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The Case Against Graduate School

By Marty Nemko

Colleges’ PR flaks relentlessly trumpet that the more education you have, the more money you’ll make.

That’s terribly misleading--it varies so much with the individual. The question is, “Is grad school right for you?”

In my 20 years as a career coach, among my saddest feelings have been hearing the fears of the many people who gave years of their lives and mortgaged their financial futures to get a graduate degree only to still find themselves so poorly employed they’re unable to pay back their backbreaking student loans, let alone earn a decent living.

This article presents arguments against colleges’ propaganda so you can make a more eyes-open decision about whether to go back to school.

Are you considering going back to school for one of these ill-founded reasons:

* You believe you’ll earn more. The past statistics may well not predict the future. Today, ever more people are getting graduate degrees at the same time as employers are practicing disintermediation--shrinking middle management-automating, and offshoring ever more positions that require graduate degrees. Increased supply with decreased demand will mean fewer job openings and lower pay.

* You believe you’ll have a more rewarding career. The three most popular graduate schools are law, medicine, and business school. Yet surveys find that lawyers, on average, are among the unhappy professionals. Why not become a mediator?--law degree not required. Physicians, too, are increasingly unhappy, as their ability to practice is ever more constrained by insurers, more patients are non-compliant or know-it-alls, armed with often misleading internet printouts. Rather than endure the decade of expensive, stressful training (including 100-hour-per-week internships), why not become a physician assistant? You get to do much of what doctors do, with a fraction of the training time. Want to become a business executive? Many MBA holders insist that the main thing they got from MBA program was the piece of paper. Many top execs don’t have an MBA. As you’ll see below, there may be wiser routes to the top.

* To help decide what career to pursue. Most degree programs expose you to only a fraction of the career options. Far better to choose your career using the method outlined in the first part of this series.

* To delay looking for a job. You can land a rewarding job without undue pain. No need to spend years and megabucks to postpone that.

* To permanently avoid looking for a job. Many people go back to school because it’s a socially acceptable way to avoid having to take a job. But is that fair? There only are a limited number of slots in graduate school? Is it fair to take one up when you know, deep down, you probably won’t use the degree? For example, I know of people who went to medical school who have never practiced and instead are permanent stay-at-home parents. Meanwhile, many urban and rural areas are suffering a severe doctor shortage. That means that those med school graduates caused unnecessary illness and even death Yes, I’m trying to invoke guilt.

* To impress friends and family. Can’t you think of less costly and time-consuming ways to do that? How about landing a good job years sooner than if you had gone for a degree?

* To feel legitimate. In many fields, you can more legitimately prepare for your career away from the halls of academe, at what I call You U: a self- and mentor-selected combination of articles, seminars, professional conferences, the Internet, and on-the-job training. Don’t commit years of your life and lots of money just to create the illusion of legitimacy — sometimes what a degree mainly provides.

* To impress employers. In many fields, your boss is likely to be more impressed with a well designed You U education than with a diploma that both of you know doesn’t mean you’re career competent. Imagine, for example, that you were an employer considering two job applicants. One had an MBA and the other wrote this application letter:

Dear Ms. Hirer,

I imagine you’re tempted to toss this application because I don’t have the required MBA. But having heard from many people that their MBA learning wasn’t worth the time and money, I decided to prioritize substance over form and spent the last two years working at the elbow of outstanding project managers, and reading and taking workshops from some of America’s most effective managers. I believe that focusing on the steak rather than the sizzle and learning as a self-starter rather than a classroom student, demonstrates abilities important in a leader. But now comes the moment of truth: will you interview me?


Joel JobSeeker

Mightn’t you interview this candidate? Even prefer him over the MBA holder? When, in workshops, I ask that question of employers, most say yes. So, attending You U rather than State U let alone Private U, may increase your employment prospects.

Let’s say that despite all the above, you still think it would be wise to go to graduate school. Might any of these arguments convince you it’s worth waiting a while?

- A few years in the work world may help you figure out what career and graduate program is right for you.

- You’ll have some real-world experience to hang your grad school learning onto.

- Real-world experience may get you into a more prestigious graduate school.

-A break from school will reenergize you when facing more 60 more units from Professor Hassenpfeffer.

- And who knows? Maybe your real-world stint will make you realize you don’t need grad school at all.

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