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.
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. There are some people who can confidently move straight from their undergraduate degree into a graduate program. 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!
75 thoughts to “22-Year-Olds Don’t Belong in Grad School”
Went back for more school almost 30 years later. Any earlier would have been too soon. As an adult, when it was purely for self-improvement versus employability purposes, could not have been a richer experience.
I went to grad school immediately after undergrad. I told myself it was because I wouldn’t get a job in the 2010 market and it was the entrance fee to the field I wanted to be in: public health. I was lucky to not have to take out loans and my career since has been satisfying. But I 100% would not recommend it to anyone. Experience is way more important than any degree (even mine). I also find it limiting, in a way. Moving into an unrelated field would make me feel that I had wasted that time and money and it’s difficult to explain that you want to leave the field you studied years to be in for something unknown just because you’re looking for a new challenge. All that to say, I endorse your recommendation!
You know, I kind of hate that you’re right, because holy shit, I’d LOVE to do a master’s. I thrived at uni, and I want to go back. I even know what my thesis would be. I have it all planned out.
Except I probably never will, because, honestly? I can’t justify the expense. I did the math, and I just can’t. It wouldn’t give me a better-paid or more rewarding job, wouldn’t move me closer to my dream job, nothing like that. I would literally be doing it for the love of learning, and I love learning a lot, but not enough to sink my household finances and drag my girlfriend down with me.
I’m also glad that you’re giving those truth bombs to the people you mentor, because I was raised to idolize having a masters, and I grappled with guilt for almost a decade when it turned out that I probably wouldn’t have one.
I am 4 years into my career and at the “what next” point. Which is not the “what’s next” I would have predicted when I graduated. I’m glad I didn’t go straight into a masters…because the major-changing phenomena most college freshmen experience didn’t hit me until now! I don’t know what masters will be best for my career, and I need more time to figure it out before investing all that time and money!
I wanted to go to grad school after my BA, largely because I didn’t know what else to day. In the late 90s, largely there was a dearth of jobs and big pools of applicants. Instead, I went to a community college and tried to augment my experience with certificates. What I found was I suddenly didn’t have the patience for academic BS–professors or other teachers who tried to tell me I didn’t have the skill to do ‘x’ were not there to nurture or educate: they were there to belittle and make power plays. I’ve tried to go back for a master’s several times since (on the company dime) and I can’t get past how ridiculous we make things in terms of time, energy, and expense.
I’d be curious how you feel about professional certifications (the PMP, for example). What I’ve found when researching the material is that someone in an Ivory Tower has put together their dream time of qualifications, processes, and procedures. The reality is that no one (or very very few) will ever work the way the material and certification is designed. And so, you fork over a bunch of money for study materials, and a test, and you’re left with an extra four letters (or so) to add to your resume–oh, and a rarefied group of people who were also able to commit a large amount of information to memory.
I just finished studying for (and failing) a cert where, if you fail, you receive almost no feedback on what you did poorly. Seems like it’s designed more for the certification board to make money than to educate their workforce.
I’m happy to say I was never interested in grad school so I never had this quandary. But in general I agree with you: it’s necessary for a few fields and unnecessary for most. It’s just exacerbating the crushing debt so many people are already coping with. Now they owe even more money and STILL probably are having trouble getting anything more than entry level salaries (and good luck paying your student loans down on that!).
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m in one of those fields where the opportunities to advance exist almost solely if you have a master’s. I’m currently in grad school (more or less straight out of my bachelor’s degree) for my master’s in Library Science, since everything anyone anywhere has ever told me is that if you want a job in librarianship beyond a part-time helper or shelver, you’ve got to have your MLS or they automatically cross you off the list. I’m pretty sure I only have the part time library job I have now because I told them I was in the process of getting my master’s, in fact.
I made the argument to myself that since I was going back to school so quickly, I would be able to keep the momentum of being a student. I don’t know if that was a particularly correct argument…mainly at this point I want to be finished with school, no matter how interesting I find my classes and the course material. I was just too scared to wait for long before getting the master’s I knew I’d need for my field, because I wanted the chance to advance into a full-time position at a library sooner rather than later. But there’s always the chance that all I’ve been fed is bad info?
As someone with her MLS, straight out of undergrad, I’ll chime in. If you want to be a librarian, aka have a decent full-time job in a library, you must have your MLS. However, it’s hard to pick a career that early and without a lot of work experience.
I’ve now completed two master’s, so clearly I needed this advice earlier, but the second degree was far more strategic and rewarding with more experience in work and the world. I took some time out of the workforce and took out additional student loans, but immediately got a job making more than double my previous salary. I still think it was the best choice for me specifically, but obviously pursuing employer-paid education or working my way up without going back to school would have put me even further ahead. And also not diving directly into library school for the wrong reasons in the first place.
But my advice – if you love working in libraries, get the degree out of the way as quickly and cheaply as possible. Very few of the skills you’ll need as a librarian are taught in an MLS program, but it’s a required entry ticket for the profession (for better or worse). But also don’t be afraid to take a little time out of school to explore your options and think carefully about the type of work and work environment you enjoy. Libraries are particularly egregious when it comes to requiring advanced degrees without commensurate compensation – also be forewarned that higher-paying management roles often require a 2nd masters! That being said, I do love librarianship and there is a lot of good work to be done there if you pursue that path.
I am the exception. I work in one of those fields where you cannot advance without a Masters, and I am that employer who has told staff that if they earn the diploma I can give them a much better career track and salary. Lots of people drop out of the field while still an undergrad or during an MA program, especially due to pressure from parents who don’t understand that this can be a full time and lucrative career. The STEM pressure is slaughtering us.
So frustrating – I could hire three people tomorrow if I could find them.
Obviously, I do not work in Marketing Operations. (What is marketing operations?)
I graduated with my BA in 2009, tried to get a job, got scared shitless by the job market, and went straight on to a Masters in Teaching because I figured there will always be children who need teachers.
After seven years of teaching, I can safely say I don’t like being a teacher. I wish I had worked and seen the world a bit before deciding to teach– I can think of SO many things I would rather have done with the last seven years of my life. Teaching is the classic overworked, underpaid career; I entered it out of fear and ended up resentful.
I’m now in the process of taking pre-reqs to go back to school for physical therapy, and I’m really excited! I think I’ve chosen a path where I can feel good about my work, have a healthy work/life balance, and do enough interesting problem-solving to stay engaged and motivated. Not to mention that it pays much better.
Don’t go straight through to grad school, kids. Just don’t.
I agree that going straight to grad school isn’t right for most people, but wanted to add that it doesn’t necessarily cost anything: reputable programs in STEM fields will pay you $20-35k per year to get your MS or PhD and don’t charge tuition. It’s not a huge salary but probably comparable to other jobs you’d get straight out of college, and you definitely won’t go further into debt.
I mean, academia is a bubble like publishing is a bubble like tech is a bubble. It’s an industry with its own qualifications and skills. Your depiction of it strikes me as too tethered to your undergrad experience, unless you’re talking about the quickest and dirtiest master’s degrees (and even then, loads of people work through master’s degrees). This part, in particular struck me as off.
“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…”
Academia is highly entrepreneurial and not necessarily in a good way. How many jobs require you to drum up the money for your salary on an annual basis? By the time I left academia I could say with all honesty I had rustled up over $500k in support of my research and I have an exceptionally useless humanities PhD. It’s a goddamn waste of time to spend half your life chasing money, mind you, but it’s a huge part of the game. It’s also a pretty marketable skillset that got me my non-academic job.
Inventive: research degrees are inventive by nature. This criticism doesn’t make sense on any academic level, honestly, unless intellectual work isn’t considered inventive.
Good at managing people: teaching! Managing TAs! Getting some little shit to do his first year French homework so his mom doesn’t rage call you when he fails is absolutely a management problem.
Also, it teaches you to talk on the fly to a room full of people, and how to condense complicated ideas into a few basic points, and present that boiled down information in a time sensitive setting. It often comes with pretty useful side skills, like stats or coding or foreign languages.
Homogeneity: I mean, not if you’re doing it right. Mentoring isn’t confined to the corporate world.
I actually don’t think most people should get graduate degrees. You should certainly never get a PhD in any field if you have to pay for it or for your living expenses. If a PhD program doesn’t pay you, it doesn’t want you. Definitely don’t get a master’s in the humanities – those are openly cash cows and your faculty won’t care about you.
But at the same time the “academia isn’t the real world” is basically a right-wing talking point, meant to propagate a generally anti-intellectual culture. You’re basically buying into “real America.” Even worse, you’re tacitly supporting the idea that academia isn’t really a job like anywhere else – it’s a vocation. And if it’s a vocation, then, my, aren’t you so lucky to be working here? And wouldn’t it be crass of you to unionize or demand benefits or protest the fact that you took a job on the opposite coast of your spouse forever for 60k/year? Shouldn’t you just feel lucky to be one of the chosen?
Nope, nope, nope. The politics of saying it’s not the real world are terrible. It’s just a job. It gives you some skills and not others, just like any other job. You’re not a perpetual child for being in it and you’re not an apostate for leaving it.
Great post otherwise but, seriously, stop buying into this toxic culture of academia vs “the real world.”
I agree with most of your comment, even the part about how treating academia like a vocation that you’re “lucky” to have, but I disagree with your point that academia is just another part of the “real” world (even though I take major umbrage with the right-wing idea that coastal, educated elites/academics are somehow not “real” Americans).
My ex partner had a learning disability and got extra time and accommodations that simply don’t exist in the real world when there are actual deadlines attached to actual dollars. Once you’re done with coursework, deadlines kinda go away. Yes, there are grant deadlines, or conference submission deadlines (although they’re often extended), and grades have to be turned in by a certain time to finish out the semester, but compared to a corporate job, that aspect of academia is cushy af and nowhere in the real world do you get that kind of lack of pressure (which isn’t always a good thing). Your independent research projects can take as long as they take (or as long as you take to actually write them up) and there are relatively few consequences that occur in real time (you might not get tenure, but that consequence is so far removed from the (in)actions that precluded it as to be functionally useless as a consequence). He also felt an obligation to continue to puzzle through things for much longer (like weeks longer) than he needed to because he felt like if he didn’t figure it out on his own, he was somehow not doing it right or something… compared to my corporate job where I was routinely told that if I couldn’t figure something out in a matter of minutes to ask someone because they could probably help me get past that stumbling block pretty quickly and I can move on, and that’s better for all of us because the faster I can work, the more projects we can do, the more money is available to us for raises and bonuses. I still learned how to do things, and I didn’t often ask the same question more than once, but I completed things in a fraction of the time that he did, despite the fact that we worked on projects of similar complexity.
Also, it’s much harder to advocate for things you deserve in the academic space than I feel like it is in the private sector. As you mention, you don’t have a lot of mobility or choice when working as an academic–you can’t just pick up and move jobs for more money/better hours/a better location/whatever the same way you can in the private sector (not that that is a piece of cake, but it’s definitely easier than it is as an academic).
Your perspective is pretty much mine, Alicia. These different worlds present different challenges and opportunities.
The college that Piggy and I went to for undergrad claims many famous alumni. But we giggle about this, knowing that half of those people dropped out or failed out before finishing. The degrees they got later were honorary. Lots of mediocre or poor students become shining stars in other fields.
When Fox News chucklefucks say “academic is a bubble,” they’re talking about how the majority of people in the academic field tend to identify personally as politically liberal, and that it must follow that these liberal professors exert undue nefarious socialist influence, forever damaging the minds and warping the perceptions of all those sweet, innocent children who could’ve otherwise grown up to love Ronal Regan just as much as they do. Personally I think it’s hilarious that they think professors have this kind of pull, when it’s a struggle just to get the kids to READ THE DANG SYLLABUS. Also we are explicitly pro-nefarious socialist influence.
When BGR chucklefucks say “academia is a bubble,” we’re talking about it in the exact same sense that all industries are bubbles–business, art, tech, nonprofit, caregiving, what have you. The difference is that in most cases, academia is the one industry the average American child HAS extensive experience in by the time they turn 18. Making a conscious choice to continue is totally fine! And certainly as you age, the challenges can evolve. But I think you’ll have a more robust ability to judge your own interests if you have lots of experiences in other, stranger bubbles.
Cities and countries and social groups and classes and families and religions are bubbles too, for that matter. The greater diversity of experiences, the more sure you’ll be that you’ve made the right choice for yourself.
Having moved from a few academic jobs to a few “real world” jobs (and obvs having tons of friends and family members in both types), I found the academic jobs harder and less “cushy” by a mile. I appreciate this discussion, and don’t disagree with most of the original post, but I agree that OP is way out of her depth with what PhD/academic work is. Giveaways include referring to paying for a PhD program (which virtually nobody does, because it’s more of an apprenticeship in which you’re working and adding value), describing it as four years of coursework (unlike undergrad/masters degrees, the coursework isn’t the point and the timeframe is usually longer, though I got my PhD in four years so it can be done), and talking about “academia” as if being an undergrad student is being part of academia. The analogy I’ve used to try to explain this to my siblings with masters degrees is that being a patient in a hospital waiting room is a certain experience, which isn’t to be dismissed, but doesn’t make you “part of medicine.” When you’re a low-level consumer in a system, you probably don’t have much insight into what’s happening behind the scenes.
So thank you, OP, for your perspective based on your life and work experiences. And thank you, Alicia, for clarifying with additional information that OP doesn’t have access to because we’ve all taken different paths in life. It worked well for me to get my free PhD by 25 because I work in a (non-academic) field where you need one to get hired, so if I hadn’t gone straightaway, I would have been delaying my current career ladder climb.
I did my Masters in Library and Information Science straight out of undergrad, and while I highly enjoyed the experience and program and I don’t regret getting my masters. I absolutely would not recommend someone do it straight out of undergrad. I saw my mature/returning students around me getting so much more out of it than I was able to, and putting so much more into it than I was able to. Because of their experience in the working world. That was rough and also just really put into perspective how little of the world I’d seen.
Now, a year out of school I’m struggling to find jobs because I have this fancy degree but essentially no experience. So I don’t fit any jobs criteria. Because I’m either massively over qualified (and I suspect scaring employers off as you mention), or don’t have the experience for the jobs I am qualified for.
Oh I forgot to note and this is maybe relevant that I am Canadian and did my degrees in Canada. So it’s not the exact same (ie cheaper)
I’m a 23 in grad school getting a PhD in life science field and I think your advice is right in most cases. I’d say that if you know you want a job that need a PhD get a Phd and skip the masters. If you aren’t ready to apply to PhD programs in junior/senior year of college (emotionally or research experience) get a industry or lab tech job not a masters. In my field, masters are mostly a waste of time as I coming right out of undergrad was in the same basic classes as the people with masters and years of industry experience and this was true for all the programs I interviewed at. Still there are some jobs that a PhD is a requirement, so that’s why i’m getting mine.
I’m in a field that you have to have a master’s to even be considered for a job. However, I waited 10 years before I went back for my master’s and the experience I got before going back to school has put me into a career I never would have thought about. I don’t think I’d be as happy with my career if I’d gone straight to graduate school like I originally planned. I was also fortunate that I worked for a university that paid for 7 of my 8 semesters (I got a job outside the university in my field before finishing so had to pay out of pocket for my last semester).
I’m in one of those fields (school counselor, masters absolutely required for the cert). I also went to grad school straight out of undergrad. For me, who was 100% sure and has never looked back, it was the right choice. Starting young puts me on the track to pension/etc faster.
However, I had crazy academic burnout in my last year of my masters and I deeply got why people say you shouldn’t go straight.
I’m the person who my friends go to when they’re having quarter life “I should go back to school” crises. And I tell them all the time “Do not go unless you’re sure, unless it’s absolutely necessary, and the program is reputable and has a great job placement rate”
I’m 21 and about to start graduate school next week, but only because it’s a requirement of the job I want. I want to be a librarian. I volunteered/worked in a library for about 5 years and loved it. I would like to get an official librarian position, maybe even become a library director one day, but every job posting I’ve seen requires a master’s degree in library science. So here I am ready for 2 more years of school! I don’t think I would be going to graduate school if this wasn’t the case. I cringe every time I see what it’s costing me to be here but, at the very least, I’ll have a job I love in the end, so that’s worth it to me.
Get a job first. Look for someplace that will pay for library school. There are places that will. I am still paying off my student loans for my MLIS and its been almost 14 years. Its a great profession but the pay vs the cost of the degree is bonkers.
As a library director I would prefer to hire someone who has worked a full-time job before over someone that goes straight from BA to MLS, even with student jobs and volunteer experiences. Resources are scarce in libraries, and in each one I’ve worked in (6 and counting) I’ve had to — or needed someone to — hit the ground running. Library school is great for principles of library science but does little teaching of actual skills. Take internships if your program offers them. Find one on your own if they do not. Happy studies!
Thank you both for the advice, it’s a little late for me to stop my studies now, but I am going to be working during it. I was recently hired at the university’s publishing company to assist with an archiving project. It won’t pay for all of my schooling, but it will help with a decent amount of it. Also, I was lucky that some librarians at the public library I volunteered at back in high school told me something similar to what you did MSMO, that library school doesn’t usually teach you a lot of actual skills. That library actually hired me. My official title was intern and it wasn’t full time work, not even close at first, but my hours gradually increased until I was doing close to 30 hours a week and they had me doing a little bit of everything to help me develop some of those skills that library school doesn’t teach you. I’m so grateful that they were so willing to teach me what they knew and I learned a lot from them. And I will definitely be looking into internships during my program, I want as much experience as I can get!
I just have to repeat that librarians are among my very favorite kind of humans, and it warms the cold, cobwebbed cockles of my heart to see so many of you reading BGR <3
Anastasia, your path towards graduate school and a position in your field seems to be one of the only sure-fire ways to land a position in the LIS field. You have to already work in the field at the grovelling “yes, I want to be here, I’ll do anything just for a part-time position!” stage to aquire the experience that will make your degree worth anything. I’ve always considered librarians as a whole to be very caring people, but the more I think about it, we’re a little sadistic.
Kelsey, I can see what you mean! The librarians I’ve met, and worked with, have all been very caring people, asking about my schooling, giving me advice about different parts of it, helping with assignments if I needed it, but from all the part-time position grunt work I’ve done, I can see what you mean about being a little sadistic! I’m hoping doing a lot of the part-time position stuff now during school will help me avoid having to do it when I’m done, but we’ll see if I have to do more of the grovelling part-time position stage in the future!
I have a PhD in a STEM field and teach at a university, and went straight through BS-MS-PhD. I was also a foreign national and got my green card through my university after getting my doctorate. So not at all your typical case, but for non-US-born folks like me, there’s no question at ALL the PhD pays off. As someone else mentioned, in most STEM fields, the MS and PhD degrees are paid for – tuition, fees and a living wage are covered by your advisor so if you’re financially astute, you can graduate debt-free and in a field that will pay very well. That said, you should absolutely do your homework and pick 1) a school with great job placement rate/rankings and 2) an advisor who has your back and will do his/her damn best to help you graduate in a timely manner.
All your points are spot on. Take the money while you have the chance 22 year olds cause you can always turn back if you so desire.
I took that route and worked for 4 years and got bored and used it as a professionally acceptable way to take some time, make friends, and travel (I chose a European program).
I got my Masters partly because my teaching career demanded it, and also because I managed to enroll in an accelerated program which crammed the BA and MST into a five year, all-or-nothing grind. I walked away with two degrees, successful student teaching hours, initial teacher’s certification, and 60K in debt. If I hadn’t been able to qualify for that program I’m not sure what I would have done, but I’m glad I did.
I’m no longer teaching for several reasons, but the fact that I have a master’s degree (and I rightfully pointed out that teaching is 75% management skills 25% content skills) allowed me to transition into corporate training and low-level management. I’m currently helping a couple of my former teacher-friends through this transition as well. If you have gotten a master’s degree and want to change your fields, it’s not a complete wash out! Identify universal skills you’ve acquired and lean into them HARD.
All in all I don’t regret my decision to get the Advanced degree, the only thing I would have changed is to take a lower interest private loan instead of a conditional grant (which eventually turned into a loan, plus interest). Read that fine print kiddos!
I was a classic overachiever in high school, and I looked forward to college like most people look forward to marriage, or retirement. Was shocked when I got there and honestly didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, for a variety of reasons. As it turned out, I was just looking forward to leaving my parents’ house. I graduated in 2013 and got a job immediately, and haven’t looked back. I’ve learned a ton and advanced in my career (a career college frankly had nothing to do with preparing me for. Class indicator is SPOT ON), and although my parents keep telling me I should get my MBA, I could not be less interested. I’m incredibly glad I have a healthy fear of debt and don’t feel the need to prove anythingto anyone. High school me thought I would get a damn doctorate someday… I would tell any 21 or 22 year old to put off an advanced degree until they have some adult work experience at the very least.
I totally relate. I thought I loved school, but really what I loved was having autonomy. School gave me the most opportunities to feel autonomous. I used to crave the validation of seeing my papers graded… Now the whole idea of being evaluated kinda makes my skin crawl.
I grew up around academics and can confirm: post-graduate work is either designed to train you for a specific job/field (library science or related degrees are regularly required for jobs working in libraries and archives; medical school is required if you want to legally work as a doctor), or it’s not intended as a job skills certification at all.
Skipping the lengthy historical explanation of why:
A lot of higher level degrees are intended to introduce you to a field of research and prepare you specifically for a career advancing that field by a) doing more research and b) teaching other people about the field. Don’t think of it as making yourself more attractive to a field of employers, think of it as working through your apprenticeship as you start a career.
There are a few things that might make grad school right after undergrad more appealing. Because my birthday is in November, technically I went to grad school at age 21. While that was an awkward moment (“coming out” as 21), for the most part it didn’t negatively effect me. Here’s why:
-my program offered free tuition in exchange for teaching. I know that’s not common and I am SO lucky, but it meant I was getting experience AND not accruing debt–you might be able to find a program like this!
-I had been getting work experience through internships during the undergrad semesters, and full time summer positions at those internship organizations over the summer. I was not going to leave undergrad without experience.
-I still had all my “study muscles.” Going from undergrad to grad school meant I was used to being in classrooms for long hours, I was used to lots of homework, I knew how to tackle research and writing assignments. A lot of my fellow grad school cohort, even those who had taken only a few years off really noticed their abilities in this arena had atrophied.
Big fan, first-time commenter —
I was a 22 year-old graduate student and a 23 year-old grad school dropout. Now 28, working in a totally different field from my graduate studies, pretty satisfied with the career I eventually started!
If I can offer some context that might be relevant to a lot of college grads or soon-to-be-grads considering more school — I’m verrrrry achievement oriented and had so much momentum leaving undergrad that higher ed seemed like the most logical next step (not to mention the quiet but crippling insecurity in my ability to function in any other context). This is a trap. Be smarter than me and dodge it.
Big fan, first-time commenter —
I was a 22 year-old graduate student and a 23 year-old grad school dropout. Now 28, working in a totally different field from my graduate studies, pretty satisfied with the career I eventually started!
If I can offer some context that might be relevant to a lot of college grads or soon-to-be-grads considering more school — I’m verrrrry achievement oriented and had so much momentum leaving undergrad that higher ed seemed like the most logical next step (not to mention the quiet but crippling insecurity in my ability to function in any other context). This is a trap. Be smarter than me and dodge it.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Business Management in 2011 and spent a year without a job (because the offers were worse than being unemployed). Some friends that were still studying (Civil Engineering) were bugging me to get a master’s degree while I found a job. I was like… FIRST OF ALL, NO SON ENCHILADAS! (loosely translated to “it’s no piece of cake, idiot”)
Here in Mexico getting a master’s degree is… I would say kinda common. The prices are not prohibitively expensive and most of the time the master you pick is something adjacent to your bachelor. I considered it for a while, getting in a program that would allow me to work full time and attend classes part-time. I thought about finances since it was my favorite subject in college… but I desisted.
I’m so glad I did.
At that time, I got a couple of bad-paying, hardly motivational, sucky jobs. I found out I wasn’t into sales, marketing, accounting, or human resources. Things happened and decided to move to a bigger, cooler city (Guadalajara) to pursue a career in an industry that I liked a lot: IT.
So, I joined an IT company as an administrative assistant, enjoyed the hell out of that position but eventually decided to make a career switch to technical project management. The company had my back and helped me with the transition, teaching me in-house on how to do the new job. I kept learning about personal finances as my hobby and it has paid of big-time <3
It's been 8 years since I graduated and I'm so happy I didn't get into a master's degree right away. I might have been happy in corporate finances, but I'm way happier, relaxed and have better income possibilities within the IT industry. Now I'm considering if getting a degree would be a good option for me since I want to try product design and development.
Moral of the story: DON'T.GET.A.MASTER'S.DEGREE.WHEN.JUST.GRADUATED.AND.WHEN.YOU.KNOW.NOTHING.
Give yourself some time to actually build a career and find out your strengths and likes before getting into debt for something you like the idea of, or feel as "a necessity". And with all the educational resources available online… is it formal school even that necessary?
Well, I decided to fail my architecture class senior year, because I knew I’d never be going to school again. Not for me.
It does worry me when I see people jumping to school, because they don’t know what they want to do, or they feel stuck. Explore a less risky thing first, right? I would have no idea what I want to be or do…without trying it myself first.
My friend cashed out her 401k to pay for an MBA from a really good school. Now she’s doing basically the same thing she was doing before the MBA. So, I’d say to make sure you have a clear plan and vision for what you are going to do (actionable steps). I don’t think she was ever interested in business or being an entrepreneur. Just wanted to do something different from her safe job.
That’s not the first time I’ve heard that happening. If you asked for a promotion or applied for a new job, and hear specific feedback that the role would be yours if only you had a higher degree, that’d be one thing. But I think for a lot of people resort to getting one before they have a clear plan of what they want it to do for them.
If I had to take an architecture class right now, my final thesis would be to wave a hand over my own body and declare it the finest brick house ever built…
I have my MA (psychology–research, not clinical), and you left off the reason I usually tell people not to go to grad school–it’s fucking TERRIBLE for your mental health. My cohort had 13 students, and to the best of my knowledge none of us were on antidepressants prior to starting. By the time we finished, 1 in 3 of us were on them and probably at least half of us should have been. In one month, 4 separate students (in my year and the year below) were sent to the hospital with symptoms of appendicitis (i.e., severe stomach pain)–none of us had it, it was just stress. I can’t think of a single person I know who is happier or healthier after starting a masters/PhD program than they were before–best case scenario they maintain the physical and mental health they had prior to starting (and I’d say that’s probably fewer than half of the dozens of people I know who hold advanced degrees).
I got it because I wanted to be a professor, so it was a requirement, but I decided that the academic culture was so toxic and I didn’t want to be poor until my mid-30s and have 0 control over where I lived or worked, so I left for market research. I’d say that the people in my cohort who decided not to go on to a PhD program struggled somewhat to get non-academic employment partially because we were seen as overqualified for entry-level positions, but we didn’t actually have that much actual experience, so that was really all we *could* do.
I would say that if you’re going to do it though (despite vehement warnings against it!), go to a program that will fund you–tuition and stipend (they’re usually still not enough). And I do think it’s better to do it when you’re younger–before your standard of living is inflated (seriously, you’re gonna be so poor) and preferably before you have a partner and/or kids who will suffer greatly from your choices–you’ll be super busy and exhausted and poor and miserable, and it’s easier to do all of that without other people expecting you to spend time with them and consider their needs (having been the partner of a PhD candidate, I do not recommend it).
This is a very, very, very good point that I’m kinda surprised that I neglected to touch on! Because hoo boy, you’re totally right. There’s a certain shade of Benjamin Moore’s Total Despair Black I’ve seen in the eyes of a lot of friends pursuing advanced degrees. Even if it’s in pursuit of a career you know you’ll love, that kinda just makes the pressure even higher.
I honestly wouldn’t recommend graduate school to very many people unless it’s either A) funded, or B) the student has a graduate assistantship (which covers the majority of tuition). The work experience is really invaluable and honestly puts someone at a greater advantage, depending on the line of work, than someone with no real world work experience. Graduate school is for later. Thank you for this great post!
Your post doesn’t specifically name law school or other professional school, but I can vouch for the general rule that 22 year olds don’t belong in law school either unless, perhaps, they have a full cost of attendance scholarship or significant financial assistance from their families. (And even then, it can’t hurt to wait.) The degree’s simply not worth the cost of attendance unless one intends to practice law and it’s really hard to know what it means to practice law, or whether one can even stand it, unless one has worked in the industry before. (I did not, and am extremely lucky that I actually enjoy the substance of the work.)
I also don’t think most fresh college graduates have enough life experience to fully appreciate the implications of the student loans required to pay for law school. Even though I understood all the relevant terms of my loans when I matriculated at age 24, after spending two years working and being financially self-sufficient, I still didn’t fully understand what I was getting into. I had a close to half-tuition scholarship, and still graduated with ~$180,000 in law school loans.
The next most important factor, in my view, is that work experience before starting law school (even in a completely unrelated, super-laid-back job like I was doing before) seems to correlate with an easier time with on-campus recruiting and better career outcomes in terms of one’s first post-law school job. (With those student loans and given the nature of the profession, that on-campus job hunt for one’s first full-time attorney job is super-high stakes.) Employers seem to appreciate job candidates with a bit of real-world experience . I could go on and on about this topic, but suffice to say, 22-year-olds would do better to put off the decision to go to law school!
I second this! I worked for three years before starting law school, and I noticed that those of us who had done that had a bit more maturity and a better sense of perspective on the work needed, etc. I was a lot more self-motivated than I would have been if I’d started directly after undergrad. And yes, I was one of those morons who just went to law school because I was interested in the subject and didn’t really have anything better to do (this was long ago, when you could come out with only 20-30K of debt if you went to a public school).
I had a law clerk a few years ago who was 300K in the hole because he’d gone to a private college, then got a masters, then went to a private law school. This is more than my house cost!
Nowadays I caution my friends that they shouldn’t pressure their children to go to law school. If the person isn’t really, REALLY motivated to practice law, they truly shouldn’t spend 3 years of their life and a ton of money. They’d be much better served by working. There are still people who pursue a graduate degree to please their parents. DON’T be one of those people, for the love of christ. Just don’t!
My experience as well. (Posted below.)
Oh, and the debt I incurred (even though nothing like the debt kids come out with now) had me eating beans and rice the first ten years I was out and now figuring I’ll have to work to age 70. (I did public service/local government work my whole legal career, which has been satisfying but not the least bit remunerative).
Long time reader, first time commenter here :). I have to say, I think this advice is mainly valid for US citizens. I am European and our system is a bit different (3 years for a bachelor degree, 2 for a master) and of course a lot cheaper. I didn’t even realize people my age were going into student debt until I met a bunch of Americans on one of my study exchanges, I remember being horrified when I heard about that the first time. I had two smarty pants friends in one of my programs that got enrolled in a Swedish university back when they still had the policy of treating all students like Swedish students (no tuition and a monthly stipend from the Swedish government, but they started to realize this generosity was going to become an issue and dialed it back to only EU citizens).
Probably because it’s so much easier to get a master’s here, potential employers usually expect you to have one, which kind of stinks if you are from a place where it is super expensive to get one (I have an Aussie friend who considered looking for a job in Europe, but then realized she needed one for the roles she was interested in).
In the USA absolutely everything is reduced to a money-making opportunity, including health care and education. People literally go bankrupt trying to pay for education and health care, but the system continues because people obtain huge amounts of money from this system, which they then convert into political power. In Europe, the system is set up for the average person, not for the wealthy to get even more money. There is greater equality and greater upward mobility among generations.
I can only second this in regards to the costs. Degrees is Europe are (with a few exceptions like private schools) way cheaper than American ones. If I (a European) were to do a masters degree in Germany I’d only have to pay 500 euros max for “tuition” per semester which would even include a free ticket for the local public transport. I don’t know how much more it would be for international students but I can only recommend doing the research – it might save you a lot of money and also give you experience abroad. But as previous comments have said: it depends on your job if you need (at least) a masters degree – my job in quality management doesn’t but my friends’ in material science does.
You got a lot of good points. I don’t agree with using the unemployment %, though. Unemployment is at a historic low. Every stiff can get a job if they want to. An advanced degree doesn’t matter right now. However, it won’t be like this forever. Once the unemployment rate increase, an advanced degree will help your resume stands out.
Otherwise, I agree for the most part.
I got a Masters degree in engineering and it was a good call for me. It only took one extra year. I was also a TA and didn’t pay that much in the 90s. Probably a different story now.
During the height of the last recession, unemployment was 4.9% for those with a Master’s to 5.3% with a Bachelor’s. So yes, the difference seems to be more pronounced in a recession–but not even to the level of half a percentage point.
Totally agree with this, based on my N-of-1 experience. I went back for a master’s at 40 after realizing it was the price of entry to a field I wanted to move into when my own field, publishing, had changed. Then went on to a PhD program at 43 (hoping to finish at 47). All while working full time.
In my professional experience throughout, actual experience as a working person is way more valuable than a degree. I’ve worked with (and sometimes fired) people who got advanced degrees because people told them they were smart and so they thought they’d be a professor or researcher, only to find out those worlds look very different than you expect. In the years they spent doing that, they weren’t learning how to be an employee or how to lead.
With employer tuition reimbursement and public tuition, I didn’t pay for my master’s, and my PhD has been affordable. BUT I had to find a program (internationally) that was geared toward mid-career professionals because I couldn’t see putting my earning years on hold to become a grad teaching/research assistant. On the upside, I have a much clearer sense of who I am, what I want to contribute to the world, and how the degree will further that end. I would have floundered at 22.
If you finish it in four years while working full-time, it is probably not a real Ph.D.
I needed this article about 3 years ago, but I’m so glad it’s out in the universe now!! I just finished my master’s degree (like, last week). I’m a teacher and some sort of continuing education is required for us, and so it made sense to get a master’s degree. In almost all cases it also bumps you up on the pay scale. (Another thing I learned is an anomaly in teaching, our pay scale is posted on the internet for the word to see. Years of experience, level of degree, there’s your number.) I don’t regret getting a higher degree because it will pay better over the long term, and I don’t regret working 3 jobs while I did it, but I DO regret spending so much money on it, and getting it in an obscure major that isn’t really furthering my career.
Now that I’m looking at other ways to define a ‘successful life’ I don’t think having a master’s is on that list. /sigh
I’m very surprised that a teacher, of all people, would view education as solely a means of making more money. Is that the attitude that you impart to your students? Is that all education is for? For “furthering your career”?
Hilarious but accurate recommendation for aging! I almost finished a master’s degree in my 20s & it would have added nothing to my earning power compared to simply working for another 20 years. I’m 50 now & making a solid income in a career that cares more about my experience than the initials after my name. I still dream of going back to school just because I enjoy the research, but that’s an ‘if I won the lottery’ kind of thing.
I did an MBA in a highly rated state university’s Exec weekend/evening program at 30. It was not necessary for my field (in the local market anyway) and not prized by my company or required for promotions. My company did not have any program for tuition help, but I negotiated 100% of the program’s costs in return for signing a 2 year employment contract. This was all new to everyone involved in this deal, there are no contracts at my company otherwise that I’m aware of and we were all figuring the details out together at the time. (Life lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask!!) My salary bumped when I finished, but I believe the salary increases I’ve earned since are due to the work and zero due to the degree. Even though the MBA wasn’t strictly necessary, I am SO GLAD I did it, primarily because it was a lot of fun, I learned to think way bigger, and I am SURE the info I learned would help if I ever go the entrepreneurial route. Lessened imposter syndrome, upped the big boss lady confidence. Worth it.
I finished undergrad (BA in History and International Studies) when I was 22, took a couple years off, then went to grad school and finished with my MLIS when I was 27. I’m now 30, still haven’t gotten a job in my field at the level that I’m technically qualified for, am not currently even working in the Library/Information Sciences field, am making less than both my age group and what Masters degree holders average, and have $80k in debt, half of which is from my MLIS. I certainly think that I’m suffering from the scaring off potential employers due to over-qualification syndrome. Not very fun.
Two extenuating circumstances that I wish I’d know about before going into the LIS field- Ohio has some of the best public and academic libraries in the nation (world, if I’m being honest) and one of only a few graduate programs for LIS in the nation, but because of that, is lousy with librarians. Also, librarians will work until you pry their cold, dead bodies from their desks and are loyal AF, meaning that once they’re in somewhere they like, they are not leaving anytime soon, which doesn’t open very many positions for newer professionals in the field.
Blown away by all of these amazing comments. More so than my original article, I think this kind of earnest, been-there feedback is going to be extraordinarily helpful to young folks weighing their options. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, everyone!!
I always struggled with whether or not I wanted my masters. I work in investments so the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) is prized much more than an MBA, assuming you want to work in an analyst/PM type role. By the time I finished the CFA I was so over it that I haven’t thought about an MBA since and it has worked out very well. I think it definitely depends on your field though. And I love not having all that debt to get out from under!
As an accountant, when people asked me if I would continue my education or get my CPA, I always said I would only do it if an employer incentivized it. I was sooooo tired of school and ready to just get started on a job where I would have insurance and holidays/weekends off. 4 years later, I love my job, and my employer has never implied that I need a CPA. I know a CPA certification is more financially rewarding than a masters, but even that didn’t seem worth my time and money without a guarantee that I would use it.
It depends on the field. In engineering you basically spend 3+ years taking prerequisites; you finally get to take the courses for which you went to college for one or maybe two semesters. My son’s staying at his school one extra year to get the accelerated MS; in his field, civil engineering, it lets him take two more semesters of the courses that actually matter.
As far as getting that grad degree later? I wish…first there’s that paycheck bribing you to stay in your job, Then comes the spouse, then the kids – darn, now those paychecks HAVE to keep coming. Sure, you can try to get an advanced degree evenings/weekends, but good luck weaving it in between the PTA meetings and soccer camps.
Yep! That’s why we talk about exceptions above.
And I’ll file those PTA meetings under “more reasons I’m glad I don’t have kids.” 😉
Love the BGR blog, and finally here’s a post I can provide my perspective on as opposed to receiving wisdom & advice! I’m 21 and just began my undergraduate senior year, and recently was accepted into a special 5th year Masters degree program that my university has for specific degrees. So long as I maintain a certain GPA senior year and complete various requirements (honors thesis, particular classes), I qualify for a free tuition Masters degree that I complete across my senior and “super-senior” (5th) year. I’m planning to get my undergrad in Environmental Science and my Masters in GIS, and have been taking GIS courses with graduate students since sophomore year. Basically, all of this is to say that the only reason I’m sticking it out is because it’s financially smart and time-wise less of a commitment than most graduate degrees.
Also, as I saw mentioned in a comment above, not liking academia is ok!! I don’t regret committing myself to my 5th year, but I also know that the minute I get both my degrees I’m getting the fuck out of here. Returning this fall semester to begin my senior year has reminded me of the toll university takes on my mental health. I’m always busy, living for the weekends, less patient with my friends, struggling to eat healthy, and generally falling apart at all times – and I hate it! Sure, I’m creating memories, connecting with dope professors, and having fun, but it’s just not worth it. On top of that, the bubble of academia really doesn’t prepare you for working and each of my internships/part-time jobs have felt more real than all the credits I’ve taken. I’m anticipating the day I get to go navigate the work world for real and have intention and confidence in what I do.
I went to an engineering school back in the ’80’s. Even then, the rule of thumb was “don’t get a Mater’s unless somebody else is paying for it.” This article covers the “get your employer to pay for it” scenario. Although, frequently this is a reimbursement program. i.e. you manager may have to approve the class, you pay for the class, and then the company reimburses you if you gat an A or a B. The other way to do this is to go to graduate school on a fellowship or Teaching assistantship program. You take your own classes, but you are also working for the University as either a researcher or as a low-level instructor of undergraduates. Typically tuition is completely subsidized by the University, and usually you get a stipend (i.e. low level salary) for your work for the school. Please note; grad students in this situation have a very active unionizing movement going on as we speak. So that is a thing to check into, and may influence what school you want to go to. The only advanced degrees where you have to pay tuition and that are close to the acceptable return on investment are medical degrees and law degrees. Over all, most of these situations are in the STEM fields.
Thank you for writing this piece! I came to many of these realizations on my own, and this post was perfect for affirming my thoughts. I work in IT and planned to go get my MBA (I even had a mentor encourage this) when I was fresh out of college. I put so much pressure on myself to pursue an MBA (I even bought the GMAT books), but now I’ve taken a step back from all of that. After a lot of thought I don’t think that is what I want right now. I’m 23, I’m more than happy with my income for my age, and I don’t see the value that an MBA would provide me right now. I’m not ruling it out completely, I’m just planning to revisit the idea in maybe, like, 5 years, if even then.
Do you just want the letters after your name (MBA) or do you need additional knowledge about something very specific? MBAs are worth much more–as are any master’s degrees–with a focused major, such as accounting. MBAs in “general management” are a dime a dozen. For example, consider public health–there are so many people with MPH degrees with no major or something very general. A more focused major like epidemiology or biostatistics–especially with a thesis–is much more valuable. Never get a master’s that is based only on taking classes–it should include some kind of semi-independent project or thesis. The purpose should be to move you toward doing things and becoming an independent learner, not just sitting in classes like you did in your first years of college.
If you’re going to do an advanced degree there’s something to be said for waiting a while. I went straight from college to law school because you needed a law degree to do what I wanted to do at the time. Hated it. Worst three years of my life. (This was 40+ years ago, BTW.) One thing I noticed was that the students who had been out in the work force for a few years and were 28-30 y.o. rather than my 22 were more interested and actually enjoyed the experience. (I thought they were nuts.) I recently completed a master’s degree in a completely different field (theology!) and had a blast doing it.
I didn’t go straight out of undergrad, but I went a year later when I was 23. I was really glad I took the year. It gave me more time to look for a program that was more specific to what I wanted to do, I got full-time work experience in an office setting before jumping back into school and it gave me some time to save up money for my move and some of my tuition. When people ask, it’s hard for me to give a definite answer on if grad school is “worth it.” When I left for grad school I was in a job I hated, doing things I had no interest in, and frustrated that I didn’t see a good way out to break into my desired industry. I (rightly or wrongly) saw grad school as a potential way out of that. It is certainly not required in my field. But there’s other things I reflect on sometimes. First off, I don’t have an unmanageable amount of debt from my master’s. I wouldn’t have gone if it had cost me more than it did, or I at least would have worked another year or two and pay more tuition out of pocket. Second, I worked close to full time for nearly the entirety I was in school, and this was great financially and professionally. I know of people who take out loans to fund their living expenses in grad school on top of tuition, and I can’t advise against that enough. I also didn’t run into being “overqualified” when I first applied to jobs because I was starting with my master’s in progress, not completed. I was lucky in that my program was very much set up for working students and I had a lot of evening courses and weekend seminar options. I also got lucky in that my employers didn’t mind me leaving early for class sometimes as long as I got all my work done. Third, I’ve found advantages to my degree that are more intangible than a black and white “was it required or not.” I ended up with a much more well-rounded understanding of my industry and the different roles people have in it and it made me better at my own projects because I knew all the ways the end product was going to be used. I’ve advanced faster than other people I know with the same experience level because I’m better at what I do. My salary has jumped up faster than I expected. I would never tell someone “go to grad school to network,” but that has been an unexpected plus. Nearly everyone from my cohort is doing very well professionally and one of them even kicked me some freelance work, a project that was largely unrelated to what do full-time but that I finished with no problem because it was relevant to courses I’d completed in grad school. (I’m also a nerd and found most of my electives interesting and fulfilling to me, personally.) My best advice on grad school is to really think about it, be realistic on what you are willing/can pay for, seriously examine what courses you would be taking and if they would provide skills you can use professionally, and don’t be one of those people that goes right out of undergrad just because you feel you need to be doing SOMETHING after graduation. Also remember that grad school is not going to fix any professional flaws you have.
I absolutely agree with this. If you can’t get a professional job after your bachelor’s, a master’s won’t magically make anything happen. It should be pursued for a specific purpose–not just because you can’t think of anything else to do, or you can’t find a job with just a bachelor’s. You will be paying money rather than earning it–so make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s really a big commitment, and not just in the financial sense. How many 22-year-olds have enough career direction to decide on a specialized degree? Which brings me to another point: an advanced degree must be very specific, specialized, and focused. Never get a “general” master’s without a highly focused major. That’s just tacking on two more years to a bachelor’s.
It’s sad that the main consideration here is the cost of education, which forces people to frame the decision in terms of “ROI.” You wouldn’t even have that consideration in a more normal country, such as Germany. Anyway, I don’t agree that grad school is a waste of time, but I DO agree with delaying it and getting some full-time, professional work experience first. The exception? Parenting. If you plan on becoming a parent any time soon, get all your formal education (even part-time) *finished* before you have your first child. That said, a really solid bachelor’s degree (in-person, with study abroad and a solid honors thesis) CAN be worth more than a typical American master’s (no thesis, online, etc.). It all depends on what you put into it, the experiences you go after, your mentors, the school you attend, and so on. Where a Ph.D. is concerned: be very careful about this. An M.D. or D.V.M. will get you higher pay, more opportunities, and more respect. In the USA, “practical” people with skills are respected. If you have an M.D. or D.V.M., you can *still* be a scientist, with some additional training and experience. With a Ph.D., you cannot be anywhere near the clinical role. Similarly, with an engineering degree you can *still* be a scientist, but you can’t be an engineer with strictly a science degree. Like science? You can get a bachelor’s in engineering, then an MS or PhD in science, as long as your engineering professors haven’t brainwashed all the creativity and curiosity out of you. Choose the path that gives you the most options for your future and gets you the most respect in your field. Don’t be one of the “dime a dozen.” And above all, *don’t pay* for grad school–get a fellowship or assistantship. A real Ph.D. is not the one you had to pay for.
If you are going for a master’s and definitely not continuing for a Ph.D. (good idea!): consider one of the smaller regional universities that do not offer a Ph.D. in your field or department. There, you are much more likely to get an assistantship or fellowship (such as a teaching assistantship) that will pay your tuition, possibly including out-of-state tuition for your first year, and pay a small stipend. And you’ll get much better mentoring because you won’t be overshadowed by doctoral students. Likewise, the same type of university often has better mentoring for bachelor’s students. The worst type of university to attend? The “Ivy League wannabe” university. The professors there are not top-notch, but the university is obsessed with attaining or maintaining “Carnegie doctoral I” status, which is based on the *number* (not success or quality) of Ph.D.s they produce. The master’s and bachelor’s students are overlooked in favor of the doctoral students–and most of those doctoral students will never be very successful in their fields anyway. Avoid “wannabe” universities. Either attend the really prestigious ones, or the ones whose goals are more modest but that are otherwise solid. Where community college is concerned: yes, it’s super cheap, and it’s cheap for a REASON. The classes there are NOT the same as university classes. Want to transfer to a university (ANY university) after two years? Good luck! You will be overwhelmed when you realize that your professors expect more than just memorization and regurgitation of high-school-level claptrap.
You …. can get a master’s degree in Marketing Operations?! It’s barely even become a thing, how can universities be teaching this??
I did a masters program straight out of undergrad and it was absolutely the right choice for me! The field I went into (cyber security research) is quite specialized, so having two extra years to learn at a well-known and highly-regarded institution before starting my career was extremely helpful (the difference between top-tier professors and my undergrad state university professors was immense). I believe it also helped me start with at least ~20k higher salary than I could have had otherwise (and it could have been more, but I didn’t negotiate, which I regret – I was just so thrilled to get a six figure offer for my first real job).
My program also provided great networking opportunities and had recruiters visit from a large variety of employers, many of whom would send former alumni to do recruiting. Over the summer, I landed an internship which also paid well ($33/hr!) and provided additional valuable experience and connections.
However, I would not have done this masters program if I didn’t have a fantastic scholarship that fully covered tuition (which would otherwise have been insurmountably pricy af) and provided an additional 34k stipend per year, in exchange for a 2-year work commitment at my choice out of a list of (usually lower paying, but otherwise great) employers. Cost vs. value is definitely the main consideration here, and I had a great opportunity and am so glad I took it! (Note: for any computer science/other students who are interested, the program is U.S. citizens only, and is called Scholarships for Service).