Somewhere between snobbery and pragmatism lies a question that many candidates ask themselves regarding graduate school: “Should I even bother going if I’m not looking at a top-tier program?” This question is often asked privately of experts rather than spoken about openly with friends and family. Candidates do not want to appear foolish for even considering a school outside the elites. Conversely, candidates may be afraid of seeming arrogant or elitist for solely pursuing schools with top programs.
It’s never a silly question to ask, but — unfortunately — it’s rarely an easy one to answer. With the rising cost of education, and the obliteration of various jobs and entire industries due to technology and globalization, there are many convincing arguments that support minimizing formal education.
Yet, those same factors are cited in arguments that support the need for continued education beyond an undergraduate degree. Moreover, those are the arguments that most often at only the most select institutions: “A bachelor’s degree is the new high school degree” is a mantra we hear uttered at least once a month.
So, what’s the answer? Well, it depends. As unsatisfactory as it feels, that’s the truth. But, we would never cop-out like that. So let’s explore why it depends and how to frame the decision in a way that will be useful in your own pursuit of any graduate program. The correct decision about whether to pursue a graduate degree at only a highly-ranked school can be made with your responses to just a few key questions.
- Does your industry only hire from top 10 schools?
- Did you go to a top-tier program for undergrad?
- Are you looking to work in a particular state?
- Are you looking to start a company?
- Are you looking to work overseas?
Does Your Industry Only Hire from Top 10 Schools?
There are some industries and organizations where only a few new hires are made each year, most of which are based on referrals. This nearly mandates a degree from a top-tier school. Of course, this isn’t the norm everywhere, but in certain industries and professions it is. As an extreme example, if a candidate aspires to eventually serve on the United States Supreme Court, it would make sense to seek admission to only a few select law schools. In fact, perhaps only two: While there are approximately 240 law schools in the US, all of the Supreme Court Justices on the current roster hail from only two: Yale and Harvard.
- John Roberts — Harvard Law School
- Clarence Thomas — Yale Law School
- Stephen G. Breyer — Harvard Law School
- Samuel Alito — Yale Law School
- Sonia Sotomayor — Yale Law School
- Elena Kagan — Harvard Law School
- Neil Gorsuch — Harvard Law School
- Brett Kavanaugh — Yale Law School
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Harvard Law School
But didn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduate from Columbia? The short answer is yes. But she first enrolled at Harvard Law School and eventually transferred to Columbia Law to be closer to her family, at which point she already had the pedigree and network that she needed. Though it is annoyingly close-minded that the highest court in the land is comprised of graduates from only two schools, this is an extreme example of what happens in other industries.
In business, certain industries, like venture capital or private equity, have the same tendency to higher from particular elite schools. A 2018 study by Crunchbase is illustrative. Of the 4,500 American and Canadian investment partners on the platform, 45% have a degree from one of 12 top schools including Harvard, Stanford, and UPenn. There are 4,500 universities in the United States.
This high concentration of graduates from top-tier, advanced, and undergraduate degree programs may be a hallmark of your desired industry. If this is the case, and you are considering attending graduate school, you should be candid with yourself. How difficult will it be to achieve your professional goals if you don’t have the credibility, network, and perhaps training that a top-branded school would give you?
While it’s not impossible to crack the professional code without such a degree, for many industries it is undeniably much more challenging. Candor may be uncomfortable, but it’s a sensible option if you consider the alternative: Graduating from a second-tier school with high marks, thousands of dollars in debt, and a complete inability to launch the ambitious career you’d imagined. It happens. It’s tragic. And it’s often a result of not performing an honest assessment of your industry.
Did You Go Top-Tier for Undergrad?
Because the ability to pursue a dream career after graduate school is often tied to a well-connected network and personal credibility, you may not need to attend a top-ranked, strongly-branded graduate program if the same was true of your undergraduate school.
For many careers, the most important element of your graduate school program will be the actual training you receive and the additional skill sets you obtain. But, surprisingly, that training is largely the same from school to school. The main differences between a school dubbed ‘elite’ versus one that isn’t are often the brand name and network; if you already have those from your undergraduate degree, then it may not be necessary for your graduate program.
Are You Looking to Work in a Particular State?
It may be sensible to pursue a graduate degree from a non-top-tier school if you are looking to work in the particular state where that school is located. This kind of balance occurs regularly in politics where a candidate will pursue a law degree or Master’s in Public Policy from the state in which they hope to run. Senator Sherrod Brown, a senator from our co-founder’s home state of Ohio, illustrates this point perfectly. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Yale University, Senator Brown continued his education at The Ohio State University, where he studied for and received an Master of Education and a Master of Public Administration.
In Senator Brown’s case, he already possessed the national fundraising network, training, and credibility that Yale offered. Pursuing additional education in Ohio, where he planned to run for office, offered him a different kind of credibility: showing that he’s invested in and knowledgeable about his home state. Senator Brown’s choice to study in Ohio simultaneously enabled him to establish a strong network with key players toward his political pursuit. It was a perfect plan, giving him a more significant catapult than if he had pursued his last two degrees at a nationally or globally known school like his undergraduate university of Yale. As was the case for Senator Brown, there are occasions when it is to your advantage to pursue a graduate degree at a local, non-top-tier program.
Are You Planning to Start a Company?
The lionization of more recent entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Sara Blakely, and Elon Musk has prompted a lot of interest in launching companies among graduate school applicants.But, the decision to go to a top-tier program is not a uniform assessment for any candidate who seeks to join the ranks of the aforementioned innovators.
In some instances, pursuing a top-tier graduate school degree may have a profoundly positive impact and is the most logical option. However, it may be the opposite. The determining factors are the type of company that a graduate student seeks to launch and the type of funding, if any, that will be required.
If a candidate is launching a company that is likely to be global and requires a large amount of venture capital or private-equity funding, a graduate degree from a highly-ranked program would be instrumental. Such a degree will likely accelerate a candidate’s global distribution by providing a global network of people who can help the company penetrate certain geographies. Global contacts may know which companies or partners to target and will certainly offer insight into the market itself.
Additionally, the presence of that graduate degree alone may be valuable in capturing the attention of necessary parties. The company will have a chance to garner press even though they may not have deep traction. The narrative of an ‘entrepreneur with a Master’s in Computer Science from Stanford launching a business in cyber security’ is often an enticing headline for media companies.
Potential business partners may meet with you based solely on the brand of your school, even if they’ve never heard of your company. Or, if you’re pitching an idea that they think is a bit strange, they may give you a shot simply because your affiliation with such a strongly-branded graduate school distinguishes you as someone worth listening to.
However, your company may not need those assets. While most companies would gladly accept such advantages, there is an inherent advantage, too, in not spending six figures on a degree and instead investing it in your company or idea. If you could make $50K working, and instead you choose to pursue a 1-year Master’s in Computer Science that costs $60K, you have effectively spent $110K that could have been used elsewhere.
If you are starting a company where you can use bootstrap funding or procure a bank loan, you have the necessary skills and credibility via previous training or your undergraduate degree, and you don’t anticipate needing a global network, it makes sense to pursue a mid-tier graduate school over an elite one. The time, focus, and money may be better served being deployed more directly towards your idea.
Are You Itching to Work Overseas?
If you are considering venturing overseas for work, having a brand name degree that carries weight in your intended location can be very helpful. It happens in every location including the United States. If you are from a foreign country or are American thinking of pursuing a career in Europe, for example, having a high-brand graduate degree may be the only way to pursue your career. In many countries, a high name-recognition degree will enable you to get in the door and make up for your lack of the local network offered by the dominant local university. At worst, it will enable you to compete with that network.
You will likely discover that a high percentage of the leadership that has international degrees in a particular organization are concentrated in brand-name schools. For many countries, candidates earn local undergraduate degrees and pursue their graduate degrees at elite, name-brand American universities. If you don’t want to struggle with a lack of school name recognition in addition to potential language, network, and credibility battles you will face, pursuing a graduate degree from a name-brand university is the right choice.
So, should you pursue a graduate degree at a top-tier school to the exclusion of other schools? Not usually. But you should do a deep analysis to ensure you make the right choice as there may be advantages you would miss out on by not attending a top-tier program.
If you're still not sure how prestige and ranking fit into the grand scheme of things, check out this video on the graduate school application process: