A former graduate school admissions officer shares her view on the value of a graduate degree.

The Grad School Trap: When Not to Go For a Graduate Degree

The Grad School Trap: When Not to Go for a Graduate Degree

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Graduate school may not always be the way to go. If you have students who think that is the path they want to take, educate them on the pros and cons of grad school.

Grad school can be a great way to continue their education and learn new professional skills. But it's not a right fit for everyone.I was dining out with a friend when she looked up and said seven words I dread to hear: “I’m going to apply for grad school.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-grad school. I could never be against bettering oneself with education. However, after four-plus years working in the admissions office of a master’s program, I see things a bit differently.

True, I have seen students apply, get in, study hard, get a great job, and make bank. But I have also watched others struggle to find a job — any job — all while steeped in more debt than ever.

So as I put my fork down and looked my friend in the eye, I asked the only question I could think of: “Why?”

Grad School — Another Paper on the Wall

My friend struggled to explain that she was frustrated. She wasn’t going anywhere at her job, and she wasn’t making the income she had imagined. Graduate school would lead to bigger success.

Lin S., a former student in the program I worked for, once felt the same way. She entered grad school eager to learn and become the professional that she had always imagined she’d be. That was, until one day when she emailed me dismayed. Lin had $80,000 in debt and a job as a waitress. She asked me if she was alone — if she was doing something wrong since she couldn’t live up to that graduate school promise.

She wasn’t. The idea that your bachelor’s degree isn’t enough has taken over an entire generation, and many people have sunken themselves into more student loans, more frustration, and more dinners with friends where they decide to try to change their lives via a master’s degree.

A graduate degree is just another paper on the wall, another line on your résumé. Sure, for some jobs, it’s essential to have a master’s at the ground level. But for most, it’s just a boost up.

A graduate degree won’t land you a job or get your big idea funded. It won’t convince your boss to finally give you that promotion. Graduate degrees will help you knock on some doors with confidence, but it certainly won’t open them. That work is all yours.

Another Way Around

As I gently laid out my reasons and told her the cautionary tale of Lin S., my friend asked me what she should do instead. I encouraged her to consider these alternatives:

Take a certificate program. They’re low-cost, low-time-commitment, and a great way to put yourself in a specialized field category. Ellen Myers, a former graduate advisor, suggests certificate options for those in specialized fields such as nursing, computer science, and security, business management (non-MBA), or engineering where advancements in the field mean you may need to constantly up your education to stay ahead.

Myers estimates that the certificates may result in a $5,000 to $10,000 return on salary, depending on the field.

Talk to your manager. If he or she isn’t on board with you going back to school, it may be because it’s unnecessary for your job. Instead, ask if there are training programs offered by the company that can advance you faster.

Find a mentor in your new field. If you are going to grad school to switch your career, you need to be 100 percent sure. Browse Facebook for those working in your desired position, attend network meetings or conferences, send cold emails, and so on. You may be surprised to find the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Graduate school can work — it should work. But going for that degree without giving consideration to the cost of the program versus the actual job opportunities, or to the alternative routes available, can result in many wasted years and a mountain of hefty financial burden. Before filling out that application, ask yourself if graduate school is really the answer for you.

Check List

  • Do you want to go to grad school?
  • Is it necessary for what you want to do in life?
  • Is there a way around it that would cost less and still provide the same outcome?
  • If grad school is necessary, what can you do to keep costs down?
  • Are scholarships or grants readily available for graduate studies?