So, we’re in a prolonged recession. Jobs for this year’s college graduates are supposedly all going to be at a standstill, causing new grads to have to settle for working in a field other than the one they did their Bachelor’s in or — gasp! — even taking a pay cut to work in their own field. It’s a great time to go to graduate school, right? Sit back and lay low for two years until the economy improves – might as well “stay in school,” right? I say think again. That’s not a sufficient reason for going to graduate school, and on its own, is not a good one, either.
Let me start off by saying that I’ve been in graduate school myself for several years now, having continued on directly after my undergrad years. Although I’ve worked part-time throughout college and grad school, I’ve never taken a year or more off to work full-time in industry. So this influences my perspective.
Secondly, no two graduate programs are alike. Not in any field, not in any university. Within the same discipline you can compare two of the top programs and see how radically different their requirements and expectations are. One person’s “Master’s Degree” might only be equivalent to one-third of the work and study that another Master’s degree required. You really have to do your cherry-picking and scrutinize the details. So it can be hard to talk about “graduate school” as if it were one big homogeneous thing you can do.
That said, with the current climate we seem to be in economically, I’ve seen a growing popular trend to decide that now is “a good time” to “go back to school.” This concerns me, because it seems to miss out on so many details. Individual situations; individual programs; etc. It also sets up too much of a divide between the so-called “working world” and “school”, as if what you do in graduate school can never be equally nerve-wracking cubicle-cage-style work. I can tell you that much of the work I do is exactly what one of my salaried relatives does, the only difference being that she is paid twice as much for it! So I thought I should share some reasons you should consider for not blindly assuming that graduate school is for you, or that, worse, now is all of a sudden the right time to do it.
Weighing The Real Costs of Graduate School: There Really Isn’t Any Ivory Tower
Myth #1: Going back to graduate school will be like more undergraduate-style learning, and you’ll get to spend more time “learning” about what you “love.” Reality: While graduate programs certainly fall under the rubric of “education”, take this with a grain of salt. In graduate school you are now expected to be a producer of knowledge, not a consumer. If you feel like kicking back and taking time to really read up on some old classics or feel the beauty of learning a new language, take some more undergraduate courses. Grad school is fast-paced; two courses at a time is a headache, and there are many new kinds of demands on your mind, time and energy that simply don’t exist at the undergraduate level.
Myth #2: Alright, I get paid to go to school for x years! I’ll take it! Reality #1: Not all schools can afford to fund you. Most schools don’t fund just for Master’s programs, only PhDs. And for most programs, whatever “funding” you might have merited, it’s not going to be enough. You’ll probably receive just enough to enable you to live the minimum, but unless you have a partner supporting you or quite a bit of savings, you’re going to have to drastically reduce your lifestyle or find extra ways to make up the shortfall. It’s not pretty! If you’ve been in the workforce for a couple or more years, I don’t think it’s going to be an easy transition for you. Tip: if you do plan to return to higher education in the future, it’s a really good idea to start saving up the extra funding for it now. It’s a serious financial decision and requires financial planning.
Assumption #1: Graduate school will be less stress or somehow “easier”, like “a nice break” from your salaried office job. Hmm. Any change is probably going to provide you with a nice break, but grad school has its own set of stresses. You’ve still got supervisors, arcane unspoken rules, you’re still not in control of all your own work and research, in some ways it’s quite isolating, and there’s less social support for it. This is evidenced by the fact that many people don’t really understand what goes on in graduate school, and conceive it merely in terms of that piece of paper you might get at the end if all goes well. Academia is a highly rigid and political environment. If you hate the social hierarchies where you work right now, you won’t be escaping it in academia, that’s for sure.
Fact: One, two or more years of graduate school is going to delay your earning power. For many, the rationale is that they expect that having a graduate degree will automatically translate into higher future earnings. Since I’m still working on mine, I can’t directly speak to this. It can certainly be true for many, but by no means will it be guaranteed. You’re still going to have to negotiate, sell yourself, and out-compete the competition. It will be 2-3 years that you can’t contribute to your retirement; it will be a 2-3 (or more!) year delay on when you can buy a house if you haven’t yet, etc. etc. If you’re even slightly impatient about getting on with your life, graduate school is going to really try your patience and test your ability to delay gratification.
Fact: There is more supply than demand, and this will be worse in the years ahead. If everyone’s going to graduate school next year as a result of the economy – guess what, there will be more of you! (And applications to graduate programs were up across the board this past year by something like 15% – ouch! There are already too many graduate students for the jobs that need them!) Unfortunately, the actual work of most jobs in our economy does not even require a university degree (I’m talking about the actual work, not what the job descriptions say or ask for), let alone a graduate degree. It’s an unfortunate fact that for most fields, there are too many people with graduate degrees for the jobs that might actually require them. More supply than demand. So you will also be working against this.
My intention isn’t just to load up all the negative reasons here, but I just wanted to point a few of these out. I’m sure that if you’re considering graduate school, you’re well familiar with all the arguments on the positive reasons and benefits for doing so. By no means can I say that you should not be going to graduate school, especially not knowing your case; but I thought I should point out a few important things to keep in mind with all the media talk lately on how you should be returning to school in this recession. If you want to hear some of the debate that goes on in the IT and computer science fields (sorry guys/gals, I’m not trying to lump them together!), just follow this hand-wringing discussion “Go For My Master’s, or Not?” over at Slashdot (thanks for pointing that out, Mighty Bargain Hunter). Also take a look at Cash Money Life’s decision to not go for his MBA after all.
One adage that really seems to ring true is that the “grass is always greener….” and it’s easy to fall victim to this from time to time. So be sure that you don’t have an idealistic picture of what you plan to get into. That’s all. Other thoughts and comments? Do these points ring true or false with anyone else?Related Posts
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