSEE. She did have a supportive spouse.

      I *think* it’s Boston U that has an engineering program specifically designed for career changers.

      1. Sharm*

        It’s great to hear those programs exist. The hard part is when you have a partner and a cross-country career move is not as easy.

        It’s so weird; when I was an undergrad, MBA students seem so old. Now (at 30), they’re so young. I need more time, ahhh!

      2. Ellie H.*

        They do – I was thinking about doing it, briefly, once. I think there are other such programs, too.

  54. Officer Mercenary*

    For someone whose field requires at least a Master’s, what would make grad school worth it? I’ve been admitted to a few conflict studies and security studies programs and will likely go with the program that has the strongest quantitative research methods component. What are some other things to consider?

    1. Ellie H.*

      I would suggest some other things to consider when choosing a school are: reputation of the school and quality of the potential connections you can make there (faculty, important people working in the field, future colleagues), the school’s placement record for future employment, resources available, and financial support. If your field does require a master’s, promises generally good future employment opportunity (the master’s programs in that field at the place I work for does) I would say that it counterweighs some of the red flags others are mentioning – it makes sense in that scenario if you are really committed to this as your career.
      The program at ours really values at least a few years of work experience in the field though so that’s something to take into consider if you are contemplating not going at all, but if you are choosing between schools I’d say that reputation, potential connections and opportunity to do applied research projects matter a lot.

  55. Dee*

    Graduate degrees can hurt you. I would never advocate anyone going back to get one these days.
    I went back to cap my previous 12 yrs experience in management with a MSM. My BS is in technology, which while I am good at, I prefer more human interaction. Being the market what it is, I thought getting an MSM as my last formal education would not help me get a position even with experience.
    In a normal market, this would have made me an idea candidate- one with a well-rounded education with lots of technology under my belt. Problem today; Companies want what they want; Someone well trained already, not a candidate who would prefer to move upward to the next level. Corporate America is having one of that. You have to wait years to get promoted in order to obtain the next level of your career.
    Gone are the days you could show background skills and understanding to obtain the position you have resonance and desire for. No wonder employee morale is at an all-time low. If you were an insurance sales person in 2007 – changes are that is all you will ever be- Period!
    That’s not the biggest issue. What I have found is that many 20-30-year-olds who have an Assoc. degree or Bachelors are asked to look at my resume from their supervisor; interview me, who then deem me – not the right fit. I have never experienced this before. I suspect that while companies would love to get a well-educated person to learn from the ground up and most have upped the education requirements for even a sales job, But many of the managers are intimidated by applicants being a little older than they are.
    The biggest issue for said Millenial hiring manager is a candidate with an advanced degree beyond theirs as many are concerned you may get promoted over them!

  56. Hermit*

    Ahh I love these types of articles because they make bold claims about what people should or shouldn’t do and then get a flood of really personal comments that everyone expects to apply to everyone else…But people love reading these things, myself included, for obvious reasons. It validates my choice not to go to grad school or the fact that I went to grad school and am still struggling etc. etc. Basically, we just all live in fear in an unstable economy and want there to be a specific path and someone to tell us what to do or not do in order to achieve job stability and success or validate our choices Times are uncertain!
    In any case. from my own experiences, good luck getting a full-time job without a master’s degree. Everywhere I have applied has required one. These days almost everyone has a bachelor’s. It’s not unique anymore so then people require a master’s and now master’s degrees aren’t unique anymore either but PhDs are too extreme and we are in this weird economic void…..but at least we can rant about it.

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