What’s the right timing for graduate school?

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What’s good timing for grad school? For some degrees, the best timing is probably never. The benefits of the degree will never outweigh the problems it creates. For some degrees, going fast is key, for others, taking your time can ward off common missteps. Here’s a primer on how to approach a looming graduate application:

Timing for an MBA: Fast
The value of an MBA goes down the longer you wait to get it. At the beginning of your career you can get a jump-start out of the gate with an MBA from a top school. Midcareer, you won’t get that jump-start, because you’ve already started. So at that point, the MBA is just a ticket to play; most large companies like to see an MBA before moving you to the top levels of management.

It used to be that business schools encouraged candidates to wait a few years before applying. But that timeline doesn’t make sense for women who want kids. Today, most young women who want kids want to have them before they’re 35. So if you wait three years to go to business school, and then get a job afterward, you will have very little time to work before you start having kids. And then many benefits of the graduate degree are lost.

In an effort to encourage women to apply to business school, admissions departments are becoming more willing to take candidates straight out of college. For young women, this is a very good option.

But only if you’re sure you need that degree. If you don’t know what you want to do with the MBA, then you probably don’t need it. For people with no clear plan after business school, the burden of school loans to pay for the degree is often more limiting than the number of doors the degree opens.

Timing for other professional degrees: Slow
The cost of going to graduate school when you have no clear plan for afterward is even higher outside of business school. If you get a job in, say, public policy, and then decide you don’t want to go into that field, that degree makes you look unfocused, at best. You might think that more degrees are just more qualifications, but in fact, when you spend years getting a degree in a field where there are no jobs that interest you, you put a red flag up to employers that either you don’t know what you want or you don’t want them.

If possible, you would do best to leave frivolous graduate degrees off your resume so you can look a bit more focused.

Take time to work in the field you’re considering, to make sure that’s what you want to do. Have patience with yourself to learn a bit about who you are. It’s nearly impossible to make a decision as a student about what you’d want to do when you’re not a student. That’s the value of taking time to work in between college and grad school.

Timing for an advanced degree in humanities: Never
Baby boomers have a lock on tenure-track teaching jobs, and those boomers aren’t going anywhere any time soon. My favorite statistic in the world is that you would have a better chance surviving the Titanic than getting a tenure track job in the humanities. Members of the Modern Language Association routinely discuss this problem at the annual meeting, and in trade publications.

So look, if you love French, take a long vacation in Tunisia. And if you love Dante, read him at night, after work. You don’t need a degree in the humanities to enjoy learning.

Timing for law school: Try marketing first
Did you get a great LSAT score? You know what that means? You’ll do a great job in law school. Unfortunately, that is no indicator of how well you’ll do in the real world.

In a law firm, there is no clear partner track anymore. You can be de-equitized at any time. And the determining factor for your worth is not how well you analyze a case, but how well you drum up business. Lawyers are part of the service industry, and service professionals differentiate themselves through marketing. So you’d better be great at marketing if you’re going to law school.

Thinking that you’ll do nonprofit law instead? Then you need rich parents or a rich spouse because someone’s gotta pay off those school loans and it’s not going to be the ACLU.

The bottom line for grad school? Try new things, meet lots of different people and use these experiences to help figure out what to do. Take time to get to know yourself, in the post-school world, in the work world.

You need to know who you are and what you want before you start signing those school loan papers. A degree only helps you if it’s getting you to a place you really want to go to.

37 replies
  1. Dani
    Dani says:

    This is an interesting post; it does seem a bit more geared for those who will be looking to work for someone else, however! MBAs and JDs are also pretty great degrees for all sorts of work, especially entrepreneurial-type work.

    MPAs & MPPs are broad social science degrees that can be applied to many fields, because you build a bunch of quan. & qual. skills, as well as acquire some management and finance fundamentals. (I’m a bit biased on the latter–I’ll be getting an MPP in June.)

    So if you’re looking to work for a big firm or the Feds, this advice is well-taken, but if you’re planning for a less-traditional route, don’t sweat the HR “box-checkers” so much, I reckon!

    * * * * * * *

    Dani, MBAs and JDs are actually very poor choices for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. They are very expensive degrees, and in order to pay off the loans, you need to make money, and that becomes severely limiting in terms of what entreprneurship opportunities you can take.

    On top of that, there is no evidence that either degree helps you to succeed as an entrepreneur. The most current research (I often quote Saras Sarasvathy at Univeristy of Virginia, but there are many people to quote) says that the best way to learn entrepreneurship is to do it.


  2. Ted
    Ted says:

    Being that 31% of people on the Titanic survived, it doesn’t really seem like that compelling a statistic when something is described as less likely than surviving the Titanic disaster. Do you know the actual chances of getting a tenure-track job in the humanities? I think it’s also important to note the quality of the degree. A humanities degree from Harvard or Yale is *much* *much* more likely to result in a tenure-track job than one from Podunk State.

  3. Kuri
    Kuri says:

    “A degree only helps you if it's getting you to a place you really want to go to.”

    Or, y’know, if they enrich your life and make you a better citizen.

    MSc, European Politics, and yes, a better person for it in a way that reading a book or travelling wouldn’t have accomplished in million years

  4. Scott
    Scott says:

    I got my MBA a few years back.

    I actually worked in the real world (as an engineer in project management) and then went at night – my company paid for it.

    That’s what I’d recommend. You get a lot more if you have real world experience. The folks that didn’t generally came up with unworkable solutions, and had no people skills.

    Just my 2 cents worth!


  5. Jon Morrow
    Jon Morrow says:

    How about after you’re retired? It’s something you rarely hear anyone talk about, but to me, it seems to make sense.

    Lots of people go to graduate school for the enrichment, the connections, and because they just enjoy being in school. The problem is, it costs money, and all of that enrichment comes with a price tag that’s hard to justify (monetarily) when you’re young.

    But what about when you’re older? If you’re 65 and you’ve got enough money in the bank to lead a reasonable lifestyle, you could conceivably spend the rest of your life in school. You could even make it a second career, eventually becoming a professor.

    That’s how I would like to retire, anyway. Give me a dorm room at Stanford for the last 15-20 years of my life. I’d be thrilled. Of course, I’m not going to be 65 for another 40 years, so I might very well change my mind. But it seems like heaven right now.

  6. Erik
    Erik says:

    I work in Higher Education, where, without a Master’s degree, you don’t have much chance of getting a job. I graduated with my M.S.Ed. back in May, and now have what would be considered a entry-level position.

    Granted, my path is one that not many follow, so I guess in the grand scheme of things, I really couldn’t apply your advice from this column.

    Otherwise, it sounds great!

  7. Liz
    Liz says:

    If the degree is fully funded, would that change your opinion/calculation? Just curious. I just finished a fully funded master’s in a field that will probably raise more questions than it answers, at least for a few years. But I think I learned a lot, got a broad background in my field, became a better writer, etc. etc. I also got side benefits, i.e. I learned a new language and lived in a foreign country. And had a lot of time together with my husband, and the flexibility to do a lot of travel. I don’t regret my decision, and if employers don’t want to give me a chance I intend to take my skills freelance for a while.

    I think your tips hold true for a lot of people–I have definitely seen a lot of people who think that getting a Ph.D. is an escape, or a solution, when the fact is that academia is one of the most competitive fields out there. People who are successful in academia have to think of themselves as entrepreneurs or freelancers, constantly thinking of projects, marketing their ideas, writing papers, making contacts, and thinking of a path years down the road. And I mean people in fields like engineering, not English. When I see what people go through to enter the academic path, it is incredible to me that so many people bother.

  8. thom singer
    thom singer says:


    Your point about lawyers needing to understand, embrace and succeed at marketing is HUGE. I spent four years as the marketing manager/director for offices of two major law firms…and I still train marketing and networking skills to attorneys. Most DO NOT understand that they are just another service business, and that they must operate as a service business if they wish to continue to succeed.

    I had one partner in an AMLAW 100 firm tell me “I went to law school so I would not have to be a salesman like my dad was. I hate having to pander to clients”. He actually went on to say that his clients were a necessary evil because they pay the bills for him to do the research he loves. YIKES. He also had no book of business and was pushed out of the firm. And he was BITTER that having no ability to market his services hurt his career.


    * * * * * *

    This is such an important comment, Thom. Thanks. SO MANY people going to law school feel the same way as the person you write about – they go to law school because they love to read and write. It’s very hard to understand how sales and marketing intensive being a lawyer is. I hope your comment helps more people to understand this before they inadvertantly commit to doing it.


  9. Pam Claughton
    Pam Claughton says:


    I disagree with your opinion that it’s not a good idea for people to get their MBAs if they’re mid-level. I’ve been recruiting for years, and frankly have seen just the opposites. In many instances, getting your MBA when you already have 2-10 years of experience can be a fantastic idea..especially if your company backs you financially! But besides that, one key thing that getting an MBA can do is to allow you to shift gears, to go in a different direction. Which is often difficult to do once you establish yourself after a few years as a ‘software engineer’ for example. The MBA can allow you to step back into the work world as a ‘product manager’ or ‘marketing manager’ for instance.


    * * * * * * * *

    Pam, you make two interesting points – about shifting gears and having a company pay.

    Often, if you want to shift gears within your company, and you’re a strong performer, you can do it without an MBA. In other cases, you do need an MBA, but my point about not doing it when you’re mid-career is more about cost. The bump in salary that you’ll get from a mid-career MBA is so small that it’s not financially worth it to take time off from work and get the MBA. You should probably do it while you’re working.


    • art
      art says:

      I agree with your comments. In fact, MBA’s only have the level of importance that the person or company you are working for think of it. In other words, how important an MBA or any other degree may be is relative. I have been a hiring manager in the IT workplace for years and most of the engineers have graduate degrees, however, I am more concerned with their technology certifications. I also employ many excellent engineers who have NO college.
      In terms of college expense, I am curious as to when the public is going to put it’s foot down and say that what public universities are charging is no longer worth it. Since Texas state deregulation of public university tuition ended in 2003 the cost to go to a Texas public university has risen 83% (2003 to 2010). I am personnaly reaching a point where I now question the value of a bachelor’s degree. When will it be enough?

  10. JC
    JC says:

    I agree with scott. If you think you’ll benefit yourself for the company if you can get a higher degree, you should go for it. And it seems like many companies are offering tuition reimbursement benefits. So if your company do offer tuition reimbursement package, might as well take advantage of it.

    Also, I think everyone needs marketing skills, not just lawyers.

  11. Pam Claughton
    Pam Claughton says:


    The cost factor is a big one. You’re absolutely right about that, especially about not getting a bump in pay when you get the degree mid-career. Not only will you barely get a bump, you could find yourself having to move completely laterally or even go backwards in order to move into a different area.

    For example, recently I spoke with a fantastic software engineer, who was making 120k before he went to grad school. Upon graduating, he wanted to move into Product Management. If he does that, he will likely take a cut in pay, because the average product manager with 2-5 years of related experience makes about 100k. It will be a real challenge for him to find someone willing to pay him even 120k if he’s never been a product manager.

    Also, plenty of great people do shift gears on their own, without the MBA, if they are top performers. But, it does depend on the makeup of their company, and how big a shift they’re looking to make…or even if they know what they want to do after the MBA.


  12. Simple Country Physicist
    Simple Country Physicist says:

    It also depends on what the entry education qualifications are in a discipline. Increasingly a B. S. in Engineering is not enough, making an M.S. more attractive early on, especially outside the construction engineering fields. In the sciences and maths, a M. S. is a minimum entry degree and a Ph.D. is highly desirable; all you can do with a B. S. is the modern equivalent of pushing a broom.

  13. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    You know, I think this is good advice for someone who lives in a large metropolitan area working for big business. However, I live in a smallish town.

    My undergrad was from a Big 10 school, but I don’t really live near any really great colleges now. So, I got my M.A. in public administration from a smallish university that’s near me. Started at age 27 and graduated at age 32. I work for a company that deals with academic-types a lot. In addition to simply helping me get my head out of my butt, I think the masters gives me some credibility with the people I work with.

    My company just hired me and this other guy last summer as part of a succession planning effort. He’s got a Ph.D. I’m not sure if our advanced degrees were a prerequisite, but they do give us some credibility as two Gen Xers who are traveling in a Boomer-dominated industry.

    I also have a lot of friends who work in the nonprofit sector. Even in our smallish community, it’s really hard to get an executive director job without a masters. And that’s what most of them have worked up to.

  14. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Penelope, I think you make some really good points. The only issue I would quibble with is the MBA right out of school. I’ve always heard that you don’t get as much out of an MBA without any real-world work experience, and I tend to agree. Now, work two or three years, get a full time MBA and I think a women will be able to get some good working years in there before worrying about her biological clock. But I fully agree that after 6 or 7 years, you may be better off getting a part time MBA because you won’t recoup the money; unless you go to a top school and get into management consulting or another high-paying industry. Overall, you just offer a good reality check that people really need to think and have some sort of plan for their pre and post grad-school life.

  15. Kelvin
    Kelvin says:

    I never looked at the legal profession as one that must be obsessed with marketing. Considering how reputation makes or break a law firm, it makes sense. If you are marketed as a competent firm, then obviously the clients will come. If not, then you’re dead as a firm.

    A very unorthodox but interesting point Penelope. Thanks, will keep it in mind as I finish up my own law degree.

  16. Veronica
    Veronica says:

    Years ago I wanted to get a Phd in Spanish Literature. Circumstances didn’t favor it and I ended up teaching in a public school. My friends who went on and got Phds make under 40,000 a year with little or no vacation and I make over 80,000 with three months paid vacation every year. The price I pay for this? Not having a glamorous job. I have suggested to the Phds that they do a job like mine, but none will even consider it – too far beneath them. These are the choices people make.

  17. meghan
    meghan says:

    I completely disagree about your whole section on MBAs.

    I went to get my MBA part time after working for 5 years. People that went straight to grad school after undergrad had nothing to contribute to class and had no real world experiences to supplement their learning. They made few meaningful contributions and could not relate to most of the classroom discussions. I would not have benefited from classes nearly as much if i had no real world expereinces to relate to.

    I would never hire an MBA straight out of undergrad/grad school with no real world experience.

  18. Andrew Flusche
    Andrew Flusche says:


    Great insights, as always!

    But there is a small point that I think you glossed over: loan forgiveness. After getting my JD from UVA, I’m burdened with over $100k in debt. But thanks to the awesome loan forgiveness program, most of that will be paid back for me, as long as I stay in public service. Here’s a post I wrote on public service legal careers.

    Sure, not many law schools offer programs like this. But they do exist. If you have your sights on public service, find those schools and get admitted.


    * * * * * *

    Thanks, Andrew. A bunch of people emailed me about this. I had not mentioned it becuase the people I know who took this offer ended up going to the private sector anyway becuase public sector salaries were so frustratingly low in the field of law. But I see there’s a wide range of experience in this regard. So thanks for taking the time to talk about yours.


  19. Jeremiah
    Jeremiah says:

    I plan on pursuing a MBA just to go ahead and get it out the way. Just from the number of my classmates (class ’05) that stayed in college to get a MBA, I have a feeling that just to “apply” for the executive level jobs it will be necessary. Already bachelor degrees are a dime a dozen. And I’m positive that 10 years down the road when i have the experience to apply for those excutive level jobs, going back to school will be the last thing on my mind.

    So do it now, get it out the way; at the expense of some company of course :)

  20. Anibal
    Anibal says:


    I agree with most you said.
    Plus, I’d Like to know how all this apply to physicians’ carrers.


    * * * * * * *
    Great question. Here are some things to think about medical school.
    1. You have a really hard time paying back your loans if you decide you don’t want to become a doctor. So be sure.
    2. One of the most popular specialties is opthamology becuase of the hours. Think hard about what hours you want and how you will get that via medical school.
    3. In a seminar for medical students at University of Chicago about work-life balance, a panel of surgeons said they all had wives at home taking care of their kids. If you want to be a surgeon and have kids, think that one through.
    4. Health care reforms will not allow for slaries of physicians to stay as high as they are. If you want to make a lot of money over the course of your career, consider investment banking instead.


  21. Alli
    Alli says:

    Anyone who reads your blog is likely curious and ambitious and would be best served by putting thoughts of a JD on the back burner.

    Many people I run into assume I am ambitious because I became a lawyer (and became one quickly having not taken a break after undergrad). I always find this amusing because going to law school was one of the least ambitious things I have done with my career. There is a clearly defined track that leads to law school and that track does not end when you graduate. It takes you right on through the end of your career, if you let it.

    There is nothing wrong with that and many people have very fulfilling careers along the track, but if you’re one who likes to stray from the track (as I am and as I assume you are if you are reading this blog), you will find yourself a couple years into practice wondering why you didn’t get off the train about 10 stops back.

    That being said, if you have the spunk, you can always change the track–it’s just a little more expensive post-law school than pre-. (And by “a little,” I mean “a lot”).

  22. Leslie Madsen-Brooks
    Leslie Madsen-Brooks says:

    Your advice about the job market for teaching jobs in the humanities is spot-on. That said, there are plenty of non-teaching careers in which having a humanities Ph.D. can be a benefit. Unfortunately, most humanities grad students don’t hear about such positions until after they’ve spent years preparing themselves for faculty jobs that just don’t exist.

    The WRK4US listserv provides excellent guidance on “alternative” careers for Ph.D.s. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    I have a Ph.D. in cultural studies and after a brief detour through academic technology, I now help faculty across the disciplines at an R1 university become more thoughtful about their teaching–and I get paid far better than I would if I had accepted a full-time position as a lecturer in the humanities. Having a Ph.D. in the humanities–and the experiences and skill set it engendered–was critical to me securing this terrific position and succeeding in it.

  23. Joe
    Joe says:

    What is the best advice for twentysomething to do about graduate school after graduation? Some graduate school required few years experience of working before applying yet it is difficult to find job those day.

  24. t h rive
    t h rive says:

    Pen, I think you have the right idea overall – about how to approach an MBA, BUT YOU SEEM TO:

    1. Ignore the fact that there are a broad range of grad degrees out there, even ones that are customizable. You speak of graduate school like it’s MBA or nothing.

    2. Try to objectify the MBA experience and choice. Though it IS good to warn those keeners thinking its the only way to go, it’s most definitely subjective. Even with a job, it’s still how you make it and what you make of it.

    That being said – I look to your posts for advice here and there. I’m in a period where I’m having to choose between diploma/technical cert…and the MA option in Eco Politics. More than anything it’s the timing issue, and as well that the MA option may see me quitting my job for a year. Is it worth it? I’m still weighing the options…

    The tech diploma will be quicker, BUT it’s small-scale work – and very site oriented. An MA will see a broader workload in the grand scheme – but it’ll come with an initial paycut as I may have to leave my job to finish it in good time.

    Subjectivity is key. Creativity in decision-making is necessary.

  25. Jim F.
    Jim F. says:



    You make a lot of valid points about career pathways.
    I have similiar opinions about the different generations and their career/life expectations.

    Currently I am enrolled in a master graduate program at Northeastern University in Boston. After 10 years in the finance department of a large top-rated research hospital,I decided to enroll in an evening program to get a masters in Healthcare Management. Its been 16 years since
    my under graduate years but I needed to expand my educational horizon. I belive a masters degree can become outdated after 15 years and a person should requalify themselves within a contemporary program.

    Some of the managers in my office have MBAs
    which is a generalist degree. They wish they had specialized in something like healthcare or non-profits since they plan to have a career in the hospital administration. Thats why I picked healthcare management over a MBA.

    Boston has many qualified universities but Northeastern University offered an accelerated fast-track program in which each course is six weeks long instead of the usual twelve. I enjoy the quick pace because it gives quicker results.
    The only problem is that you have to stay focused and keep current with the homework.

    In my classes I noticed the differences between the 20 somethings and myself. That generation has a hard time having a conversation that last a few minutes. They rely on technology so much to stay organized and be connected that they limit themselves.

    It is invigorating to be among younger classmates
    and be able to compare myself with their strengths and skills.
    After completing six classes I have a 3.8 average with six more classes to go.

    A masters degree will definitely enhance my workplace opportunities. I encourage others to plan it out and take gradual steps.

    Jim in Boston

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