As someone with two advanced degrees, I’m probably not the best person to lecture anyone about who should or should not go to graduate school. But, after what felt like the 386th conversation about the issue with a friend of mine, I am not sure I had a choice.
If I write this post, then in the future I can just refer her to it (which is preferable to me running screaming from the room the next time she brings it up—or worse!).
So, for the last time (hopefully), here are five terrible reasons to go to graduate school (and two okay ones).
Terrible Reason #1: Learning is Fun
Learning is fun—and I am a huge proponent of continually learning new things. But you don’t have to go to school to learn.
Learning can happen for free down at your local library, or for the cost a museum entry fee. Learning can also happen at any time so when you have a crappy day, it’s okay if you decide to watch Pride and Prejudice for the 8th time (the Colin Firth version, of course) instead of the documentary on the civil rights movement you had in your queue.
School, on the other hand, cost a lot of money. And requires a huge time commitment. And mandates that you learn what the syllabus says you have to learn that week, and complete tasks by the date the syllabus says you have to complete them, with no regard for the fact your dryer decided to stop working that morning or your cat needs to go to the vet.
School may equal learning, but learning does not equal school.
Terrible Reason #2: It Could Benefit You Down the Road
No, no, no. If you are going to commit a ton of time and a lot of money to an endeavor, for the love of all that is good in this world PLEASE do yourself the favor of articulating specific reasons why you should do so BEFORE you apply.
Does your job require a credential to be promoted? Or, if you know you want to switch careers—and I mean know—do you need to re-train? And even if the answer is yes to either of these questions, what specific credential or training do you need? Would a certificate program suffice? An internship? Don’t just assume.
Terrible Reason #3: You Don’t Know What You Want To Do With Your Life
Let me get this strait. In response to feeling unsure about where your life is headed, your have decided to (a) spend a lot of time and money focused on one topic for several years in the hopes that (b) when you finally get the certificate that tells the world you have mastered this narrow topic, the path you are meant to take will become clear?
That makes no sense!
Graduate school will not help you find yourself. And if you end up getting the wrong degree, it could actually be a barrier to you being able to do the thing you love.
How? It may put you so far in debt you have no choice but to work in a field you hate. It could also make you appear over-qualified to a hiring manager who, suspicious that you will just leave when something better comes along, doesn’t even call you in for an interview for your dream job. More degrees don’t necessarily mean more options!
Terrible Reason #4: It’s An Online Program So You Can Go at Your Own Pace
I have a lot of friends who have crashed and burned with online programs so I am admittedly a little biased. But it is because of what I have witnessed that I will always try to steer people away from them.
First, too many people fail to complete the program. It’s hard enough getting assignments done when there is an in-person class to show up for and a human being in the front of the room expecting you to hand in a paper. Take away those forms of accountability and I don’t know how someone would ever complete their work. They would certainly need to be more self-driven than me and I am a fairly self-driven person.
Second, when someone does manage to graduate, the degree may not open the doors they had hoped it would. For better or for worse, a school’s reputation matters. A degree from an institution that is not respected in your chosen field won’t do you a heck of a lot of good.
Terrible Reason #5: You Want to Re-Live Your Youth
To be fair, my friend hasn’t actually said this to me (and in her situation, it may not be true). But it has certainly been true for other friends so I am going to include it in my list.
I get that college may have been an awesome experience for you, full of hope and promise of what was to come, but being nostalgic for a simpler time is not a reason to go back to school. Life doesn’t work that way, and all that messiness you are experiencing now isn’t going to disappear in a puff of smoke just because you enrolled in school.
If you don’t believe me, sign up for a class as a post-baccalaureate and see what happens (this is a status where you aren’t in a degree program but can register for graduate-level classes). You still have to pay for the course and you may be limited in which courses you can take but it will give you a chance to test out what school will be like now and determine if your expectations are out of whack.
Okay Reason #1: You Need The Degree to Advance in Your Career
I really want to emphasize the “need” in the above statement because when I say need, I mean your lack of this specific credential is a major contributor to your career stalling out.
You can figure this out by asking you supervisor or checking with your human resources department, or by looking up your field on line.
I wouldn’t assume it to be true, however, without doing your research. If you assume wrong, you could waste a lot of time and money for something that won’t get you what you want.
Okay Reason #2: Someone Else Will Pay For It
Ideally, both Okay Reason #1 and Okay Reason #2 will be true but you could be at a point in your life where you have some extra time on your hands and are willing to give it up in exchange for a free degree.
If only Okay Reason #2 is true, however, I would encourage you to be honest with yourself about why you are going.
I had a friend who was about halfway through a Masters program when his funding dried up. He could have continued, paying out of pocket, but he did not. In the end, he just didn’t care enough to take on the debt.
I don’t think he regrets the time he invested, but I also don’t think he would have made the same decision had he known he would lose his funding.
My Reasons for Going Back to School
I have a Masters degree in addition to my JD. For my Masters, I feel like I definitely heeded the advice I provide here. For my JD? Not so much.
The Right Way
I was in my late 20s when I went back to school for my Masters. My undergraduate degree had been in English, which had been somewhat helpful up to that point in that it had taught me how to write. But it had not given me a grounding in statistics or economics, both of which were relevant to the direction my career was headed.
Fortunately, I worked in a city with a good state university that offered a part-time, evening program and, as an added bonus, the two employers I worked for during the time I was in school offered tuition assistance for up to two classes a semester.
Other than time and the cost of books and parking, I don’t think I ended up paying more than $1,000 for this degree. And it has served me well. Yeah for me!
The Wrong Way
I have previously revealed it is entirely possible my decision to go to law school was the product of seeing the moving Legally Blonde one too many times so I won’t spend too much time rehashing it here.
Just know that my pain informs the above advice (especially Terrible Reasons #1, #2, and #3).
What Has To Be True For You To Recommend Graduate School?
What are some of the terrible reasons you’ve come across for people justifying going back to school? Some okay—or even good—reasons? Let me know in the comment section below!
This is such good advice!! I considered graduate school years ago, and it’s still on my mind. But right now, I really have no reason to go back. My employer has a program that allows people to go back and they will pay, except for the books and the extra cost if it is an online program. But I just don’t think I really need a graduate degree at the moment. Great post! I think a lot of people need to read this!!
Thank you! It sounds like you are being really smart about it. Now if I can just convince my friend… 🙂
Lol well I hit #1 & #2 in both categories, so I guess I did okay (though I did have to cash flow half of it). I would love to go back to school again someday, but it will likely only be to audit classes so it doesn’t have the dollar amount attached.
Getting half paid for is way better than none if the degree will move your career forward which it sounds like it did. And auditing is a great idea for getting the information you need with out paying tuition. Thanks for the tip!
I fall under OK Reason #1 as my career had clearly stalled and it was just the right time for me. Like Jenny, I also went to a state school for an MPA (sans JD) and the in state tuition was a real bargain compared to how this degree has paid me back.
Very insightful, Jenny!
Thanks, Andy! I think going the state-school route was a good decision on both our parts–it makes it so much easier to see that return on our investment!