In my day job at a major technology company, I mentor a lot of young adults. Most of them are college-aged interns and recent graduates.
You’ll be shocked—shocked!—to learn that my mentoring sessions are popular because of their “no bullshit” vibe. If we’re getting coffee for thirty minutes, we’ll spend two of them introducing ourselves and making pleasant chit-chat about the weather. That leaves twenty-eight minutes for me to break the speed of sound delivering my very best general adulting advice.
I live for the moment when these young folks realize I’m here to talk straight to them. They go from having no questions (because they’re terrified of looking unprepared) to having dozens.
One question I get asked a lot is, “Should I go to grad school?”
I always say the same thing, without any hesitation: “No.”
The last young person I was mentoring specifically asked if he should go on to grad school to get his master’s degree in Marketing Operations. Which did get me to change my stance a little bit.
There are exceptions (obviously). Every person, career, and life situation is different. For example, most advanced scientific fields require a graduate degree, not to mention a PhD. Anyone pursuing specialized research as a career path should absolutely walk that path straight through grad school without delay! Some individuals can confidently move straight from their undergraduate degree into a graduate program just because it makes them happy. And good for them! But I suspect that population is small compared to the total number of people who consider pursuing advanced degrees.
So today I’ll break down why my knee-jerk advice is always “no.” (Or “fuck no,” as the case may be.)
Quick rundown for international readers
Skip this if you know it already.
In America, two years of full-time classwork gets you an associate’s degree. Four years gets you a bachelor’s degree. Six gets you a master’s degree. And eight gets you a doctoral degree, the highest possible level.
- An associate’s degree is often preparation for a specific job—such as a dental hygienist or paralegal.
- A bachelor’s degree is “the default” college experience. Most white-collar jobs want you to have a bachelor’s, though they don’t usually care what you studied (possibly because it’s more of a class marker than anything). Most people stop their formal education after reaching this point.
- A master’s degree is uncommon, but required in fields that have a lot of responsibility or require a ton of specialized technical knowledge—teachers, nurse practitioners, social workers, physical therapists.
- Doctorate degrees are pretty rare. People who have them are often researchers, scientists, professors, experts, or authors with a very narrow field of focus.
All of these degrees fit under the umbrella of “higher education,” which is anything past high school level. When I say “advanced degrees,” we’re talking about master’s and above. M’kay?
Advanced degrees are expensive af
Unless you’ve spent the last several decades living feral in the woods (and believe me, I get why you would want to), you know that America has reached a crisis point with, uh, many things. It’s hard to pick just one when they’re all sooooooo pretty, but I guess today it’s the skyrocketing cost of higher education!
As of 2018, getting a bachelor’s degree ranges on average from $10,000 at an in-state public university to $35,000 at a private college. This only accounts for tuition—room and board can damn near double those costs.
That is an insane and unsustainable price tag. If you want a stable, well-paying job, you need to cough up five figures and four years to show how bad you want it. Class mobility in America has stagnated in recent years, and this is one of the many crooked culprits. If you didn’t live in a good school district with financially stable parents who prioritized your future education, good luck clawing your way through institutional indifference and crushing debt!
Master’s degrees take that insane cost and essentially double it. They cost an average of $9,000 at public universities and $30,000 at private colleges. Again, this doesn’t include room and board. And it assumes you will attend school full-time, devoting your attention completely to your studies instead of generating income.
The cost of a master’s degree is also growing rapidly. In the ten-year span from 2008-2018, master’s degrees ballooned in cost. Up 45% for public universities—the “cheap” option!—and 16% for private colleges.
Advanced degrees don’t make you much more employable
What kind of amazing returns can you expect for such a significant investment? Well, a lot of young people think that having a master’s degree will give them an edge when looking for jobs.
And they do! For very, very specific jobs. I have a personal friend who works in a field that expects advanced degrees. Her employer basically told her “there’s a higher level job waiting for you, should you decide to get your masters.”
But for jobs in general? Let’s look at the unemployment rates for Americans based on their educational attainment…
The unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree is 2.2%. For those with a master’s degree, it’s 2.1%. So, uh, let me see if I’m doing this math correctly… I don’t have my master’s in economics, but something tells me that ROI sucks.
Two years of your life
+ Two years of potential full-time income and career growth
+ $10,000 to 30,000 in tuition costs
= A 0.1% drop in your unemployment rate
Yes, really. That’s it.
If you think that a master’s degree will make you a more attractive job candidate within the general pool, the numbers just don’t support that hypothesis. Part of that may just be the number and kind of job openings available today. But there are other, more subtle reasons too.
Advanced degrees scare employers
Rightly or wrongly, advanced degrees make some recruiters and hiring managers nervous. They think candidates will be bored in entry-level roles, or expect too high of a salary. There’s an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, which you can read here, that describes this wariness.
Early-stage start-ups fear entitlement. The psychology of a good start-up can only be described as relentless scrappiness. When evaluating candidates, the start-up seeks out a commando mentality and a willingness to do grunt work. In both of these aspects, prestigious degrees are seen as a warning sign if not a negative signal.
“Commandos” do their own thing and are effective as individual operators. They are self-motivated to a fault, often not buying in to any incentive system that would infringe on their autonomy — promotions, money, grades, or credentials. It’s rare that someone with such a commando mentality would have a clean track record at school.
Elite degrees, meanwhile, can signal that people excel within organizations and feedback systems, neither of which exist in a start-up. New founders struggle to provide consistent direction, and very few start-ups have operational procedures for recognition or incentives. So companies select for candidates who will find ways to create value with no input, feedback, or immediate recognition from management.When A Fancy Degree Scares Employers Away
Although the focus here is specifically on the tech/startup space, I think it’s a valuable perspective to consider more broadly. I don’t really endorse the startup mentality as a good, healthy, sustainable thing. I think we’ll see this culture collapse in the next ten years, and it’ll be good riddance when it does.
But this characterization of the expectations is dead-on. People who succeed in academic settings can’t always instantly adapt to roles in the “real world.” And sometimes they can come in with a bit of a ‘tude considering their lack of tangible experience.
Advanced degrees mean more money—but it’s not the only way
Educational attainment correlates strongly with income, this is definitely true. The average holder of a master’s degree makes $236 more per week than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree.
If that master’s degree holder paid the average of $20,000 for his additional education, in the average time of two years, it would take him about two years to start to see a return on that investment. Though that doesn’t consider the lost time in the field, or the two years of lost income if he wasn’t working, or was only working part time.
You know what will make your average weekly salary climb by about the same amount? Regular old aging!
Unlike getting a master’s degree, aging is free! And the program has auto-enrollment!
What I take away from this is that experience can have an equally powerful effect on your income as an advanced degree. If you spend ages 22-24 getting an advanced degree, monetarily, it’s almost a complete wash with just waiting to turn 25.
Experience in the field is incredibly valuable. When you’re working, you’re adding new skills, growing your network, and (ideally) translating those gains into higher salaries and better positions. You need to think really carefully before you sacrifice that for yet more academic accomplishments.
Your future employer might pay for it
You can get a steep discount on continuing education if you get an employer to subsidize it.
Companies large and small offer this kind of perk. It can be a formal benefit, or something that you negotiate. It can be a really smart move to take a job strategically, knowing you plan to utilize a tuition reimbursement plan.
Plus, these companies will probably have a culture that accommodates the realities of working while also taking classes. They may be more flexible with letting you leave early to get to your class. You can even use your vacation time or sick days to prepare for exams or write major papers. Trying to work and study at the same time is hard enough as it is; you don’t need to also be fighting your boss’s disdain or hardassery.
Just plan it out thoroughly. Schedule a meeting with your HR rep to go over all the terms and conditions of the perk. There may be stipulations about the types of institutions you can use, or the classes you can take. You don’t want any nasty surprises later.
Escape the academic bubble
We’re not talking about how American colleges are a hotbed of leftist propaganda and socialism. Which they are! The chain emails your dad sends you from his AOL.com address can’t be wrong!
Sit for a moment and consider the fact that the average American is in some kind of school setting for six hours a day, from ages six to eighteen. Twelve years is a really, really long time to be in one career—especially a career you did not choose. And higher education will lengthen that career by two, four, six, or eight years. Two decades is a whole lot of life!
Academia is a bubble. The skills you need in school are different from the skills you need in business and life. You will have limited chances to discover if you are entrepreneurial, inventive, good at managing other people…
Socially, when you’re in school, you tend to be surrounded by people with similar interests and similar backgrounds, who are the same age you are and grew up with all the same cultural experiences. That’s an awesome opportunity to form solid friendships that can last a lifetime. I liked my first college roommate so much I started an award-winning blog with her to further disseminate our leftist propaganda and socialism!
But I’ve build much more diverse friendships with people I’ve met at work. I lucked out with a string of snarky older lady mentors, who had so much wit and wisdom to impart. I met people who juggled young kids and aging parents long before my peer group was hitting those milestones. It’s through work that I’m friendly with folks from India and Brazil and Scotland and Haiti and Luxembourg. I wouldn’t hang out with data scientists, or Mormons, or cancer-surviving triathletes, or parents raising six children if I didn’t work with those people.
If you like to learn and identify as a lifelong learner, don’t think that means you need to stay in school forever! The right role will have you learning and challenging yourself every day in ways school cannot.
You can always go back
I feel the same way about careers and advanced degrees as I do about relationships. If it’s meant to be, what’s the rush? Why get married at twenty-two when you could enjoy a long, comfortable period of cohabitation and engagement? You’re going to be together forever either way, right?
If you think you want to pursue a master’s degree, why not give yourself a break first? Take two years, five years, ten years to unwind from taking classes, explore your career, and revel in your own good choice?
A handful of years working in your field—even if it’s at a lower-level—might give you extremely valuable fresh insights into exactly what you want. Something you thought would be boring will turn out to be fascinating; some duty you thought you’d love, you’ll end up disliking. You can relocate to an area that has a higher concentration of jobs in your field and see if you like it. You can acquire mentors who have the career you want and you can talk to them about exactly how they got there.
Take it from this ancient and withered thirty-two-year-old: your life is long enough to take the time to smell the roses.
Learning as an adult is even more rewarding
You also may find that you get more out of college as an adult.
I took horseback riding lessons when I was a kid. There’s this thing you have to do called “two-point.” You position your body like a jockey: barely touching the saddle, butt thrust out, back arched, head up, balancing on the balls of your feet, without slipping and tugging on the horse’s mouth, even as the horse jostles you around. It requires a ton of strength, focus, and balance. It’s completely exhausting to hold. And I remember as a kid absolutely hating it. If my instructor’s attention was momentarily called elsewhere, I’d sneakily slip back into my seat to rest.
Twenty years later, I’m taking lessons again. My instructor left me alone to warm up. And as my horse walked, I voluntarily rose up into my two-point. I experimented with tiny adjustments, and I held it until I was red-faced and shaking. When my instructor came back in, she saw what I was doing and lit up. “This is why I love teaching you. You actually want to learn.”
It really does make all the difference.
Are there any folks out there in Bitch Nation who went to grad school straight out of college? Did you like it? Would you recommend it to someone else? Tell us about it in the comments below!