Why Go To Graduate School: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
What this article covers:
- Good reasons to go to school
- Not so good reasons to go to school...
- Possible consequences of going to school for the wrong reasons
There are several more interesting ways to assume a ton of debt (we are particularly fond of fast cars and extravagant vacations), but not many require you to spend your formative years with your head buried in books.
Degrees like an MBA or a Master’s in Business Analytics may offer a more readily understood return on investment than a Master’s in Social Work, but, they also costs more and often require leaving or putting a high-paying job on hold.
For any program, there is an element of self-sacrifice during completion of your degree which warrants an examination of why you would want to pursue such a degree in the first place. What is the allure which draws thousands of people every year to engage in such a journey?
Why in the world are you still reading when you know you’re likely going into debt and most certainly a state of sleep-deprivation?
We’ve encountered many reasons for pursuing graduate degrees over the years, some that are clear paths to a diploma, and others that a graduate degree won’t quite solve. We explore both types below and strongly recommend that at least one of the former apply to you should you continue this pursuit.
Below are eight of the most common, well-founded reasons to pursue a graduate degree. At least one of the following should apply to you — if not, you may want to reconsider.
1. To Transition
Whether you’re in a role you strongly dislike or you chose the wrong major in college, graduate school may be the perfect mechanism to launch the career of your dreams. If you’re looking to shift industries or careers, a master’s degree may be the perfect time to take a break from the job you hate and refocus your mind and build your skills in your dream industry. If you have the correct focus academically and in your clubs, activities, and networks, you will be well-positioned to make the leap into your intended industry. Graduate school is not a guaranteed panacea for all career changers, but the proof of your seriousness and the foundational training that you receive is a strong signal to your future employers that you are ready to make the transition. Beyond working in that particular industry or company, there is not a better way to get an employer’s attention then attending and flourishing as you pursue your graduate degree.
Importantly, for many professions, a graduate degree is a license to practice in that industry or the first step to being able to work within the industry. For example, if you desire to transition from college or working in marketing to practicing law, you will need a law degree in all but four states. Similarly, you will need a medical degree to be a physician. The presence of these degrees, unlike an MPP or M.Ed, are mandatory to be employed in the field. In other cases, like with an MSW, you can work in the field without it, but often not in the role you dream of. In these instances, there is no other way to transition into these areas without such a degree.
2. To Move Up the Ladder
A graduate degree can be that sticky glove that helps you clutch that next rung in your profession and pull yourself up to that level. Even if you’re not looking to switch industries or even companies, a graduate degree may grease the path to the next role in your progression. You may already have skills and a great reputation in your current job, but the credential of a degree may be vital. And the wide assumption is that the degree will add some level of actual skills, network, and perspective, so it’s expected that it will tangibly improve your performance.
A graduate degree is a ready, sharp tool to puncture a class ceiling. If you’re working in laboratory as a college graduate, you may see the difference between logging the lab results and actually running an experiment is the presence of a master’s degree among those doing the fun work! Becoming a partner at a private equity firm is infinitely easier (in general) if you have an MBA. If your long-term goal is to become a senior leader in your company or industry, you may not have a choice but to pursue a graduate degree. Often due to ritualistic as well as strongly held notions on the value of the training you’ll receive, senior leadership in your current organization may have an established requirement that to rise above a certain level, you require a graduate degree. Their own individual possession of such a degree may only heighten their partiality to you having it as well.
3. To Make More Money
Even in flat organizations or for situations where you may work as a solo practitioner, a graduate degree may give you the ability to make significantly more money. Of course, this increase in compensation is often tied to the aforementioned improved job title. But, often, getting a graduate degree may allow you to charge a higher fee or rate for doing the same exact job prior to getting the degree! In industries like copyrighting or design, that graduate degree can be paid off in short order if you are seen as better qualified per holding the degree. Having a graduate degree may automatically catapult you into a higher income bracket.
4. To Gain A New Perspective
The resulting fresh perspective gained by one to a few years of graduate school can offer benefits which span across your personal and professional dimensions. Increasingly, to advance in any occupation, the ability to think flexibly, seek new ways to capture and assess data, and comprehend operational efficiencies is critical. The global movement of people and technology has significantly underscored the importance of this trait. Graduate school offers a strong opportunity to gain that perspective. It provides the opportunity to meet students from around the country and likely world and exposure to different mechanisms of thinking and solutions. For business school, specifically, you will get exposure to participants in various global economic models. The same opportunity exists with other graduate degrees also. This incessant immersion with professors and classmates will encourage mental flexibility with various ways of thinking and asking questions that will serve you well in the future. Beyond the specific skills you achieve in graduate school, the less-defined daily reckoning with new frameworks and ideas of how to approach problems will yield an open mind for your life.
Interestingly, while you’re learning all the content, frameworks, and pedagogies in pursuit of your master’s degree, you will likely gain the new perspective of how little you know. Many students who receive graduate degrees remark with varying degrees of alarm about feeling less smart and prepared than their degree may indicate they should be. It’s called humility. Being reminded of how little you know after studying your field for an extended period of time is a great perspective to have in pursuit of your ultimate goals.
5. To Get Experience & Build Confidence
A great irony of graduate school is the truth that your studies may give you more professional experience than actually working in a chosen job. For many programs, your graduate school work will enable you to go beyond book learning to actually implementing some of the teaching. Through opportunities like lab work, trading simulations, and consulting engagements with local organizations, graduate school can offer you hands-on immersion. Without consideration for profit and/or the needs of an organization, your experience in graduate school may be more structured and expansive than what you would receive in a job where you may be pigeonholed. The experience that most applicants have who are considering graduate school is typically quite limited by design. In order to best prepare candidates for post-graduate school careers, an increasing number of programs of all types are mandating the aforementioned kind of role simulation/practical experience. And the opportunity for leadership in various clubs and organizations in your graduate school likely exceed those outside for most candidates. Likewise, you will have great opportunities for a summer internship to bolster your experience as well.
The confidence arising from a wide swath of experiential learning will be a huge addition to your development. Your confidence from this experience — the knowledge that you have been exposed and battle-tested in various relevant professional areas — is a definite outgrowth of graduate school.
6. To Improve Skills
Your skillset will improve dramatically in graduate school provided that you are focused academically. The hours of instruction, practice via out of class assignments, and implementation in various settings will help your mastery of certain relevant skills. It’s inevitable and the most efficient way to build a core set of skills for your field of interest. For example, in business school, regardless of format (part-time, full-time, executive), you will gain a core mastery of areas like accounting, marketing, finance, statistics, management, and econometrics. A Master’s in Education will teach you fundamental skills in educational research, educational institutional leadership, analytical skills in educational policy, and instructional design.
The efficient development of a set of foundational skills is often the most compelling reasons for candidates to consider a graduate degree. It’s a well-founded belief.
7. To Network
The opportunity to build a team of advisors, collaborators, and friends in your intended chosen profession is exceptionally appealing to graduate school applicants. Adding the screen of a selective admissions process further strengthens most candidates interest as it increases the likelihood that a candidate will have a network which is and will be high-achieving and often global.
Getting the opportunity to foster lifelong relationships — professional as well as personal — with people who can expose you to various opportunities for your life is a massive motivator, and for good reason. Networking with other students, professors, and alumni can help you marry opportunity with a developed set of skills as you mature in your career. Your network may help you discover opportunities that you otherwise would have missed.
8. To Work Internationally
Graduate school is of the perfect bridge to building your career in a foreign country. Whether your pursuit is a medical degree, in public policy, or even an MBA, obtaining a degree in a country or region of interest can be a perfect anchor to launch your career there. Knowledge of the market, professors, and classmates who can help steer your search and a robust career service office are invaluable elements. A graduate degree can help you build a global footprint to ease the transition; often, it is the only viable way to transition into an international career.
Though it’s unlikely candidates possess all these reasons to drive their interest in a graduate degree, most have a couple. If you find yourself intrigued by a few on this list, perhaps that graduate degree pursuit is your ultimate calling.
Think you've got the right reasons for going to graduate school? Take the quiz and see.
Now that we’ve covered the good reasons to go to graduate school, let’s move on to the bad reasons. The following are the top five reasons we’ve encountered that candidates mistakenly consider strong precursors to graduate degrees. If any of the reasons below are a driving factor of your decision to apply, we strongly encourage you to re-evaluate, as there will be consequences.
1. To Follow Everyone Else
The urge to pursue a degree because the “moron down the hall” or “idiot on your trading desk” just got accepted is a strong one to deny. Nearly every applicant who worked prior to graduate school has experienced that craven desire, but, it should not be the motivator. The direct and opportunity costs of pursuing a degree and the value of a degree in your chosen field of interest warrant making this decision based on what’s best for you, not what was best for everyone else (if it even was). Remember that everyone’s path to success looks different and you need to evaluate your unique situation when making this major decision. “Everyone else is doing it” offers no insight — you must do the work to evaluate your own situation in electing to pursue a degree or not.
2. To Get More Time in School
The joy that most people have in studying and being part of the campus environment is so widespread that movies have been made to celebrate it. Whether you are seeking to extend your college career and postpone going to graduate school or leave the workplace for a grand return, you should be more strategic. You’ll run a high risk of being unhappy with your return to campus or not being able to drive yourself through the grind of finishing your degree. Even if you do make it through school, you run a high risk of not being invested enough to derive every single drop of value — network, classes, activities — that will ultimately make it worth it in the long run. The time you think you’ll be ‘buying’ will actually end up costing you even more.
3. To Give Yourself Direction
Graduate school should not be used as a way to determine what you want do with your career. Many candidates look at school as a way to have the time to think and the resources to explore what their future may be. You will have the latter (to an extent), but not the former in most instances. The mix of classes, activities, and recruiting will heavily tax your time. If you’re going to be fully engaged on campus — which you will need to be to find that amazing job or launch that incredible career — you need to have focus going in. If your peers can see that you are still searching, you will likely be a lower priority on their list networking prospects. You may find that career service offices are most oriented towards assisting candidates get opportunities in their chosen fields of interest as opposed to assisting candidates starting from ground zero. Additionally, it’s hard to even gain acceptance to most graduate degree programs without a firm idea of what you want to pursue post-degree. Why? Because most graduate schools have your career vision as an intricate part of their evaluation process: Either they ask you directly in your personal statement or essay or you are queried in your interview.
Having an understanding of your professional path is important for another critical reason: You will be able to choose the best program which fits your need. In some instances, candidates have trouble deciding the type of the degree they should pursue. Understanding your career direction can be extremely critical to making these kinds of decisions.
4. To Become an Entrepreneur
Across a wide variety of technical degrees and management degree applicants, many candidates mistakenly pursue graduate school to launch an application or build a company. Surveying many Master’s in Computer Science, Master’s in Data Analytics, Master’s in Business Administration, and Master’s in Operations candidates reveals a heavy dose who dream of becoming the next “Zuck” or “Musk” or “Gates”. However, two of those gazillionaires opted out of pursuing an undergraduate degree and none pursued graduate studies.
Does that mean that graduate school is a bad idea if you’re destined to become an entrepreneur? Of course not. However, it’s not a great assumption that graduate school will inherently help you start a business. You have to do the analysis and see if the return is definitely worth it because not all people who want to build an app or company need a graduate degree. To determine if any kind of graduate degree will be worth the time and money you invest, you need to understand its value with regard to your aspirations. Do the skills you’re developing, network your building, credibility you’re obtaining, and confidence you’re establishing warrant the cost (actual and opportunity) such a degree entails? That should be neither an inherent assumption nor a quick answer if you’re making an informed decision. It is possible that saving the money and time and investing it into your idea instead may be a better decision.
5. To Immediately Move Up the Ladder or Boost Your Income
Okay — you caught us. And now you’re confused. We did say that making an ascent up the ladder was a good reason to get a graduate degree. And you’d make more money. Sometimes that is true. But, you have to be savvy about this point. Not everyone who pursues a graduate school degree will see an immediate change in their title or salary.
Going to graduate schools should be a long-term play to get the training, credibility, network, overall knowledge, and newfound perspective to develop in your career, not the next job. Your actual career over many years. Of course many people do obtain an immediate bump in salary and title. But, that benefit should not be an assumption. Usually, when that does happen, it is because candidates are landing jobs and opportunities post-graduate school that they often prepared for and have planned prior to even applying.
It makes sense in certain instances that you can make additional income and move up the job boards. But, you should not have that assumption. Obtaining a graduate degree is not a get rich quick scheme. Keep the return on investment in the long-term central to your decision and your investment should pay off in the long-run if you’ve made the right decisions along the way.
Now that we’ve laid out the reasons that aren’t good enough to move forward with the graduate school admissions process, here are some common and key potential dangers if you do so anyway.
1. You quit during the application process.
This is actually a best-case scenario. If you go through the trouble of taking your standardized exam, making campus visits, and beginning the application process and then realize you don’t need a grad school degree, you’ll just be out the time and money you’ve spent on testing and travel. And you may have also annoyed some recommenders who spent some time writing about how amazing you are only to have it not worth anything. Even when you’re highly motivated, applying to graduate school is a quest which requires a lot of patience and intestinal fortitude. If you have questions about your drive from day one, you will be in trouble.
2. You realize midway through your program that you don’t need a graduate degree after all.
This is the killer possibility. You actually manage to convince the admissions officer and yourself that you are focused and ready only to realize that graduate school is not for you. When this happens to candidates, they are always presented with a list of unenviable options: Quit now and ignore all the money you have already spent (inevitably a sunk cost) or stay and finish up a degree you don’t value. There are no good answers which is why most candidates stew on this option for weeks. The ultimate issue with this last option is that there are unintended consequences. If you leave, you will be more damaged professionally than if you had never set foot on your graduate school campus. Future employers or graduate schools will believe that you lack conviction and the ability to commit. Regardless of the skills you may offer, those two beliefs can torpedo any advancement. If you stay, you will likely not be as focused and will ultimately not get as much out of the experience as you otherwise would have.
The bottom line: You’ve already invested a lot… Do you quit and try not the think about the time and money you wasted? Or do you invest even more and finish your degree? Trust us — These questions are guaranteed to keep you up at night.
3. You realize midway through your program that you chose the wrong one.
You’re a year into your program when — suddenly — your long-term goals finally click. But unfortunately, the program you’re currently in will not take you down the right path. Now it’s back to the drawing board. Hopefully you have more cash saved and another year to set aside…
4. You finish your degree and go back out into the workforce.
This is still win, right? Not really. It’s highly likely that without a focus on your long-term goals prior to graduate school, it won’t contribute enough to your future success for you to feel good about having attended. It’s not the worst option, but you’ll be making the best of a bad decision which would have cost you money and time.
Think you've got the right reasons for going to graduate school? Take the quiz and see.
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