Whether you're thinking of a top-tier MBA or a PhD in anthropology, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach graduate school. You need to understand your dreams, and what is required to achieve them. Also, you need to understand the marketplace, and what it values.

If you dream of climbing ladders in the Fortune 500, get an MBA. The degree a VIP ticket to corporate life and a prerequisite for the top ranks. And if you have the luck of being in your 20s, don't wait, get the degree now, when it can get you a better starting job after you graduate. If you've already made headway in your career, you'll still need that MBA, but when you're older it's more like a career lubricant than a jump start: The degree has little impact on where you are now, but prevents you from getting stuck later.

Think twice before cashing in your chips for less respected school. The top five or ten business schools have a much, much higher value in the business world than all the other business schools. If you attend the third tier school, do it at night because the cost to your checkbook and your career growth while you're in school do not outweigh the benefits of the degree you'll earn.

For some people, though, graduate school is not so much a way to fulfill a dream as a way to put off finding one. Thomas Benton, a pseudonym for an assistant professor who writes a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, blames much of the flight to graduate school on grade inflation and fragile egos: “Humanities majors are used praised from professors. Many recent grads return to school when they discover that not everyone thinks they are as great as their humanities teachers did. Humanities don't have the objective standards of business. Going back to grad school allows people to reestablish their ego. But it is short lived because they have to face the same market when they get out.”

So be honest with yourself. If you're going back to school because you're nostalgic for the days when you could get a good grade and a pat on the back. If you're looking for grad school to give you breathing room from the realities of adult life, you probably need a social worker more than you need another degree.

Besides, breathing time in grad school only delays future feelings of suffocation. For example, MFA programs do not make you more creative, they make you more qualified to teach. And the academic job market is a nightmare. One out of five people who enter English literature PhD programs will get a job in that field. The rest will find themselves back at square one, waiting tables, albeit with improved literary banter, and looking for a career.

Lost humanities students with an eye for cash and stability often enter law school because other professional schools require too much math or science. Yet the land of lost lawyers is full, too, which confirms that if you don't have a passion for what you are going to learn in graduate school, you shouldn't go.

If you still think you might be best off at grad school, then here's a checklist of things you should do before you apply:

1. Try other jobs first. The people who do best in graduate school are those who don't use it to escape their terrible job life. So find decent alternatives to going back to school, and if you still want to go back to school then you should.

2. Determine if an advanced degree is necessary. Talk to people who are where you want to be in five years to ten years. If those people got there without a degree, then you probably can, too.

3. Take the passion test. Are you reading about your proposed graduate topic now, before you are in school? If you're not passionate enough about the subject matter to read about it on your own, then you should find something to pursue that excites you more.

42 replies
  1. David Peterson
    David Peterson says:


    You state some correct facts, omit others and then come to some erroneous conclusions about attending a top 5-10 MBA program.

    You are correct in stating that if you don’t attend a top 5-10 school, you should be very aware of the return on your investment. Spending $20-30k+ a year on tuition for a small, second/third tier school will make it tough to earn a return on one’s investment. Other key points:

    – Top schools are great for getting into Consulting, Investment Banking, Private Equity, Investment Management, etc. If you want into these fields, you should focus on a top 5-10 program.

    – If you want to go to Corporate America, consider a low-cost, well respected 2nd tier school. There are many public and a few private institutions ranked 20-50 that will open this door at a much lower price. Once in the door, your talent, ability and impact on the Corporation will matter a lot more than your degree. In fact, candidates from top schools often get branded in some corporate settings for expecting too much, too soon and for not sticking around long enough for the Corporation’s investment to pay off (Corporations don’t have an ability to retain these recruits). These perceptions won’t get you hired, endear you to colleagues, or get you the next promotion. p.s. If you do choose a 2nd tier school, it is much more important to be in the top quartile of your class!

    – High cost MBA’s (whether top tier or not), are not the right choice for many careers. If you choose to go into low paying fields such as some non-profit, charitable work, public education, etc., a balance between the education recieved and the cost of getting it is key. There are great 2nd tier schools with scholarships available that can give you the education and degree you need without the high cost. Some will even pay you to go to school! In the end, coming out of school with little or no debt rather than another mortgage payment can make life a lot more enjoyable. p.s. If Mom and Dad are going to foot the bill, don’t worry about the cost – get the top notch education. For everyone else, be a good education shopper!

    – Not everyone can get into Harvard or Stanford. There are a lot of great jobs available to folks coming out of lower visibility programs. Again, be aware of costs and focus on whether the school has solid relationships with the employers that you are most interested in working for. (Also, see above comment on being in the top quartile of your class).

    – If you are making

  2. Chris Wright
    Chris Wright says:

    I hate to say, but this is one of the most absurd articles of ‘advice’ I have ever read. Unless the author is attempting to sell a reader on attending a legacy MBA School, the advice doesn’t make much financial or professional sense.

    Acquiring an MBA is a key enabler for further career advancement in business. I work as a business leader in an emerging technology field and my graduate work occurred at one of the smallest schools in FL. This gradate work has been successful in opening many doors for me which would have remained closed. The idea that one can only achieve success if you graduate from a top 25 MBA program is obsolete and misleading, many disruptive business practices are being developed in ‘lower tier’ schools since they are hungrier for recognition. I would rather attend a small MBA program with quality instructors than a ‘recognized’ MBA program taught in lecture halls. Plus didn’t we all learn a few years back that as long as you go to class you get a ‘B’ in any Ivy League school?!?

    Want some REAL advice about graduate school? Don’t go straight into grad school after completing your undergraduate degree, unless you are in a Co-Op or internship program that allows you to gain relevant experience.

  3. Bill
    Bill says:

    “I would rather attend a small MBA program with quality instructors than a – €˜recognized' MBA program taught in lecture halls.”

    I will give you the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s just sour grapes on your part, and that you are not actually so foolish that you would pick your school, which you seem embarrased to even name, over Harvard or Wharton and that you seem to imply a course taught in a lecture hall is not taught by quality instructors. That’s quite a leap.

    * * * * * *

    Bill, I’m with you when it comes to how peopel learn best. The point here, though, is that when you go into the job market, people do not place a value small lecture halls. Hiring managers don’t care. And the whole point of an MBA is how people value it in the job market.


  4. Chris Wright
    Chris Wright says:

    ” And the whole point of an MBA is how people value it in the job market.”

    Penelope, you have been writing articles in a bubble for too long. The MBA was once no more than a ‘status symbol’ but due to the accessibility of them today they are becoming a necessity for upper management. And a good employer would rather have a employee that comprehended the advanced concepts and can apply what they learned, not one that thinks posting a degree from Harvard in their office will automatically get them further promotions.

    You don’t have to approve this comment for posting, it was more of an FYI.

  5. Laura
    Laura says:

    Thomas Benton writes columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education. There is no such publication as the Chronicle of Higher Learning.

    Thank you. I made the change. -P

  6. Kelvin
    Kelvin says:

    As someone who has just succesfully finished and defended his juris doctor degree thesis, I can honestly say I DONT WANT TO DO THAT AGAIN! So i can relate to the PHDs who all advise against it. Takes too much time and effort and the qualitative returns are unclear.

  7. Living Off Dividends
    Living Off Dividends says:

    great post.

    I’m currently applying to Bschool after spending 10 yrs as a programmer.
    The 3rd point is definitely important. I’m constantly reading financial stuff and getting an MBA from a top school is something I need to “get out of my stuff”.

  8. fergie ferguson
    fergie ferguson says:

    You have to be smart enough to know how to use your degree and qualities to do well, Regardless of details.

  9. Bill
    Bill says:

    From a philosophical standpoint I agree with you, but there is also increasing credentialism in the job market.

    There is a degree for everything, and many employers want very specific masters or PhD qualifications. For example, I work in a public library, (having taken a break from the LA TV business), and even though I have worked as a researcher for documentary TV, for an advocacy group on Capitol Hill AND as a book buyer, I am not qualified to be anything other than a library assistant because I do not have a Masters in Library Science.

    We’ve become obsessed with degrees over experience.

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      I know I’m late to the party, but I’m currently hunting down graduate programs and was pointed to your blog by my husband, who’s having a career-identity crisis.

      Anyway. I think Bill makes a good point that you simply aren’t addressing in any substantive way. I graduated last year with a BA in Creative Writing and was luckily able to land a job in the Content department of a Florida publishing company. No, I’m not writing creatively at work. But, I am building upon editorial skills initially cultivated in my BA coursework.

      Ultimately, I want to take this to a higher level than I think I could reach staying where I am. I’d love to edit for a local paper or magazine, or work as a teacher helping students improve their writing and their ability to analyze and glean meaning from written art.

      The catch? Even the local paper and the county school systems don’t want someone with only a BA. Never mind that I have teaching experience (albeit minimal) and PLENTY of writing and editing experience. I’ve promoted and marketed my ideas and skills until I’ve turned all kinds of colors. They want credentials, they want to see advanced education and training.

      It could be a symptom of the local job market, sure. But maybe these employers want to see that people are willing to take the risk and make the investment in an advanced education. The Bachelor’s is now the glorified high school diploma. Maybe employers want to know for sure they’re getting as close to a prize stallion as they can, and not settling for any joe who graduates with his piece of paper.

      I do agree with your running advice to take time after undergrad to gain some life experience. I did that (am currently), and I’m glad for it. I wanted out from under the academia bubble that you live in while in school, for a while.

      But now I’m realizing that for my career plans, the education I have isn’t enough. An MFA would allow me to focus on my craft, make networking connections, and if it’s not a pure studio course, allow me to further develop my analytical abilities and qualify me (even more) to teach. The programs I’m looking at also have an editorial component, that is, an internship with magazines and other publications, in case my career goals shifted permanently in that direction.

      I harbor no delusions of scoring a tenure track position without a lot of hard work and luck. But I’d certainly settle for adjunct professor, community college professor, or heck, high school teacher.

      End rant. If you still get notifications on your two-year-old posts, I’m interested in any advice or rebuttals you have.


  10. Jon
    Jon says:

    The MBA, while valuable, is a”hype degree”. According to Business Week Magazine, fewer than one out of three executives have an MBA.

    To quote one of their articles:
    “And if you think a sheepskin from a top school is a necessity, think again. Only half of the executives with MBAs went to the top 10 schools in the 2004 BusinessWeek ranking.”

    If one can demonstrate the ability to increase profits and improve the bottom line, they are set. No MBA required.

  11. Kai
    Kai says:

    I think the whole theory given here is based on probability and the public perception about the modern society which is bound to lots of change on the horizon. While I don’t feel like saying much about all the ideas presented here, I would like to agree that keep ourselves in touch of everything/anything possible is always a good strategy. Time/energy management still rules.

  12. Brock
    Brock says:

    From own experience, the important thing is to know what you want to do, don’t study something for many years if you are sure you want to work with it.

    Second, get informed what your options are after graduated, this is especially important since it will be great difference in salary depending on what job and in what area of profession you will work in.

    One more thing that is important is your school, they must be able to provide knowledgeable teachers (in order to provide quality education) and be well organized, they are after all there to assist students during their studying years.

  13. edwin
    edwin says:

    Unfortunately, the process of finding a suitable graduate school is understandably daunting. If it wasn’t for the Internet and the advent of instant information availability, I’m not sure how people would cope!

  14. Allyson Smith
    Allyson Smith says:

    I imagine standards might be lower for web-publishing, but this article still has a surprising amount of typos.

  15. Gerry
    Gerry says:

    Im not sure if you get grad school here in the UK. Saying that I am what you could say as being a bit behind the times in terms of this sort of thing.

    From what I remember we have college and university but not sure about grad school sorry!


  16. Jane
    Jane says:

    If you have a specific career in mind then grad school is a good option. It’s important to have an end goal in mind so that you can achieve it as i’ve found people to just go into further education to prolong the fact that they will have to make a living for themselves.

  17. Dan
    Dan says:

    PhDs are never a good financial investment. They can be incredibly rewarding and get you a job as a professor or researcher.

    For the MBA, I think the question is whether or not you want a top tier MBA kind of job. If you are working for a large stable company that you like that wants to put you into a position which requires an MBA and is willing to pay for it, do an evening program in your community. If you want to work on wall street or work at a top consulting firm, you’ll need a top tier MBA. Note: in software development an MBA won’t do much at top tier companies, they are generally willing to train you to do what they need. Second tier companies do value MBAs but depending on where you are at it may be overkill. Experience is king where I work. Just my two cents.

  18. Martin Vahi
    Martin Vahi says:

    I just want to mention that I really like the following quotation from Your post:

    “3. Take the passion test. Are you reading about your proposed graduate topic now, before you are in school? If you're not passionate enough about the subject matter to read about it on your own, then you should find something to pursue that excites you more.”

    After all, this life is about happiness and a brick of stone from some roof could end that life any day, not to mention various illnesses, cancer, etc., to which all of us will eventually die to, unless one gets murdered or something. (If it weren’t so, we would all live forever, right. :-)

    However, I do want to add one statement: if one works hard and does it to the limits of one’s mental capabilities and makes sure that one has the environment that supports the activity, then there WILL BE REULTS, even, if they are not widely known.

    For example, the results of my grandfather were mentioned at his funeral, by his co-workers, who also added, that he just did not care, if his results were widely known, he was just satisfied, if he just had the technical achievements. My grandfather, Ilmar Eiskop, was a professor of telecommunications. As a matter of fact, as of 2010, I as a software engineer, tend to think that it’s not such a bad approach. It’s the working results and happiness, what matters to me and makes my clients happy, no matter, how I achieve it. I don’t think that the PR and publication part “pays off” or makes me more happy. :-)

  19. sue
    sue says:

    Penelope may wish to consider employing a proofreader — an occupation, by the way, that doesn’t typically require an “advanced degree”.

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