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Degree Proliferation: Protecting Yourself from the Fallout

By Marty Nemko

Considering going back to school?

In 1970, only 40% of high school graduates went to college. Today, it’s almost 70%. The percentage of people, especially in the Bay Area, with bachelor’s and graduate degrees has similarly skyrocketed. And the trend is accelerating, as more and more people trudge back to school to ride out the bad job market.

The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs to go around for all these degree holders. That’s true even with a supposedly marketable degree such as a PhD. in molecular biology. In the 1980s, that Ph.D. opened doors to lots of desirable positions. By the late ‘90s, there were more PhDs than jobs, so many PhDs were forced to accept a one-year “post-doc” before being able to land a real position. Today, thousands of PhDs sit in post-docs for years waiting for a real job. That has become so pervasive that local, state, and federal advocacy associations now exist for post-docs. See, for example,

What are the implications of degree proliferation for you, the job seeker?

If you’re thinking about going back to school mainly for the piece of paper, think twice. The piece of paper will be far from a guarantor of a good job; it will be a hunting license. My warning about going back to school is triply true for programs--in and out of universities--that train people to act, sing, write novels, do voice-over, create screenplays, paint pretty canvases, etc. These programs prey on people’s passion for their creative endeavor and continue to enroll students, charging them thousands of dollars, knowing full well that 99% of them will never earn back their tuition, let alone make a living from their craft.

  • If you expect your back-to-school stint to pay off careerwise, pick a field that can safely be predicted to grow. A few examples:
    • Our seemingly uncontrollable borders and the high birth rate among the poor will result in ever growing demand for social services. Therefore, the MSW degree will likely stay viable.
    • As the boomers age, health care will continue to be a burgeoning field, particularly for nurses and nurse practitioners, who in today’s era of cost cutting, will take on ever more of the work previously done by physicians. Such jobs, unlike engineering or computer science, can’t be off-shored.
    • Another area that can be counted on to grow: anti-terrorism. Most experts can’t even conceive of a scenario in which terrorism won’t increase. The Monterey Institute for International Studies offers the nation’s only program in nonproliferation studies. (
  • If you are contemplating going back to school to enhance your job prospects, before enrolling, be sure to find out the percentage of the program’s graduates who are employed at a level commensurate with the degree within six months of graduation. With degree holders so plentiful, graduates of second-tier institutions will have a particularly difficult time parlaying their degree into a good job.

If you do enroll in school, you cannot count on your degree to make you a viable job candidate. You must make choices, while in school, to maximize your chances of obtaining subsequent employment. For example, choose your advisor, in part, based on how well connected he or she is. Select term papers and thesis on a topic that would be impressive to potential employers. Choose fieldwork supervisors carefully: they should be outstanding trainers but also be in a position to provide entrée into a good job.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Are you sure you want to accept years of no income so you can learn lots of stuff that will be irrelevant in the real world, and for the privilege, take on $100,000 in student loans in hopes of finding a $50,000 job? Consider doing your learning on the job, supplementing with mentorships, reading, and workshops. Then network your way into a good position. Getting in via the front door will be challenging, even with an extra degree.

That said, I fully understand that it’s tough to learn on your own. Many people need the structure of school: put your butt in that seat M-W-F, 8-10, read chapter 9-14 by next week, write a term paper by Dec. 7, and show up for the final on Dec 14. If that’s you, the good news is, there are plenty of schools that will be happy to take your money.

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