Don’t try to dodge the recession with grad school

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A recession is typically a good time for graduate schools. Their application pool goes up because people see them as safe shelter from the storm. The scariest part of a down economy is the idea of having no income. Of course, graduate school does not solve for that. But graduate school does solve the second most scary thing about a bad economy: lack of a learning curve.

The more desperate you are for a job, the more likely you are to take a job that doesn’t teach you what you want to learn. And then you get to that job and you think, “Grad school could solve this problem.” But in fact, grad school creates larger, and more insurmountable problems. And some the problems you’re trying to solve with grad school might not be problems at all.

1. Grad school pointlessly delays adulthood.
The best thing you can do for yourself is take time to figure out who you are and where you fit in the world. No one teaches you that in school. You need to do it yourself. Grad school is a way to delay this process, rather than move you forward, according to Thomas Benton of the Chronicle of Higher Education. So instead of dodging tough questions by going back to school, try being lost. It’s normal, and honest, and you will end up with more self-knowledge and less debt than your grad-school counterparts, and in many cases, you will be similarly qualified for your next big job.

2. PhD programs are pyramid schemes
It’s very hard to get a job teaching at a university. And if you are not going to teach, why are you getting a degree? You don’t need a piece of paper to show that you are learning. Go read books after work. Because look: In the arts, you would have a better chance of surviving the Titanic than getting a tenure-track position; and once you adjust for IQ, education, and working hours, post-PhD science jobs are among the most low-paying jobs you could get.

3. Business school is not going to help 90% of the people who go.
Here’s the problem with business school. Most people want to work for themselves, but you can’t learn entrepreneurship in school — you have to learn by doing. And a business degree that is not from a top school is not going to get you very much at all, according to recruiting firm Challenger & Gray. Finally, Harvard Business School has acknowleged that if you are planning to downshift for kids around the time you are 30, your ability to leverage an MBA is drastically compromised.

4. Law school is a factory for depressives.
It used to be that if you had a law degree it was a ticket to a high salary and a safe career. Today many people go to law school and cannot find a job. This is, in a large part, because law school selects for people who are good with details and pass tests and law firms select for people who are good at marketing themselves and can drum up business. Law firms are in a transition phase, and they have many unfair labor practices leftover from older generations, for example, hourly billing and making young lawyers pay dues for what is, today, a largely uncertain future. Which might explain why the American Bar Association reports that the majority of lawyers would recommend that people not to go into law.

5. The medical school model assumes that health care spending is not a mess.
Medical school is extremely expensive, and our health care system does not pay enough to doctors for them to sanely accept the risk of taking $200,000 in debt to serve as doctors. Specialists like opthalmologists have great hours, and plastic surgeons have great salaries, but most doctors will be stuck in a system that is largely broken, and could easily break them financially — like OBGYNs who cannot afford to deliver babies in New York because they can’t afford the malpractice insurance with their salary.

6. Going to grad school is like going into the military.
Applications to the military increase in a bad economy in a disturbingly similar way that applications to graduate school do. For the most part, both alternatives are bad. They limit your future in ways you can’t even imagine, and they are not likely to open the kind of doors you really want. Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids.

7. Most jobs are better than they seem: You can learn from any job.
When I worked on a French chicken farm, I thought I’d learn French, but I didn’t, because I was so foreign to the French farm family that they couldn’t talk to me. However I did learn a lot of other things, like how to bargain to get the best job in the chicken coop, and how to get out of killing the bunnies. You don’t need to be learning the perfect thing in your job. You just need to be learning. Don’t tell yourself you need a job that gives your life meaning. Jobs don’t do that; doesn’t that make you feel better? Suddenly being in the workplace doesn’t seem so bad.

8. Graduate school forces you to overinvest: It’s too high risk.
In a world where people did not change careers, grad school made sense. Today, grad school is antiquated. You invest three to six extra years in school in order to get your dream career. But the problem is that not only are the old dream careers deteriorating, but even if you have a dream career, it won’t last. You’ll want to change because you can. Because that’s normal for today’s workplace. People who are in their twenties today will change careers about four times in their life. Which means that grad school is a steep investment for such a short period of time. The grad school model needs to change to adapt to the new workplace. Until then. Stay away.

Not sure if grad school is right for you? Penelope now offers 1 on 1 career coaching and can help you work through the toughest question of all: Is grad school worth it for you?


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  1. Juliette
    Juliette says:

    But what if you could keep your job and go to grad school part-time, perhaps earning an MPA over five years? Better yet, what if you could do that without borrowing a dime?

    Is grad school still a crummy idea?

    Say it ain’t so!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think you have to ask yourself what, really, are you achieving by getting the MPA? Seems like any experience you need in order to earn more money, you could get over those five years — in the workplace.

      Think about all the extra time you spend, after work, earning the MPA. Seems like that time would have a higher return for you if you did something else with it.


      • Jeremiah
        Jeremiah says:

        Since this person mentioned an MBA, it’s likely they work in government or non-profit industry. There hiring/promotion practices a drastically different from the private sector. For the most part, salaries are a lot less negotiable and based on how many acronyms you can put after your name. It is highly likely that this person is at a point where an MPA is a must to keep climbing the ladder.

      • India Prater
        India Prater says:

        In the words of Cher from the movie Clueless…AS IF! As if five years experience in the work force would mean more than graduate work! To begin with just try getting a job other than secretary or fast food worker, or some other such degrading job without graduate work. Todays’ market is highly competitive, so five years experience…. five years as what department store associate? Get real.

    • Jennifer Lynn
      Jennifer Lynn says:

      I’d think twice about an MPA under any circumstance. That degree prepares one for an industry [either nonprofit or government] that is slow, inefficient, and unable to create the change that is the reason for their very existence. At best, they are great at putting on band-aids and checking off boxes.

      That said, if you want to be in these industries and actually be effective, and you MUST go to grad school, at least get a business degree instead. The world of nonprofit/government world is changing (higher standards, social business, etc.) and could use more intellectually rigorous, creative, efficient thinkers.

      • jmunnie
        jmunnie says:

        I have to respond to Jennifer Lynn’s reply. Her broad generalizations of MPA programs, as well as the nonprofit and governmental sectors, lead me to believe she hasn’t had personal experience in any of them.

        I have an MPA — which I earned part time, over two-and-a-half years, in a well-regarded program, and with zero debt. (I received partial tuition reimbursement from my employer, which is very common. I was also awarded a partial scholarship for academic achievement.) Of those that I am familiar with, MPA programs have management, budgeting and finance courses (as well as specializations in management) similar to those of MBA programs, but designed to address the problems unique to public and nonprofit organizations.

        (BTW, Jennifer Lynn, nonprofits can change radically on a dime in my experience. Slowness, inefficiency, and inability to change can often apply to government and agencies that work directly for government, true, although it is not always the case: Just look at the changes that occur to agencies due to new presidential administrations.)

        Why did I go for an MPA? I currently work in the public sector, I want to continue working in the public sector, and many jobs explicitly require not only work experience but an MPA.

        • bebe la belle
          bebe la belle says:

          you are so cute and idealistic. as a 4th generation washingtonian we love to eat idealistic little bitches like you for breakfast. Have a nice day dear.

  2. tinyhands
    tinyhands says:

    Although these are 8 decent suggestions for not going to grad school, there are (and will continue to be) plenty of reasons why someone should. However, in light of the title of this article, you are correct and I’d like to add the following recommendations:

    1. Do not go to graduate school immediately after finishing your undergraduate degree. At this point, you are still too uneducated to learn anything else. Get a job, don’t think about grad school for 5 years.

    2. Do not go to graduate school after losing your job. The ONLY exception to this rule is if you were already planning to go back to school, but see rule #3.

    3. Do not borrow money to go to graduate school. The ONLY exception to this rule is if you can afford to go to school and pay for it WITHOUT borrowing money. Otherwise, make your employer pay for it.

    • Alora
      Alora says:

      I so completely agree. The one thing I’d add is that, if you want to go to grad school, find a program you can do in parallel to work.

      Ceasing work to go back to school is just as hazardous to your career progress as ceasing work to spend five years on a Mommy Track. In the end, you are five years behind your peers and have lost the momentum you had, which was a huge point in your favor to start with.

      Besides, doing a master’s while working full-time is the fasted, easiest and best way to make sure that no one mistakes your time in school for “hiding.”

      And personally, one of the best things I ever did for myself was work full-time while going to school. It was a huge accomplishment that many of my classmates didn’t survive, and it taught me more about time management, prioritization and learning how to juggle conflicting requirements than I ever would have learned just doing one at a time.

      Of course, that obviously only works for a Masters, and only in certain fields.

  3. Venkat
    Venkat says:

    LOL! A thoroughly dyspeptic take, but I agree with the gist of your concrete economic assessments, if not your conclusions, especially the psychological ones.

    I have a PhD in engineering, and now have a well-paid research job, but yes, it is financially just not worth it when you do the math right. Compared to my peers who started working right out of BS, I am way behind financially, both in savings, and in some cases even in paycheck.

    But I don’t regret it for a moment, because it was my path to growing up. It is only a way to avoid adulthood for those who go to grad school when the world is clearly telling them their path goes through some other lost territory…

    And PhDs are a pyramid scheme only if you are married to the idea of a tenure-track job. There’s other interesting things to do after, esp. in the sciences/tech. Can’t speak for lib arts/humanities. You could be right for those…

  4. Corky
    Corky says:

    Excellent post! I was recently laid off, (still young 27) and one of the options I put on my list was going back to school. However financially it would never work out unless I wanted to accumulate a huge debt, not a personal goal. My husband and I decided reading books, blogs and learning new computer programs with some of my spare time would be a much better investment. I agree that you learn more by doing a job than going to school. In the first year of my job out of college I learned more about my career on the job than in the 5 years I went to school. Graduate school is too high of a risk for my generation. I am already facing a career change after graduating only 5 years ago!

  5. julie
    julie says:

    Ouch, you hit the bullseye Penelope. I went to grad school- two Masters degrees, crazy – in my 30s after leaving a 12 year career in show business figuring it would give me a practical foundation for a “real” career. Through fits and starts, freelancing, unemployment, and living off my credit cards it took me nine years to get a regular, salaried job. NINE. And the school loan debt I am still paying off, 12 years after graduating from the second program, isn’t going away fast. I could argue that school was a pleasure, that it helped me grow my mind, that without it I would not have traveled the path that led me to my husband, etc. but I could not honestly say that the financial investment I made has paid off in dollar terms, quite the reverse. And I don’t know that it made any difference to my growth as a person. I already felt lost and didn’t want to stay there, which is why I went to school. I wonder what would have happened if I’d just stayed lost for awhile. It would have been a brave but very uncomfortable choice.

  6. Vagina Drum
    Vagina Drum says:

    You wrote what I was thinking. Grad school is understandably appealing because, at the very least, it’s a plan, but at the most, it’s the Bay of Pigs of life decisions.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I’d have to second this comment. Broad, sweeping generalization of the military and its members. I’m assuming Penelope has no practical experience to use in forming her judgements of the military. I’m sure if she actually knew a cross-section of people in the military, she would have a different opinion.

      Yes, there are people who enlist in the military to escape a life of poverty. But as a military officer, nobody that I work with fits this pre-concieved notion. Believe it or not, some people like myself actively choose to serve in the military when there are more lucrative fields available to them.

  7. Katie
    Katie says:

    Ouch. Sweeping generalization about the military. Attitudes like that is what irks many of our service men the most.

    The military is a job, just like working for a start-up. Soldiers/sailors/Marines get pay and benefits and jumpstarts to great careers. Ask one of our military members if they are having trouble figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. You have a difficult argument ahead of yourself after you claim that the military limits people “in ways you can’t even imagine”.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      I don’t believe that is what was being said at all. There are some people in this world who join the military for the possibilities it can have for you, and yet these people are not fully aware of what those possibilities are. Those are who this article speaks to. The men and women who take their job in the military as a career are not looking for an escape hatch, which is who this was directed to.

    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      I disagree. The military does limit people “in ways you can’t even imagine” when viewing it from the inside.

      My husband is an officer, and he enlisted because the economy stunk and he didn’t see any other options available for us. And he’s very content in his service.

      However, the military is not always the lofty after-high school decision that it’s made out to be on television. It does make it difficult to fit into the regular world. People who’ve known you for years suddenly don’t understand what you do on a daily basis. You don’t feel comfortable or safe discussing your work with outsiders. You often feel so cut off because you’re far from everything you knew, either physically or emotionally, and in addition to all the internals, you’re also living in a fishbowl. No equivalent position with an equal amount of scrutiny exists outside of national political office.

      As much time and effort as Penelope has put into her image and her career, you cannot compare the military as a job to a start-up. It’s a whole different animal. You eventually leave the frantic drive behind at a start-up because you either fail and re-start the process or succeed and move forward to running a standard company. The military requires that fervor for the entire 20-30 year journey.

      I don’t feel that the military limits everyone all the time, but there are definitely times of total self-honesty where anyone will admit that they feel adrift. It’s a direct result of the frequent moves, the limitations on advancement and education (mostly due to time constraints that civilians can’t even fathom), and the ennui of knowing what your life will be like day in and day out for the next 15 or 20 years.

      So I don’t think Penelope is irking any servicemember, except maybe those who have been living with denial and find this to be uncomfortably true.

      You should consider your own feelings and motives before responding with sweeping statements about the feelings of many servicemembers.

    • Ron
      Ron says:

      Your forgot Airmen.

      And she’s generally right. They sell kids on the best jobs, most end up with the worse ones, looking for an escape. For every success story, you rip tons of kids from their home environments, throw them in a leaky cauldron with tons of other kids, with no real support system and no idea how to do much of anything other than what they’re told to do — usually by coercion under the guise of motivation — and if they do that right, they might move up the ranks.

      I’ve seen too many people end up rushing themselves into bad marriages, poor financial situations and more (you know, the whole risking death thing) to “be all they can be.”

      It’s great for those who have a gameplan, but for too many poor kids, it’s just a way to rip the human capital from communities that probably desperately need their labor.

  8. Mary
    Mary says:

    I don’t think this article makes a clear enough distinction between a Master’s and a PhD’s. Master’s degrees usually take two years, while PhD’s take six. That is a vastly different investment of time and money.

  9. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    Actually, I think wanting a Ph.D. is a good reason to get one.

    Also, I love to read, and I read history books all the time. I also have a Master’s degree in history. That’s why I’m able to tell you that getting a degree and reading books after work are not the same thing at all.

  10. Moshe Zadka
    Moshe Zadka says:

    When you put links in the post, they are not absolute.

    This makes them not work on my RSS reader. I’m not sure what you use for blogging, but if you could fix that, it would be wonderful.

  11. Lise
    Lise says:

    I have seen too many people my age miserable in grad school. Inevitably they went thinking it would be just like another four years of college – basically, because they wanted to hit the snooze button the alarm clock of life.

    Of course, they found it grad school is more like working a job than being an undergrad, and that if you’re not 100% committed to the topic you picked, you will hate it and resent how much time it takes away from the rest of your life.

    My advice to anyone is not to go to grad school unless you’re like, incredibly passionate about sedimentology or neuroscience or whatever your topic is.

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      Yeah, you should like, totally only pick something you’re passionate about. Like for sure.

  12. Rachel M. Esterline .:. A Step Ahead
    Rachel M. Esterline .:. A Step Ahead says:


    People have asked me if I plan on going to graduate school when I finish my undergraduate degree.

    I think in the field of public relations, experience is more important. I can always get my accreditation in public relations, which I see as more valuable.

    If I did decide to get another degree, it would be because my employer was willing to pay for it. I can’t see putting myself more in debt when I can read the books myself and learn by doing.

    Great post.

    • JW
      JW says:

      Hi – I’ve been in PR for 15+ years, and it’s very clear that a masters in communication, regardless of the what it’s called, is pretty useless. Experience, contacts, ability to communicate a story, etc. matter much more than a graduate degree. I saw plenty of people rack up debt and get no further ahead than their peers.

      On the other hand, an MBA in the PR field is a highly valued commodity at the executive level, because executives want to feel that their PR help can understand complex business issues. But at the end of the day, how you think and execute matters most.

      Disclosure: I chose not to get an MBA and have since used my experience and contacts to start my own business.

  13. Dave Spencer
    Dave Spencer says:

    First off, you’ve left off one great reason to go to grad school during a recession. During a time where employers are cutting costs and freezing salaries, it’s a great way to increase your compensation. Many companies are still doing tuition reimbursement, and if you have any interest at all it’s a great way to increase your compensation while building a complementary skill set which will increase your options if your job folds.

    For me, getting my MS degree didn’t delay adulthood, it accelerated it. I learned to balance obligations to multiple stakeholders by having to balance my job as a TA and my work as a student. Spending time with faculty as a TA helped me understand more about the educational system and gave me valuable contacts for later in life.

    Once I left my TA position for a “real job” (that paid for me to continue my degree), I again had to exercise valuable skills in balancing education versus my career, while dealing with being freshly married and looking for a new place to live. All in all I can’t see a way that going for my MS delayed my adulthood.

    What it did was allow me more time to get to know the industry so that instead of taking the first job I came upon I could take some time, interview at more companies, and find a position doing work I was excited to do.

    Completing my MS degree was a safety net while I job-hunted, a valuable life experience, and without a doubt a net win. I don’t regret it a bit.

  14. andy
    andy says:

    Grad school was the best thing I ever did.

    Undergrad teaches you to memorize and move with the herd.

    Grad school teaches you to think and defend your ideas.

    I don’t believe the system is perfect, and grad school is not for everyone, but it is a worthwhile endeavor if you are looking to expand your mind.

    • Monica O'Brien
      Monica O'Brien says:

      Ditto to Andy’s point.

      For the record, I worked at P’s start up for six months and learned more about entrepreneurship from the 10-week MBA class I took in conjunction. You can definitely learn plenty about entrepreneurship from school, and MBA programs in my area have produced a ton of successful and profitable start-ups, ranging from high-tech to chain restaurants. (I live in Chicago)

      I also think P’s jibe at the military is plain ignorant. But then again, so is most of this article – a (non) degree in English doesn’t make you an expert on becoming a doctor, lawyer, or soldier.

      Also, none of my friends taking those professional routes are depressed or feel limited in their career options as P says they should be.

      I think it’s just hard for P to empathize with people who want to build a traditional career, and have the right mindset to do so. I am not one of those people, but I can understand the concept that not everyone has the same preferences as me.

  15. Teague
    Teague says:

    Bold words from someone without a graduate degree. Can you really totally dismiss an option without trying it? I agree that you shouldn’t go to grad school simply because of the economy; it’s more of a buy and hold proposition. If it is the right time for you to go to grad school, I wouldn’t avoid it simply because we’re in a recession. Grad school is not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless to everyone. Particularly for people who are able to get a school to pay them to study there, grad school may be a valuable experience.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I went to graduate school. Boston University for English. In a recession. And I left when I was short just one class because I had a good job offer in the corporate world and I could see that actually getting the degree was not going to help me get a job in either the academic or corporate worlds.


      • gregcnorca*AT*aim
        gregcnorca*AT*aim says:

        I love when a reply like this slaps back squarely at condescending and cynicism. Damn straight!

      • RS
        RS says:

        I’m glad it worked out for you. But there are people who are willing to take the risk and hold it out and finish their degrees because of their passion for the subject. To tell them to ditch it all and spend the rest of their life in corporate chicken-farm because that’s what adulthood is about is well, childish.

        Besides, some of us would rather be badly-paid doctors and lawyers and scientists than be forced daily to pretend to enjoy a soul-sucking life simply because it plays “well”.

        And don’t even get me started on “read books after work” part of it. It’s understandable that people are assuming you have never been to graduate school — you should know that book clubs and academic study are two different worlds. You may prefer one over the other, but don’t conflate the two. By extension — yes, graduate or professional school is not for everyone, but if you really want to be a doctor or scholar, you owe it to yourself to take a shot at it, recession or not.

      • Kristin
        Kristin says:

        why didn’t you take the time to complete the one remaining class? Did you talk to your new corporate employer about the possibility of them financing the final class? Or giving you the flexibility to complete it? Just seems silly to not complete it with one class left on your plate… perhaps that is why you feel it is such a waste of money. You thew your money right down the drain.

  16. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    “Specialists like opthamologists have great hours.”

    I just want to point out the correct spelling for ophthalmologist. I’m a medical editor and that’s always one that’s tricky to spell.

    I think grad school is good for people who want a degree they need. For instance, I’m considering becoming a school psychologist. To do that, I need a master’s. My boyfriend wants to become an archivist and he needs a master’s to do that. He works at a university and his tuition is totally free (except for the taxes on the tuition, which is a new thing; used to be entirely free). It makes sense for him to be in grad school. He craves stability and wants a job that suits his personality and interests and will allow him to contribute to our future together but he’s not a job hopper or a careerist. So, once he’s an archivist, he’ll probably be one for a long time.

    If people are interested in going into healthcare and perhaps becoming a doctor, I recommend looking into nursing or being a physician’s assistant. I think that’s more sane than being a doctor and the salary and benefits are great. Also, nurses are the ones who truly save you when you’re sick. You can survive a bout in the hospital with a lousy doctor (maybe not a surgeon, though) but god help you if your nurse sucks.

    Finally, although the military was not an option for me, I agree with Katie that you’re mischaracterizing it as a dead end. Of course, during stupid wars, it’s bad. Otherwise, it’s a great way to travel, earn money and benefits, get reduced housing, get your school paid for. My mother was in the military and got a great, civilian career out of it, no debt and a lifetime of the best insurance carrier ever (USAA). My cousin is in the air force now and just got back from overseas (not Iraq or Afghanistan) where he was doing PR and hobnobbing with famous people and dignataries. Talk about networking.

    • Sheila
      Sheila says:

      Just sent in my application for library school. It is required for the majority of library – university/federal/private industry – no matter what your background. I have paraprofessional experience and a Master’s in another field but every employer said you must have your MLS.

      • cobi
        cobi says:

        I worked for four years as a Paraprofessional in an academic library. I thought for sure that it would make a difference when I got my MLS degree. I suppose if I had been in a public library it might have. But none of your paraprofessional experience will “count” as the two years of “professional” experience required for most entry level jobs. What a waste of my time. Now every do-gooder is telling me I should become a medical coder. I have a feeling this is no different and I will just get burned again.

  17. AR
    AR says:

    I don’t think these points apply at all to library workers who are thinking about getting an MLS. To be a librarian, in most cases you still need an MLS. Thus, not going to graduate school is not an option. I’m not saying that laid-off individuals from other fields should start getting MLS degrees in droves, but for someone who is in the library field as a clerk or LTA, library school should never be off the table, no matter the economy.

  18. Teague
    Teague says:

    So it sounds like getting a degree in English during a recession might not be a good idea for you. That doesn’t mean that no grad school is a good idea during a recession. One might argue that the real key is to know what you want to do with the degree before pursuing it. I agree that you shouldn’t pursue just any degree, but I think you may have overstated your case.

  19. The Weakonomist
    The Weakonomist says:

    Good luck telling this to the MBAs from top 30 schools that walk out after two years making 90k

    Most MBAs maybe want to start a company but instead they join a big company and do quite well.

    For the record, I am not an MBA.

    • Her Every Cent Counts
      Her Every Cent Counts says:

      While I don’t 100% agree with what Penelope says here (I think grad degrees are worth it for SOME people) I don’t think the MBA = $90k degree is at all a reason to pursue an MBA. I graduated 5 years ago with an undergrad degree in theater, and, while I started out making $20k I am now up to a salary of $90k, at a startup, without the MBA. And I too am considering getting a graduate degree, either an MBA or in interaction design (probably the later) so I can shift my career path and open more doors for myself.

      When I was finishing my senior year of college, I was convinced I wanted to get an MA at Syracuse University in their then new arts journalism program. But I was too scared to go in debt for — arts journalism. Instead, I moved to a new city, worked my way through a handful of careers in a few years, and found one that worked for me. I may still go to grad school… but my reason is not to escape the recession (or to miss the recovery), it’s to support my professional story. I firmly believe a graduate degree (either MBA from top school, or HCI/interaction design degree) would help me have a lot more flexibility in my career, especially down the road when I’d like to work for myself as a PT consultant or even entrepreneur.

  20. Jon A.
    Jon A. says:

    I am currently in Grad School, Working Full Time and completely lost. Thoughts?

    I disagree that M.B.As do not teach entrepenuership. So far my program has increased my confidence tremedously and given me access to case studies in which I can learn from other people’s mistakes. It has also given me ample opportunities to network with other entrepenuers and potential funding sources. All good learning opportunities I would not otherwise have. It also gives me the opportunity to see beyond the microcosm of my employer.

    With any luck I can wade through all three at once. Now sucks, but it feels better than sitting still.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jon, your comment gives a good summary of what an MBA can do for someone. But it’s also a good summary of why the only MBAs that really get you something are from the top-ten (or so) schools. After that, the networking potential is no better than what you’d get being a great networker outside of school.

      Also, please click the link about how you cannot learn entrepreneurship in school. This is not controversial research. The person saying you can’t learn it is from the Kauffman Institute, which funds tons of entrepreneurship programs at the MBA level. Also, there’s great research from Darden (Univ of Virginia’s top-ranked business school) showing that you cannot teach entrepreneurship because so much of entrepreneurship is being great at building a network.


      • BK
        BK says:

        Speaking of the Kauffman Institute, look at the bios of all the Kauffman fellows… a graduate degree is first of all a requirement, and most have at least two.

      • Laura
        Laura says:

        This is not exactly on topic, but…How do you get a job at a French chicken farm without speaking French?

    • Her Every Cent Counts
      Her Every Cent Counts says:

      Did you work for a startup before getting your MBA? I’ve worked for two startups (one B2C and one B2B) as well as a large, public company in the 5 years since graduating from undergrad, and have learned a lot in each of these positions. What I haven’t learned is analytics, stats, and more hard skills that one would learn in an MBA program… which is why I still want an MBA. However, if I went into an MBA program before having this experience, I’m not sure I’d know what to make of it.

  21. Mauri
    Mauri says:

    I would like to address your comment in regards to the military:
    “They limit your future in ways you can't even imagine, and they are not likely to open the kind of doors you really want.”

    I have worked shoulder to shoulder with military personnel. Unfortunately, many folks have to do dirty work that is highlighted in the media. I am always saddened by this and encourage anyone joining the services to consider this risk.

    I have trained many enlisted people in Army, Navy and Air Force on highly complex technical systems. If a person chooses the correct path and does well on the ASVAB, an individual can exit the service with technical knowledge, a nice scholarship and retirement. In my six years, I have met men and women who program in multiple languages, speak multiple languages, can solder circuit boards in a snap and have real life think on their feet skills. For an individual that has come out of high school with no future but flipping burgers, you cant tell me that the military does not open doors.

    If a person completes a four year degree at any university and participates in ROTC plus officer training school, the amount of responsibility a Lieutenant or Captain may have is jarring. Imagine stating that you have managed million dollar plus programs from the government side and you are under 30.

    Leadership = yes (especially with a degree)
    Technical Experience = yes
    Worldly experience = yes

  22. Katie @ Making This Home
    Katie @ Making This Home says:

    My husband and I are in our 20s. All of our friends are going back to school, and my parents keep pushing me to. It’s really nice to see someone else writing the same argument that I have ESPECIALLY about getting an MBA. Thank you for doing this. I’ve passed your article on to who knows how many people.

    • Bryan
      Bryan says:

      Are your parents willing to pay for grad school? If so, it changes the cost/benefit analysis a bit, and you may want to consider it. If they’re not willing to pay, tell them to butt out.

  23. H Jordan
    H Jordan says:

    Both my husband and I had successful early careers without even earning our bachelor’s degrees (we both did have four years of college, though). Then, somewhere in our late 30s and early 40s, we hit a wall. Not having undergraduate degrees prevented us both from doing what we wanted; in his case, taking graduate level courses on historic preservation, in mine, teaching writing. We both finished our undergraduate work and got our degrees. Then I found that not even the local community college would consider letting me do a writing workshop without a graduate degree, despite my having nearly 20 years’ experience as a professional writer who had published nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Now I am finishing up an M Ed with a teaching writing concentration. Will it allow me to become a full-time professor some day? Absolutely not. But it will let me teach a workshop or a class part-time on an adjunct level.

    Was it worth it? Maybe. I would never have done it if I had to pay for it, but I work for a university and don’t have to pay tuition. Recently, I checked the salaries for full-time professors in my university and I make more as a non-professor with a BA than many of them do with PhDs. There is absolutely NO incentive for me to get a terminal degree.

    And back when I was in the business world, the more degrees a person had, the more useless they generally were.

  24. Dawn Papandrea
    Dawn Papandrea says:


    As someone who’s still paying for her master’s degree in journalism — a field in which experience counts way more than schooling — these are all excellent points. However, I actually feel that the coursework made me a better writer, taught me the craft (I had an entirely different major as an undergrad), connected me with lots of people and mentors in the industry, and gave me the credentials to teach as an adjunct college professor. Of course, the degree did not have any ROI. But then again, I didn’t expect it to, so I have no regrets.

    That being said, I think in light of this economy, there are serious benefits to going back to school — just not necessarily full-fledged, high-priced graduate degrees. It may be a lone course in public speaking or Web design that can boost your resume, or a certificate program that can gain you access into a new career path that will make you happier.

    In short, if you think going into a grad program will mean six-figure job offers, expect to be disappointed (and in severe debt!). But, not all education is a waste of time and money, as long as you have reasonable expectations.

  25. deepali
    deepali says:

    And yet, I can counter each of these points with an example of someone who bucked your system.

    I think the gist of your article makes sense, for those who are satisfied with ordinary. It also makes sense for those who need ROI on everything they do. Thankfully, I’m neither. I went to grad school for the sheer joy of it. What else is life for?

    There is a deeper point you are almost touching, but you aren’t quite there. I hope you get to it, because I would love to see you write about it.

  26. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    You should only go to graduate school if you need it for the job you really want (pharmacy, medicine, etc). So many students go to graduate/professional school because they don’t know what to do with their undergraduate degree. They rack up huge amounts of debt and still have no direction or interest in the field they studied.

  27. Dan
    Dan says:

    Of course a masters in English is nearly worthless, in terms of employability. But so is a bachelors in English, history, women’s studies, music, and all those other liberal arts. Yet you seem to have no problem with the latter. Apparently it’s okay to waste four years of time and tuition wandering aimlessly, but not two more after that. I guess ya gotta draw the line somewhere.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      I disagree, Dan. My M.A. in history got me a job. I might have gotten it without the M.A., but I probably would have started at a lower pay level, and my peers would have felt differently. I saw this in action.

      In my opinion and experience, people who can’t figure out what to do with a subject area degree are focused too much on the subject area–and even then, they’re not thinking creatively about how to use that specific knowledge.

    • Heath Vercher
      Heath Vercher says:

      I disagree with your comments about bachelors degrees in those fields being worthless. I have studied at the bachelor’s and master’s level (both in music) and have been able to enjoy a very successful start to my career. Granted, to be a performer or artist requires no schooling at all, but having those degrees has helped me round out my career in music by giving me more avenues to teach, do creative work, and has given me a better understanding of the type of life I will lead through music.

      Personally, I think college allows you to gain skills, not experience. The real world is where we put our skills to the test.

      I think any degrees are worthwhile pursuits. You just need to be more creative about how you use them. And you can use academic credentials to get jobs in more ‘traditional’ sectors.

      Find a way to combine your work with your school. And network the hell out of yourself.

  28. rismA
    rismA says:

    I have to second (third, fourth) that you got the military comment way wrong. The military provides great work experience (not for everyone, sure, but that’s the same at any company.) I haven’t been in, but we have about 10% military folks in my group. My manager had a 21-year career in the Navy and learned to manage and lead people there, organize processes, etc. etc. It’s work experience in a way that grad school definitely is not.

  29. Sean Dougherty
    Sean Dougherty says:

    I’d like to echo what several posters have said about the military as a career choice. I had an intern in ROTC working for me at one point and the difference between when he left for basic and when he came back to visit was like it was two different people. The downside – being shot or blown up – is pronounced and perhaps that is what you were referring to, but assuming survival, who wouldn’t want a veteran on staff if they had a choice? You already know you’re getting an employee who is disciplined, brave beyond conventional definitions and knows how to work in a hierarchy in the most challenging conditions imaginable. And that’s before you consider the specific training imparted.

  30. Anne
    Anne says:

    I love this blog. I just love it. I love how you deliver the “facts” and just how you put everything. It’s a great, hardcore way to show people to snap out of it and get with the times and stop fooling yourselves. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  31. kevin
    kevin says:

    thank you thank you thank you. i took the GMAT, got recommendations, and wrote essays for multiple MBA programs, but at the last minute i decided not to hit the submit button. thank you for confirming that i made the right decision.

  32. Andy
    Andy says:

    In general, I agreed with the post. However, your comment about the military is just plain wrong. I served in the Army right after college (in a combat arms specialty no less), left the Army 13 years ago to enter the IT industry, and am now serving as an executive for a global Fortune 500 company. Why? Because the Army taught me leadership, discipline, creative problem – solving, and mental/physical toughness – attributes that have served me well in the business world and qualities that many non-veterans (including you, judging from the content of your blog) do not possess. For many kids, rich and poor, one of the best things they can do to start off their professional lives is to serve their country in the military.

  33. Ian
    Ian says:

    I did grad school and loved it. Has it helped my career? Not yet. But it was a great two years.

    Of course, I did about 40% of my studies on comic books.

  34. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I went to grad school part time (MPA). Paid cash. And I’m really glad I did.

    I partied my way through undergrad, so grad school gave me an opportunity to be a student when I was in my late 20s and my head was out of my butt. But I also learned A LOT about leadership and management that I wasn’t learning at my job. I also learned to be a more critical thinker. And I believe it has helped my career, because I work for an organization where all of us in management have graduate degrees – and I have to do many many presentations for people working in higher ed, who usually have graduate degrees.

    I do, agree, that grad school is not a panacea for workplace angst. I think if you go back to school, it needs to be for the sake of learning. If you’re only going because you think it’ll get you more money, then I agree with Penelope – don’t go.

  35. Annie
    Annie says:

    This describes perfectly what my husband and I have experienced. He graduated with a PhD in physics from one of the best programs in the country.

    After graduation, he was able to find 2 part-time University lecturing positions within driving distance of our home so that we wouldn’t have to move and I could keep my job. His annual salary was less than what I make with a BS, and only $10,000 more per year than his stipend for graduate school. After a year on the fast track to an early heart attack (but not tenure), he left academia to go into IT. His salary more than doubled and his working hours were cut in half. His corporate job involves some teaching as well, which he loves.

    He loves physics, he loves teaching, and he doesn’t regret going to graduate school, but PhD programs are indeed pyramid schemes.

    • Michael
      Michael says:

      My brother got a PHD in Toxicology from UC Davis, and now he works for California EPA, making big bucks out the door? In the recession mind you. What are you talking about. Pyramid scheme my ass.

      • wtq24tga3g4ae3hgah
        wtq24tga3g4ae3hgah says:

        She is talking about physics. Sure are a lot of companies doing physics research these days. huh. Maybe if your thing is materials science or semiconductors… but what about pure physics?

  36. Sidney
    Sidney says:

    Haven’t you done this column before? Without the attack on the military career I mean.

    Of course my friend who is a pilot in the Navy, and will soon leave with a 20 year retirement with full pay, and a job waiting for him as a commercial pilot (on top of the retirement pay), will sorely disagree.

    And I successfully changed careers by getting a Masters in Urban Planning and now probably make more than you with better benefits and a better retirement.

    And I have several lawyer friends who love their job and are making an excess of $500K a year.

    And I know a branch manager of a librarian with an MLS who makes a $100K a year with great benefits and retirement.

    Wow, I seem to know more people who are exceptions to your rules than who are examples of your advice. But, at least you provide entertainment value :)

    • Angie
      Angie says:

      I’m in your boat. I know far more people whose advanced degrees have really helped them than I do people who can’t use them.

  37. Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers
    Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers says:

    If you know what you want to do, and doing it requires a master’s degree, it makes sense to earn that degree. I have never regretted earning my degree, as it opened the doors I needed to pursue my career goals. (Of course, you’ll be in trouble if you “know” you want to be a lawyer and realize after 3 years of law school and lots of debt that you actually don’t want to practice law.)

    Going to school in a recession because you can’t find a job and school gives you a “plan” for the next few years, on the other hand, is a bad idea.

    Job seekers would be much better off investing in a coach and resume professional to ensure that they are well prepared to confront a competitive job market. As a career coach, I work with many job seekers who have thrown up their hands in desperation because they can’t find a job. One look at their resumes usually tells me why. A transformed resume and a bit of coaching can make a world of difference. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than grad school and much less work!

  38. Lillian
    Lillian says:

    Your comments are only really valid for the US of A.

    In many EU countries, tuition is very low or non-existent, and health insurance is nationalized, making medical school quite affordable by comparison. I have just returned from Latvia, an EU country that is basically in receivership (the farmers are circling their tractors around the Ministry of Agriculture as I type this), and top-level business education has rarely been more popular in Riga.

    I still consider grad school as a reasonable response to a global recession. You haven’t convinced me to adopt your point of view on this.

  39. Nate Johnson
    Nate Johnson says:

    As a student in law school right now, I just can’t swallow the argument here. I think that the piece is a great way to test your desire to go, but not the be all end all decision-maker.

    Look the career market is crazy and different for everyone there are thousands of ways to find your path none of which is the “yellow-brick road.” And, yes, graduate school is hard, it has to be hard because the world is full of tough questions and hard decisions.

    If your looking to start your nest-egg maybe grad school is not so conducive to your goal. However, if you are looking to become a professional grad school is your path. The cost of your education is as a professor once told me “good debt” because it is an investment in your future. And if you do well in grad school, which is not hard if your motivations are right, jobs are not hard to get.

    Look, not everyone needs to go to grad school to be successful, which should be the take home from what Pen is saying, but you do need to set your priorities and decide what you want. Grad school is competitive, and at times nasty, but that’s how some people thrive. It forces your to either develop and take the reigns and get what you want out of life. If you think that you better benefit from lateraling careers gaining skills that way, fine, it saves money and builds skills but its not the best answer for us all.

    I was faced with the decision to go to law school two years ago and I grabbed it. Yes, it was scary, hard, made me hate myself, my professors, my peers, and sometimes life. However, it has given me the ability to see change, network, understand a very wide range of issues, stand tall, defend my ideas, work for change, and maybe along the way earn me a publication. Oh, I also got a job (even an offer from Pen). The meat of it all is finding yourself, who you are and then selling yourself, and you can’t sell yourself if you don’t know yourself.

    For me grad school was the ticket to self realization. Something that was not going to come from job jumping gaining experience, I tried it. I needed to be forced to ask and answer hard questions, and if you are stubborn like me give grad school a second thought. Because it is really just what you make of it.

  40. Fred
    Fred says:

    I partially agree and partially disagree with your post. If you are going to a PhD program to escape a bad-job market, then you are being foolish. Even a short PhD is longer than any recession has been in a century. However, graduate school can make a great deal of sense under some circumstances, depending on your career desires. First, a short masters program where you have a stipend and/or your employer pays for it, and when it will add to your career. A MA in education usually adds at least 10% to your salary for minimal effort. An MS/MSE in engineering, science, mathematics, statistics, or CS usually takes 2 years, is free with a stipend and adds to your earning potential. Second,if you have a burning desire to do science, then a PhD is really mandatory. Though if you want to become a professor, especially one with real tenure at a research-university, you have be prepared to fail at your goal, and ask yourself if doing science outside academia is still interesting enough to go to grad school, as that’s probably what will happen. Then since there aren’t really time-limits on PhD’s or post-docs, set your own limits as to when you’ll leave before you become one of these poor people who spend 15 years training for a career they will never have.

    As for a PhD or even an MA in the humanities. Well then you, are taking a gamble, since there aren’t that many careers for which a grad degree in one of the humanities is required — unlike in the sciences, stipends are low or non-existent, you might have to pay tuition, and the odds of getting a decent job minimal.

  41. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    Terrible advice.

    I finished a technical PhD and didn’t go into teaching. Just the letters have been useful — my current job was only open to PhDs, it’s helped me win government grants — but the experience was phenomenal. Not just the meta-skills about how to work independently and defend your work, but the *actual research*: discovering something new and publishing it.

    Look, graduate school isn’t for everyone, and some do use it as a safety blanket. But your ridiculous hyperbole (“needlessly delays adulthood”) is just lazy writing and needless trollbait.

    And calling military service a “terrible escape hatch” … you’ve compromised your credibility.

  42. Erin
    Erin says:

    I like the advice…don’t try to escape the recession by going to grad school. Straightforward. Grad school is not always the answer and will not always increase your compensation or give you direction in life. Great post.

  43. Shane
    Shane says:

    “And calling military service a “terrible escape hatch” – you’ve compromised your credibility.”

    The last 6 months have made me question a lot of what Penelope considers the “new future and changing of the work place due to Gen X/Y.” Many of her theories and ideas are unraveling as the 20-something worker now has an unemployment/layoff rate that is double or triple that of older age groups.

    I am very curious to see if this will ever be addressed or acknowledged by her.

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