Should I go to grad school?
Because of my work with this site, I spend my time talking to two sets of people.
The first are PhDs who are at the end of their academic road. They have sunk years into degrees that have virtually no career paths for them, and are desperate to reinvent themselves into ANY career. They feel worthless and helpless and they are totally disenchanted with academia.
The second are students who are finishing a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree who are interested in doing another one. This interest comes from a number of places, but I think the main ones are expectations that degrees will give them a sense of purpose, that they will turn into great careers, and that they will provide some sort of interesting and fulfilling work.
The fact that I speak mostly to these two groups makes for a weird conversation in my head between people who are excited about grad school and people who are disenchanted.
But today I want to talk to those of you considering it. You’re interested, perhaps even excited.
So here are my good, bad, and terrible reasons to go to grad school.
Good reasons to go to grad school
1. You know exactly what career you want (and grad school is the only way to get it)
If you are working in a field and you LOVE what you do, and the only real option to progress is grad school, it can be a great idea. I actually find that the people who build the best careers out of grad school are those who have done work outside first.
To those who haven’t had a lot of work experience, grad school can still be a great way to build a career. I’d encourage programs that have good connections beyond the graduate department, especially those that have placements and networking opportunities into the world of work after.
If the thing you want is to be a Professor, read below.
2. To make more money
I mean, this only applies if you love what you do. I’m a firm believer in chasing your purpose.
BUT, sometimes grad school makes sense as a financial decision. Not always. (I’m looking at you PhDs who are $100,000 in debt and took 10 years to do the degree.)
Some of you are sitting in a job, you love what you do, but there’s a clear barrier to your progression: a master’s (or even, on a rare occasion, a PhD). This seems like a great time to go back to school.
The median earning for each degree goes up with more education. All else being equal, education can help you earn more. Master’s earn $200 more per week than Bachelor’s degree-holders on average. PhDs earn about $300 extra per week on average.
The problem? If a PhD takes you 7 years to do, and you could have had a master’s degree plus several years of experience in that time, there’s a good chance that you’ll make less with the PhD, or will at least be playing catch-up. (I tried to calculate the opportunity costs of staying in school longer in this post.)
HOWEVER! Don’t assume that another degree makes financial sense, and don’t go telling your friends that I said it does. Do your homework and make sure that THE PARTICULAR DEGREE makes sense for you, personally.
3. Your company offers tuition assistance
This seems like a no-brainer. If you are working for a company that has a tuition assistance or reimbursement plan, and you really enjoy it, you might go to school on the company’s dime. They get a better-educated employee who is forever grateful. You get a degree. Cha-ching!
There is a list of some companies that do this here. But even if your company doesn’t formally have a program, it’s worth having the conversation. See if they’ll make an investment in you.
4. To build the connections and network to propel you forward
There are two sorts of grad schools. Some shove their graduates into dark corners and give them no exposure to the world outside. The much better ones build in the best circumstances for their graduates to succeed. This includes high-powered internships and placements, partnerships with some amazing institutions and people, and opportunities to work alongside them.
I absolutely love these programs. If you’re going to grad school, go to one of these.
5. To become a thought leader
I talk a lot about thought leadership. And it’s a big deal, folks. I don’t think most PhDs realize how big of a deal it is. In a lot of spaces, thought leadership is becoming a way of life.
Some of my friends who work in think tanks or for the government want to become the person everyone looks to for an opinion about some policy issue. A PhD goes a long way towards making this happen. Having those three little letters after your name does a lot for your brand when combined with a real-world skill set, and they know it. So for some people like this, grad school, and specifically a PhD, might make sense.
6. To work on career-making projects
Students in STEM occasionally get opportunities to be a part of career-making projects. They might work with a famous professor developing the future of machine learning or a breakthrough in quantum computing. In some fields, being on the right PhD project will make your career.
Have you ever heard of Luis Von Awn’s? During his PhD, he invented a little something called a captcha, and gave the technology to Yahoo for free. He later co-founded Duolingo. Bill Gates famously called him to get him to come work for Microsoft, but he turned it down. (You can hear him tell his whole story on NPR’s How I Built This.)
Bad reasons to go to grad school
1. To get a better job.
Does grad school get you a better job? Perhaps, but I’d make damned sure of it if I were you. A lot of people justify grad school with some nebulous argument that being more educated will help them get a better job.
It certainly can help SOME people get a better job.
If you have an exact plan for how it will help you get a better job, go for it. But if you’re just telling people that and you have no actual fucking idea what job you might get with that PhD in religious studies, don’t lie to yourself.
2. To become a professor
This is so hard for me to write. I tell people to follow their dreams, find their purpose, and never give up. That’s what I stand for.
But the one “dream job” that drives students into graduate degrees is Professor.
For students who can easily pivot into other, “real-world,” jobs the loss of this dream can be discouraging. For students with advanced degrees with little real-world application, the loss of this dream is devastating.
It’s almost impossible to become a professor. Yup, almost.
And I know what you’re thinking, “I’ll be the exception.”
I thought that way too. You won’t.
See, being a professor isn’t like being an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur is super hard, but you can do it if you devote yourself to it enough, overcome the failure, and work for years for nothing.
But you can’t get a professor job if there are none to apply for (which there weren’t in my country when I graduated). Saying you want to be a professor is like saying you want to be a type-writer repair person. It’s not that it’s impossible, a few people in the world do it, but it’s a career that doesn’t really exist anymore. Yet THOUSANDS of people are training for it.
If you entered a training program for typewriter repair, and there were thousands of people in it, I’d tell you it was not wise.
3. Looking for purpose
As one young woman–thinking of doing a PhD–said the other day: “I know the job market is bad (read non-existent), but I don’t want to spend my life working at some mind-numbing job.”
Translation: In her mind, a PhD will elevate her to stratospheres of a meaningful life that a regular-old career won’t. ALSO, any other job is boring and meaningless.
Academia reinforces this idea by idolizing the “life of the mind” and occasionally, in some programs, by turning up its nose at any job except for an academic one.
By the time I encounter PhD students, many of them have sunk years into these degrees. Many hold onto hope that–if they can just get a tenure-track professor job–life will be tremendously meaningful.
Degrees promise a lot of meaning. But many people who go through them don’t find it.
Don’t look to a degree to give your life meaning. Define the meaning of your life, then evaluate how the degree fits into that vision.
4. You want a career change
So you’re tired of your career. You want a new one and hope that a degree will bring it.
It might.. might.
Don’t immediately assume that a degree will provide the career change you’re looking for. Network with lots of people and ask them questions about what they do. (I have some tips on building your network here.)
5. You hate your job
We all do at some point. Don’t go to grad school because you hate your job. Figure out what it is you hate and see if you can fix it.
Awful reasons to go to grad school
1. You don’t know what else to do
Degrees often become placeholders for a sense of purpose. Sometimes, if you don’t have direction, you’ll shrug and say, “What the hell. Let’s do the master’s.”
This really just delays the inevitable.
2. Someone said you’re good
“My prof said I’m really good at this and I should do grad school!”
Yeah, no shit. You’re probably super smart. And, frankly, profs are often delighted to have someone in the class who pays attention, thinks things through, and turns in projects that are exciting.
If that’s you, great! But it’s not a reason to go to grad school.
Best case scenario, the prof can see that you’ll have a fantastic future in their field if you get some more training, a network, and some good skills in that field. This can be a great thing… IF IT’S WHAT YOU WANT!
Worst-case scenario, the prof has not looked past the end of their own nose and realized that grad school will have no options for you. They’re so glad that anyone cares about their dying field, and you are proof-positive that the obscure thing they do, that is quickly fading by the way, it useful.
In this worst-case scenario, it’s not even about you. It’s about them.
But let’s give your prof the benefit of the doubt. Even if they do see a road to a great career for you, you’ll still be miserable if you go to grad school because your prof wants you to, without having your own passion to do it and vision for where it will lead.
3. You got in
Congratulations! You got into grad school.
Some will see this as a divine sign from the heavens themselves, an inspirational moment that clarifies your muddied future. Since I’m not your priest or your astrologer, let me be the voice of caution here.
Unfortunately, and it really hurts me to be this negative, some programs are so desperate for students that the only prerequisite is a pulse. So don’t necessarily take getting in as a sign that this is your path forward.
Ask yourself the hard questions about where you want to go and whether a degree helps you get there.
4. The degree is an end in itself
Some people have just always wanted a master’s or a PhD for whatever reason. Far be it from me to turn you off of this dream.
And I’m not saying that every single degree ever done has to be a direct path to a JOB. If you’re financially independent and want to do a degree for the heck of it, you have my blessing.
But for most of us degrees should not be ends in themselves.
Ask yourself, “What do I want from this degree?”
Why are you chasing it? Do you need to prove something to yourself? What is it about having a degree that is so special? If you can put your finger on that thing, it will help you to know what exactly you are chasing, and to make sure it’s actually the degree you need.
Do you want to be taken seriously by your family? Sorry, degrees won’t do that. Ask those of us who’ve done them. My friend has a PhD in microbiology, and her family still thinks they know more than her because they saw a Dr. Oz episode.
Get clear about why you want the degree in the first place, understand the thing pushing you towards it, and you can see if the degree is the right way to get that thing you’re looking for. Maybe it still is! But ask yourself the hard questions.
Should I go to grad school?
What you’re hearing through this post is a series of questions you can ask yourself as your considering grad school:
- What do I want to contribute to this world? What is my vision for my life?
- What type of work do I want to do? Where do I want my career to go?
- Is grad school the only way to get to where I want to be?
- Is grad school the best way to get to where I want to be?
That’s pretty much it. Answer those questions and you’ll be fine.