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. Kenneth Wolman
    Kenneth Wolman says:

    In order. I never thought I’d agree with Ms. Trunk about anything but it seems I returned in time.

    1. I said for years that grad school, specifically humanities Ph.D. programs, in fact prolong adolescence. I worked in a non-work job (NYC Welfare caseworker) before going back to a graduate program in 1969. I came out in 1976, age 32, Ph.D. in hand, with absolutely no idea how people earned their livings. True, I was a very bad student, but I also had some very bad teachers.
    2. I went back to school in ’69 for the only valid reason I could think of: I loved literature, research, and teaching, and I wanted to do them in what I mistakenly thought was a civilized atmosphere. Right: a university is civilized. Hang out in the hallway while the personnel committee is deciding who gets tenure and who is cast into the outer darkness. It’s not civilized. Learn that a female faculty member slept with one of the committee in order to get tenure. Well, at least the man lived up to his word….
    3. My mistake was assuming that the glories of the job market in the Sixties would last forever. They caved in the year after I showed up. Ain’t it the way? By the time it was time for me to leave, there was nothing. I finished the degree work only because I am a stubborn and contrary SOB and I (and my then wife) had worked to damned hard for me to get up and walk away.
    4. Label this “What I did for love.” I did dissertation research with a nonentity, a man with no reputation and therefore no ability to help me get my first job. That is how it’s done, you know. First jobs in Academe tend to be a fix rather than awarded on merit. I “hired” my director based on personal affinity, not on what he could do for me. This is remarkably like finding a mentor in a corporation: you don’t have to love the man or woman but just understand that he or she can be the key to making your career or causing it to be stillborn.
    5. I thought about going to law school in 1993. I was 49. I scored in the middle of the pack on the LSAT: without studying. It ceased to mean much.
    6. The doctor I was seeing in New York is getting out of the field. He can’t make any money because he gets lousy reimbursement from the insurance companies (I felt almost embarrassed) and is a record-keeper, not a doctor. He’s going after an MBA. That might also be a mistake. I don’t know.
    7. I know people who went to business school. Enough said.
    8. I met a cadre of Sweet Young Things who worked as 1st year serfs at Deloitte. They were paid nothing much, were worked in some cases from 6 AM until midnight, but were promised the carrot of insider assistance on the CPA exam. All of them were let go right before I was let go by the Big Bank I was at for six months last year.
    9. You can learn from any job. I did. I learned how to deal with difficult people. I was a deli clerk in two supermarkets and a call center abuse-taker for a Internet-based phone company. My face cracked from being accommodating but I learned it anyway. The opposite is not being “honest and true to yourself,” it’s being a short-tempered confrontational jerk. I saw those guys when I worked in the investment banks. I saw fewer of them in A&P and Vonage. Real people work for the latter companies; the former tend to be full of people who’ve lost touch with the reality of most people’s lives. We all need a refresher course now and then.
    10. I don’t exactly regret the Ph.D. program. I learned a lot. I could write a novel about it except David Lodge did it first and probably better. One of my favorite teachers from undergraduate told me “You probably should have stayed in social work.” Maybe. But I am with Penelope on this one: the escapes are not escapes all. You actually can adjust to what you think of as your “cruel fate” if you can stop thinking of yourself as somehow special. You’re not.

  2. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    I have to take exception with two of your points.

    3. Business school is not going to help 90% of the people who go.

    In general, I would say yes. However, business school will dramatically help people who go to top schools – places like Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Chicago and MIT. It is at these schools were people can surround themselves with amazing talent, gain access to an amazing alumni network, step out of the rat race and really think about where they want to go, and get a brand that will give them a big leg up as they move forward. Sure, if you want to just start a company, go for it. Or if you are already at a hedge fund, keep going. But for those trying to figure out where they want to go or those who need a foot in the door a top MBA is extraordinarily helpful. I’d say to at least 90% of those that end up at a top school.

    6. Going to grad school is like going into the military.

    The military is not a bad option for a lot of people, particularly poor people. The skills one learns in the military can go a long way into allowing for economic mobility. It is a great option for those who want leadership experience to be managers later in their careers, a way to fund an education without going into debt, and a way to transcend social expectations on particular demographic groups. While the military is not for everyone, I have seen many people use it to drastically alter their lot in life.

  3. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Hey Penelope – Love your posts, but I’m not loving your editor. I think you need to hire a new one. :)

  4. Emily
    Emily says:

    I appreciate the points you have made here. I am a couple years out of college. It took me about 10 years to figure out what I wanted to do and actually get my Bachelor’s. I don’t regret it because, coming out of college, I had more experience in my field that almost all of the people I graduated with. This made it easier for me to find a job that was not only better paying than most of my classmates but was also exactly what I wanted to do.

    I have been thinking about going back to get my masters but have decided that I don’t need to be in a rush to do that because I don’t want to be stuck in something that I’m not enjoying. I think there are things to be learned from any class and would love it if I could be a fulltime college student for the rest of my life. But I don’t see a need in going back until I find exactly what I’m interested in somewhere.

    Also a good point about the military. You seem to be getting a lot of negative comments about it. Like grad school, some people enter the military because they really want to take that path in life. They feel it will be a great thing for them. I know many people who have done this. However, working with low-income, at-risk youth, I can say that the number of students who have come to me and said that they feel like the military is their only way out is astounding. The truth is that they just need someone to sit down and talk about ALL the options available to them. They don’t have to choose between the military or flipping burgers. They just need someone to show them what else is out there.

    • Kenneth Wolman
      Kenneth Wolman says:

      Presumably you are not entirely serious. Truman never saw the inside of a law school, nor did Eisenhower. Clinton is a lawyer. So is Obama. So was Lincoln. I’m not sure there is a correlation between readiness for the office and a law degree.

  5. Tim
    Tim says:


    I’m going to agree with a few of these other comments that have mentioned networking as a sweet byproduct of grad school. Higher ed is another opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with a lot of quality people. Sure, you could get that outside of academe, but for those inside the system, it’s a great place to meet folks.

    I’m also going to agree with a few people who have pointed out that you really are making some sweeping generalizations (is there any kind other than sweeping?) about what graduate school is, and about its relation to something like the military. There is a GULF of difference between a graduate degree in the hard sciences and a degree in international relations (my chosen field). Furthermore, I think that economic strife drives some people to these programs for reasons beyond what you put out. Tough times can be good for perspective – maybe people realize that working in finance is not what they want to do. Grad school represents not merely a way out, but an increase of options.

    All told, yours is a well-meaning article, but it’s a tad superficial.

    • Kenneth Wolman
      Kenneth Wolman says:

      I know only about the Humanities, specifically English. It never occurred to me that networking went beyond one’s advisor. Maybe people ahead of you can get you into a different job. I saw that happen, but it’s not common. Mainly, the kind of networking I saw in Humanities happened at parties, and it usually ended up with one person going home with another after an hour of totally embarrassing behavior on a couch or in a chair:-).

  6. Sean
    Sean says:

    I think people are reading too much into the military comment. P means if you join the military because you have no idea what else to do with your life (i.e. escape hatch)–then it’s a bad reason to join. I don’t think she saying the military is an inherently flawed career choice.

    Great post, btw! I could completely identify with your reasons. I’m about 4 years out of college and considered going back to graduate school briefly. However, at some point you need to get out of the classroom and start living your life.

  7. Carla
    Carla says:

    Penelope, is the Challenger & Gray research available online? I would love to have it to show all the people who keep telling me I should apply to some safety schools instead of focusing only on top 10 MBA programs.

  8. kleinm
    kleinm says:


    If people could learn these things on the job, they would have no reason to go to grad school and would not voluntarily spends hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many places won’t even interview you without a Master’s degree, and sure, as an entrepreneur, I can learn as I go, but I’d be a hell of a lot further ahead of the poor schlubs who have never had a business education if I at least knew a little about accounting and the various types of companies out there.

  9. Scott
    Scott says:

    While I agree that going to grad school to dodge a bad economy is a bad idea (one should have much better reasons for pursuing a graduate degree than “the economy’s bad”), most of your post really delivers the message of “why grad school is a bad idea, period.” Is that really true? Should no one ever earn a business degree, become a doctor, or practice law ever again?

    Every year my company works with thousands of applicants who are trying to get into competitive graduate programs. While it’s true that many of them start the process for the wrong reasons, for the ones who know why they’re applying, have realistic career goals, and are open to learning (not just getting their ticket punched), the experience simply can’t be replicated.

    • Kenneth Wolman
      Kenneth Wolman says:

      I understand some of this. There are rules and exceptions. I recall as a kid of about 13 hearing a man named (you can’t make this up) Polykarp Kusch, who was then Professor of Physics at Columbia University. Kusch said he got out of college (Case) in 1931, couldn’t get a job because of the mounting Depression, and so he went to Illinois to do graduate work, where he got an M.S. and Ph.D. In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Lucky escape:-).

      More often than not, though, graduate programs appear to dangle false hope in front of aspirants. An MBA from Monmouth University doesn’t carry the same cachet as one from Fordham doesn’t carry the same cachet as one from Harvard. Law can be Capital University in Columbus or UC-Berkeley. And the new fetish…MBA programs for writers. Every other college has a writing program staffed by its itinerant writer-teachers. Iowa was the first and remains the gold standard, but the only schools now that haven’t gotten into the act are community colleges. Wait. Too much these days seems to be “I need A degree, ANY degree from ANY school.” They’re not all created equal. Some of them suggest diploma mills that may offer an experience but not too many tangible outcomes.

      • jennsho
        jennsho says:

        Don’t you mean CRaptial University in Columbus? I can say that because I went there for two years and know what a haven for decidedly “non-academic” students it is.

  10. Grace B.
    Grace B. says:

    I’m turning 30 this year and had a baby a little over a year ago. I was set on pursuing an MBA, but have changed my mind about it. It’s expensive and the most successfull managers in my company do not have MBAs; thay have risen up the ranks and through EXPERIENCE they know how to manage our business. The MBAs we hire from outside the company are incompetent and total fakes. They don’t last very long and end up jumping from one company to another. Great post, Penelope. It’s your best one yet.

    • Kenneth Wolman
      Kenneth Wolman says:

      Louis Pasteur did not have an M.D.
      Robert Browning and Walt Whitman did not have MFA’s, MA’s, or doctorates.

      Have to add this about Ph.D.’s, sorry–

      I finished my requirements in November 1975 and defended my dissertation. At the time I was teaching a course in Women’s Literature, about which I knew nothing except I had 10 extraordinarily lovely young women in my class. The day after I came into class and there was a cake and bottle of bubble-juice. The cake said “Congratulations, Dr. Wolman.” I wanted to cry. I almost did. I remember saying “Don’t take it all too seriously. A Ph.D. doesn’t mean your smarter than anyone else or more moral. Smarter? Earl Butz. More moral? Josef Goebbels.”

  11. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    This article is great. Some jobs just don’t pay enough to compensate for the high tuition of graduate school and a graduate degree can make you look “over qualified”. If you need more education or need to learn specific skills you can take workshops by successful people in your field. Some workshops are surprisingly inexpensive and as a bonus you get to network with those who are trying to advance their careers and are self directed. The most important thing you can do for your career is to find a “tribe” of like minds as a network and to stay out of debt.

  12. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I agree, for the most part. I got an MBA because I and my family live in an isolated “company town” of uber-educated government scientists, and I did not have a technical degree in order to get a decent job. Without an advanced degree, I would have stayed a secretary. However, the job prospects have dried up, and now the MBA is a detriment — I can’t even get a secretarial job (which I don’t want anyway but I need the money) because I am over-educated. So, I had no choice but to start my own business in a weak economy so that I have a chance of keeping up with my student loan payments.

    The scientific PHDs, however, are very highly paid, do interesting work, and have stable jobs. Now, these are mostly engineers, physicists, and computer scientists, and tough job prospects around the country make it difficult to move away from here (golden handcuffs), but their jobs are more in demand and highly paid than any other in the area.

    The choice to go to grad school is tempting, but I agree that it doesn’t come without significant risk.

  13. Kate
    Kate says:

    Thanks so much, Penelope. I just quit my grad school program a month ago at New York University for reasons #7 and #8 have been weighing heavily on my mind. I justified it for a few semesters because I was committed to the industry, but after a few years in my field, I don’t know anymore. Now I have a scary amount of debt and am going to have to move out of New York City because I can’t afford the payments since my salary cut (recession-era management solution). Grad school seems like such an easy, practical, solid decision, but when you do a cost/benefits analysis, the solution is clear. Thanks for the post.

  14. Aubrey
    Aubrey says:

    Getting a master’s degree helped me immeasurably in finding employment in my field. It wasn’t the degree itself so much as the internships, and graduate research assistantships, combined with the work on my thesis-like final project. These things helped me enter the workforce with something greater than the ZERO relevant experience I had after getting my bachelor’s degree. I can’t tell you how I would have landed my first job without that. Perhaps there are lots of internships and assistantships out there for undergrads, but I wasn’t aware of them at the time, and they certainly aren’t as specialized.

    This worked so well the first time around, that if I ever decide to change careers I will likely take the same route.

  15. Amber Warren
    Amber Warren says:

    I think it’s so funny how many people have such a huge reaction to your posts. I love it. Good writing should elicit a response, so well done.

    I have to say that this post is very timely. There are so many people right now who are going into grad school out of fear from the economy. To find themselves. To pass the time. To run away from the realities of our current climate. And THAT’s what this post is addressing. Not whether or not grad school is a good thing for some – but is it a good thing for people who didn’t plan on it anyway and suddenly when the economy slumps it seems like the holy grail. I totally agree that grad school’s a bad idea for those who want to run and hide. It’s not a step forward for many of these people. It’s a closet to hide in.

    When I quit my first real job out of college because my boss was a louse, the advertising industry took a dive and really changed. I found myself in Dallas, TX jobless, friendless and broke. I signed up for a temp service and ran a flooring showroom for 6 months. It has absolutely nothing with my career and doesn’t make sense on my vitae, but what I learned (about myself, about travertine, about getting out of my comfort zone) while temping could never be paralleled. Now is the time to live. Even if you think some jobs are beneath you. No experience is a bad experience.

  16. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I like and agree with most of this post and especially like the comments. The first line item (Grad school pointlessly delays adulthood) which discusses being ‘lost’ is the one I consider to be the most important. I could easily make the point that college delays adulthood.
    Many of us were sold on the idea (myself included) that going to college right out of high school was really the only way to find ourselves and develop a career.
    We were told a degree would guarantee a ticket to happiness, fulfillment, and success. It’s a sales tool used by the colleges and universities to their great success. Personally I wouldn’t change the school I attended or the degree I received but I wonder how things
    may have been different if college wasn’t so hyped and I was able to be ‘lost’ and explore the job market for let’s say two or three years after high school. I know I would have got to know myself better and maybe I would have discovered something on my own that I really felt passionate about. Passionate enough to go to college or start a business or whatever.
    I think the most appealing thing about college or graduate school is the promise of a great educational experience by expert faculty in a structured learning environment. It’s the package deal that’s all laid out for us – academics (classes, homework, lab work, study, and testing) and party. Setting goals for yourself and following through with them while stumbling along the way (lost) in the school of hard knocks is not pretty but valuable learning experience is gained. There’s definitely a lot of pros and cons to consider regarding college or grad school based on the goals of the individual and the method that will work for them. The bottom line is there’s nothing wrong with being lost and it is normal to varying degrees and at various stages in our lives. I know I don’t have it all figured out and try to make it a point to ask for help when I need it. As I said in the first sentence, I like the comments as I know I am not alone when it comes to searching for answers on a daily basis.

  17. Abhi
    Abhi says:

    You are trying to be different than the conventional opinion and you gather evidence to support that.However some of your points are valid for some of the people.

    I am sorry to say that your concepts are one sided.Jack Welch had a engineering PhD.Google’s CEO has a PhD.Different things work for different people.

    For example for a Chinese undegrad guy, PhD after bachelors is a very good option.Reason is MS is quite expensive and the salary/growth opportunity is less than a PhD.With Chinese work ex its almost impossible to get into a Top 10 MBA.

    There is only 1 rule in career and life : There are no fixed rules.If there was, that would have been a law and everybody would obey that law.

    • Alora
      Alora says:

      Conversely, one of my favorite former co-workers (another brilliant Chinese guy with a Ph.D) busted his butt at a reputable school to get a Ph.D in chemistry, and quickly discovered that he made more money as a developer, because he had a family to support. The Ph.D cost him a huge amount of money, and in the end, he ended up having to subsidize it with work in another field entirely. In the end, it proved to be a very, very expensive hobby.

  18. Chandlee Bryan
    Chandlee Bryan says:


    You’ve obviously struck a nerve here. Thought you and your readers might be interested to see a post that Sheila Curran (former Director of Career Services at Duke University and Brown) and I posted yesterday on Career Hub:

    Curious on your take on the “fast food” job perspective.

    All the Best,
    Chandlee Bryan

    (P.S. I will say there are some students for whom grad school is the appropriate choice–especially if they can get funding and a free ride to a great program that aligns with their interests and career goals. But I think the knee-jerk “go to grad school” because of the economy reaction is a dangerous one.)

  19. jcutter
    jcutter says:

    I am on the cusp of doing it twice. I have a law degree – unhappy (true), unemployed (not true – i make almost $400k/year with bonuses and i am in my early 30s), in debt (no, went to top state school and have been socking away money nonstop). Financially, it’s been a boondoggle, emotionally/physically, it’s been a disaster. So, I am exploring career opportunities and one is psychology. I have taken classes and actually applied to grad school. Well, to be a psychologist (as opposed to a career coach), you have to have a degree. In my state, for example, a master’s (2 years unfunded usually and pricey, 2 years of internship at low salary – more limited career options), PsyD (usually unfunded, 3 years, 1 year internship crappy pay), and PhD (funded, 4-5 years, plus 1 year internship). I am actually thinking about doing the latter, hoping that I could find a part time gig also. I am really having doubts about it – seems like I could find a whole lot of things to do in that 5-6 year period of time that I might like. I am considering other careers also.

    I am wondering if maybe my question really is – is there only one path to career happiness or are there several? And when do you say enough is enough. Maybe I was meant to be a therapist, but maybe I should have thought about that before and that time is over, so now it’s what might be second best.

    • Alora
      Alora says:

      Actually, I think your example is a large part of Penelope’s point: people change careers. Those of us in our early 30’s now are often hitting the 10-year (or so) mark in our professions, and (especially with the current economic crisis) are sometimes having to consider changes (regardless of what we actually want). You were “fortunate” in that your time as a lawyer has at least provided you with an income to have some financial stability, and that you’ve been prudent enough to sock away money to leave you with options now.

      But I know more lawyers than I can count who, because they didn’t go to top tier schools, have had a HORRIBLE time making a living as lawyers, and who aren’t in that position. They find themselves trapped, and are constantly job hunting outside the legal field because they are so miserable and they see no light at the end of the tunnel.

      And honestly, in the end, it is often a source of huge depression to know that you’ve devoted so much of your life to something you thought would make you happy only to discover that it actually makes you miserable. But it’s even worse to know that you’ll be making payments on that misery for decades to come — and if you’re making “too much” the interest on them isn’t even deductible anymore.

      • jcutter
        jcutter says:

        I completely agree with your assessment on law. I, too, have many friends who went into huge debt to get a law degree and have had difficulty finding a job. My thoughts on this and I try to tell anyone that I know considering law school is that no matter how sure you are on law school – (1) you should try to go to a top notch state school (Michigan, Texas, UVA, North Carolina) where you can get in state tuition at some point and not go into huge debt and (2) you need to graduate in the top 15% of your class, period, higher would be better. Law firms and clerkships are snobby and you need these credentials to get ahead. Sure, you can hang your shingle and make money, but the money you make depends on the connections you make and the jobs and experiences you have already had, so you need these steps. I think being out of debt was the biggest factor for me. I am so thankful that my Dad would not let me go to Duke. I wanted to go so badly, and he laughed at me. Best decision that I ever made. I went to a top state school, did well, and had little debt and found myself in the same place. I was definitley very fortunate.

        On a similar depressing note, many of my friends who went to top law schools, graduated in top of class, etc. have been laid off. Popular legal state of things blog – is full of the posts. These things are cyclical, but the BIGfirm strategy – rack of ton of debt, go to big law firm and make $180k at 25 and make partner at over $500k when you are in your early 30s is going the way of the do do bird. I think parts of the model will come back, but this legal recession is causing some changes – hopefully for the better (more opps for part time, contract lawyers, etc)

        Good news – I do think though that there are alternative careers where a law degree can be useful – of course this is only if you have already gotten one. I definitley wouldn’t go get a law degree to give yourself “broader business knowledge.” In careers like HR, they can give you creds. Many university administration jobs in law schools require you to have JDs. It’s helpful in mediation, nonprofit management, etc. But again, you shouldn’t do this as a route to these jobs – there are cheaper ways to get there.

        Having said all of this, I do have friend who love being lawyers – most are trial lawyers in smaller towns, prosecutors, public defenders and judges.

  20. Haggie
    Haggie says:

    Spend three years learning firsthand by doing or spend three years reading books about someone else’s theories about doing and then another decade (or longer) paying for it.

  21. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’ll be “complex” and agree and disagree as someone who has almost completed a master’s degree and is looking for full-time employment. While I agree it is almost always a wise idea not to begin a master’s or PhD right away after completing an undergraduate degree, some professions require a master’s degree, for example, librarians. All types, K-12, college, corporate, law, and public. Another twist is that in some professions you are immediately rewarded for earning a master’s. Teachers can earn more money if they have a master’s, for instance, especially in a high-need area such as the math and sciences. One more take – nurses who earn a master’s degree to solidify a specialty can bump up their salaries quite a bit. Yes, in the short run, it is expensive (even at public colleges and universities), but it does pay significant dividends in the long run and I think it is worth it.

    I don’t think earning a graduate degree should be made lightly, at the same time I think there are several dynamics at play when making career choices including the choice to go to graduate school. One is the idea that most Americans think it is their “birth right” to own a house and have all the kids they want. Houses and kids cost money just like graduate school. In fact, parents will spend $200K to raise a kid. Makes graduate school look cheap. I’ve always found it astonishing that women and men, in particular the former, frankly, don’t think <> about the costs involved with a raising a family and just “hope for the best”. And owning a house? Not that long ago owning a house was a rarity. I wonder if it should be again. Americans think they can “have it all.” Guess what dearies? You can’t. Why? Because there are fewer and fewer well-paying jobs not to mention decent-paying jobs. Everyone has heard of out-sourcing, well there’s “this thing” called in-sourcing. Case in point: 1/3 of Microsoft’s employees at its Redmond building are not Americans. Do you actually think you’re going to get a decent paying job in the private sector anytime soon? ALL of these issues are connected. So, again, my point is put your situation into context especially since the majority of Ms. Trunk’s arguments against attending graduate school is don’t go if you work in the private sector. If you are going to work in the public sector, consider YOUR situation and what you want out of life. If having a family is your priority, be prepared to give up other things and don’t be upset when you can’t afford to buy a house where everyone has their own bedroom and you can’t buy your daughter a Kate Spade handbag. I have a hard-won interview next week for a public sector job. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been offered it without earning my soon-to-be master’s degree. And if I don’t end up getting the job, I’ll be okay because I have been responsible. I can’t afford a house and thus I don’t have a mortgage. I can’t afford a newer car and thus I don’t have a car payment. I can’t afford to raise a child and thus and I don’t have a child. It IS this simple. Life is about choices. GROW UP.

  22. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Thank you for the GREAT insight! I don’t know about the rest of the people commenting but I really needed to get this information. I’m 39 and recently without a JOB…this has never happened before. I have some savings, a kid and unless the Dollar Tree has a big sale I don’t have a lot of bills. I’ve been spending the last few months looking at my options and everything so far points to returning to school. I left a very stressful job that had the best pay and benefits I could get for my qualifications. I won’t return to that line of work but I’m still not quite sure where I want to go to next. I’ve been aiming towards my MSW because I’m a BIG fan of counseling and getting the mental cooties taken care of. What you said though reminds me that without a big degree I was still able to use life experience to have enough to provide for my family. Thank you for giving me another way to look at my life :)

  23. Brandon Chesnutt
    Brandon Chesnutt says:

    Great post. I’ve noticed that the debate over the value of a graduate level education in today’s job market has really intensified as of late, especially since anyone can pretty much anything about any subject via the social web.

    However, I’m in my second year of my MBA program and I love it. Before starting grad school, I found a job right after graduation with a PR agency in Detroit and spent a year in the trenches.

    The reason I went back: I wanted to learn from experts “how” businesses work and get to know all the moving parts on an intimate level. Sure, I may never use the stuff I learned in my international economics class, but there is plenty of valuable and tangible information being shared every time I set foot in the classroom.

    I’m not looking for a company to work for… I’m looking for a company to lead, and I think the knowledge I’ve attained (and will contain to attain) from my MBA courses will set the foundation for achieving that goal.

  24. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    “PhD programs are pyramid schemes.” Truest thing ever written; pity almost no-one spells it out so bluntly.

    “You don't need a piece of paper to show that you are learning.” Unfortunately you do, because of rampant credentialism.

  25. Linda in Chicago
    Linda in Chicago says:

    I like reading this blog partly because it is so ballsy and the comments kick off a great discussion. Maybe the reason so many folks are disagreeing here is due to lack of context. Penelope, it seems that you may be mostly addressing this to younger folks who will soon be graduating undergrad or who recently have graduated. Going to grad school later, when you’ve had experience under your belt and may know more about yourself and the types of things you like to do can be great. At 30, I started my masters in library science because I had realized that I really liked doing research and organizing information. I worked full time while getting my MLIS and transitioned into a new job using those MLIS skills at the company I worked at during grad school even before completing the degree. Not all master’s degrees are created equal. With my MLIS I can get a job in many different types of libraries, corporate research centers, knowledge management (my current area of work), and even in information architecture/website development.

    • jcutter
      jcutter says:

      Could this actually be an advantage to being older? It is refreshing to think about graduate school as perhaps a decision and experience that is better later. I know that in law school, most of my older colleagues were so much more relaxed and successful. They tend to be happier in their jobs as well.

  26. Amy
    Amy says:

    “I was so foreign to the French farm family that they couldn't talk to me”

    many people (including me!) have worked or studied abroad in situations much more trying and successfully learned a language. If you didn’t learn french in france, the blame is all yours, dear, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  27. auctoris
    auctoris says:

    My first two jobs out of grad school were jobs I couldn’t have gotten *without* a Masters degree. I have a science based Masters degree and my second job was in the publishing industry making over $100k/year.

    If someone is passionate about a subject and wants to learn everything they can–go to graduate school. It will help if you make a career out of your passion.

    And I would like to see the “I-can-learn-it-all-in-the-real-world” do some work using their own particle accelerator. Grad school is not for everyone, but it is perfect for some people and in fact, it in is indispensable for some people.

    My only regret is that I didn’t get my Ph.D. in the same science-based area. There are openings in industry (i.e. the real word) paying over $200k/year that I can’t apply for because they require a Ph.D.

    Going to grad school to escape is dumb. Going to grad school to learn and *use* what you’ve learned is very smart.

  28. Erica Peters
    Erica Peters says:

    Another point I haven’t seen in the comments is that grad school changes you. You learn to think in new ways, perhaps seeing more complexity, but probably also relying more on jargon. Neither one helps you communicate with people who have not gone to grad school.

    • Kenneth Wolman
      Kenneth Wolman says:

      It indeed changes you. I walked in the door knowing how to write. I exited knowing how to laser-focus all sorts of jargon. It took me 17 years to unlearn the lessons I learned about academic writing. I teach community college students now, and share with them my dirty little secret that this whole thing is a game they need to learn to play, but that if they let it take them over they will lose their souls. Will they listen? About as much as I did when I was in the same position long ago.

  29. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Instead of Grad school, what about a certificate/diploma in business (accounting, marketing) through an accredited university offering all courses online? Do recruiters value these certificates? Is there a difference between, say the mass advertised Phoenix University online programs vs. say Northwestern or Boston U online programs? Does anyone have experience with online programs? Thanks.

  30. Jay Ramos
    Jay Ramos says:

    I have a B.A. in history from Yale and now live in NE Wisconsin. I am taking prerequisites for an M.B.A. right now while working full-time in I.T. I’ll be done with the prereqs soon, and then I’ll have to apply to graduate programs, so Patrick’s question interests me as well.

    I have a similar question: is it "better" to have a degree from the local State U. or to have a degree from a more respected, higher-tier university that was earned exclusively online?

    Is the online degree still seen as inferior? Or does it depend on the name attached to the degree?

    Could my undergraduate degree compensate for the lack of perceived quality of my graduate degree? Or would it magnify the lack of quality even further?

    If anyone knows of any research/polling on this topic, I’d love to hear about it.


    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      Right on Jay.

      What I’m more curious to know is what perception recruiters have regarding recently established (but accredited) online universities and well established universities offering programs online. I think in general the course material is about the same… so a studious student will get the same out of both.

      I’m going to ask my college career adviosor about this (they let us get advice up to several years after graduation… I’m sure you could do the same :)

      I’ll let you what I find out…

    • Jonathon
      Jonathon says:

      Ask a guidance counselor; are you a coo aid drinker also?????. I say this in the most humane way given those who cannot do, teach, those who cannot muster the courage to grow up and THINK for themselves, go to grad school, and those who cause the most confusion within the education world are guidance counselors. Dear sir you are mistaken on your advice, and should re-think your position. I have sat at my computer carefully reading, and until I arrived at your comment I was waiting to read all posts. Although, given your comment, my tea kettle is whistling, and I find it necessary to back up Penelope and many others. Let me first say as an older adult, displaced by the economy, I returned to college to finish my bachelors, but this is because I am choosing to work for a company and not myself any more. What I have figured out is my apprenticeship program far surpasses a four year degree in that it did not consist of two years of pure non-retention crap classes. So I can only imagine what grad school is like. Essentially a four year degree is really a two year degree offering preliminary knowledge in any given field. Let me add for those who are the wiz kids capable of ground breaking thought patterns this does not apply. I feel I must say this given most the nay-sayers cannot conceptualize the true point, and it will be the only disclaimer for I despise redundancy. I have found that most of what I see at college are lost people wanting someone to hold there hands. It takes courage to take risks in life, and so maybe I am happy to have graduate school in the world. That way it makes more room for me an independent thinker with the balls to attempt to be more than what I am without listening to unsuccessful people. If grad school were to be properly implemented than it would consist of only the brightest minds striving to find the unknowns of the universe. Unfortunately, it is just a step in one large pyramid scheme.
      Most of my skills were developed outside the classroom, and self education. It takes inner want and need to be more, and not buying into instant gratification of inflated grades. You see the trick is to make everyone think they are so intelligent; that is the hook (disclaimer for idiots/final last disc.). Let me move on to say that yes until we truly have people and countries in the world subscribe to world peace war is inevitable. Yet, it is so true that people who enlist do so without ever knowing what other options exist. Does this mean that the military is bad, no, but should a recruiter inform a perspective candidate of all options allowing them to make it a real choice not an act of desperation out of a bad situation, YES? Well that is enough for now I will return with a more professional response later, but before I go heed these words, "If you respond defensively to any person's comments is it out of bias, to maintain the denial so you don't go running mad through the streets realizing you might be wrong, defending an antiquated institution, or simply you cannot logically evaluate multiple aspects of any given thought. OPEN YOUR MIND BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH

  31. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    I especially agree with the point that grad school delays adulthood and emotional maturity. I felt like I did not evolve at all emotionally during my junior and senior years in college. Not a good feeling.

  32. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    This is an interesting take, for sure, but then there’s my own experience. I started the MBA two years ago while working full-time as a way to break out of a dead-end career. When I lost my job in November, I was beyond grateful for my student status for several reasons:

    1) My loans are deferred until after I graduate, which is just one more thing off my worry list while I’m looking for a job.

    2) B-school is all about the networking. The classes are almost secondary. I’ve been able to mine my classmates and professors for job leads, ideas, and such.

    3) I have access to the campus career center. Your average joe on the street doesn’t have this advantage. I have an interview coming up as a result.

    4) I’m not getting the MBA so that I can start my own business (I’m in International Business, actually, and throwing as many credit hours as I possibly can at China, something about the world’s fastest growing economy), but I sure am grateful for the Business Planning course I’m taking right now for an elective. I’m writing up a business plan for a photography business to take my freelance/hobby thing pro – because if no one hires me, I must find a way to hire myself. Without grad school, I wouldn’t know where to start.

    5) Having it on my resume becomes more important by the hour, as jobless numbers continue to skyrocket. It allows me to stand out.

    I agree, you shouldn’t hide out in grad school. I’m looking for a full-time job right now, all day, every day. But I do find a lot of value in being there. You really just have to know how to work it as an angle.

  33. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Unfortunately, I see that many people in my age group (late 20’s) that are returning to school. When I look for a job now (I have 8 years of experience in my field) it seems that many jobs I look at ask for a master’s degree or better. Some of these positions even claim to be entry level. Many places won’t even consider experience as equivalent. I think it is a complete pyramid scheme to have a higher degree (I have yet to see a university that is actually non-profit!), but I feel compelled to pay the money so that I can continue to compete in the job market. Hopefully I will learn some new things as well…

  34. Diane
    Diane says:

    You say that instead of graduate school you should get lost. In a Ph.D. program, a good advisor will let you spend some time lost, as you work to find out what it is you want to write your dissertation on. Of course, there are limits – you have to do something in the meantime that justifies the paycheck that comes out of their grant money – but the good advisors will give you just enough space to stumble into a passion and a great idea, but not enough to flounder and drown totally.

  35. Toxic Brit
    Toxic Brit says:

    Having completed an M.Sc. straight after my undergraduate allowed me to get a significantly better job than I would have with just a bachelors. I then studied in the evening for professional qualifications, sometimes the structure of a formal course can assist with time management I’ve found.

    Also I believe those who work first then go back to school appreciate it so much more and work alot harder than they would have otherwise.

  36. Nina
    Nina says:

    Grad school seem to be helpful if you want to change careers, and recessions are good times for multiple internships – they love to get you work for nothing (you start of volunteering, then progressing to $8-12-15-17-20/hour.) During a previos recession, I combined grad school yearound with 2-3 jobs at a time, and graduated with a long resume and tons of valuable experience, including my dream jobs (journalist), etc. I’m not in debt because I actually managed to pay my bills and lived in Brooklyn in the studio for $600, a block from ocean.

  37. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    This advice should be taken with a grain of salt.

    For people who desired a life of research, devoted to improving science and technology, getting a PhD is good at any time. Do not aim for Big money with a PhD, it is generally not there.

    Same for Medical Schools, if your aim is to be rich, going into medical schools is generally career suicide no matter if there is an economic recession or not.

    If your goal is to be financially affluent doing PhD/Med School is not a great idea, again, no matter if there is an economic recession or not.

    Grad school do not delays adulthood. A person do not mature in a graduate school but a person also do not mature faster being unemployed. A person mature by understanding the society and by understanding their inner self. It is more affected by upbringing. For example pick any high school, I guarantee you there will be kids that are more mature and independent than others. Despite the fact that all the students significantly spent their time in the school.

    PhD Programs are not pyramid schemes unless if you see the programs as means to get rich which you should not do in the first place. There are more to PhD than tenure track.

    Go to Business school only if you have proper experience and a clear plan of what to come after. If your idea of getting an MBA is increase in salary then you should not blame Business school for not helping.

    If you want to be financially wealthy. I suggest of getting a job or other means to generate steady income right after you earned a BS degree. Do not waste your money, watch your credit usage/grade, and while working keep an eye out on the world. When an opportunity presents itself do not be afraid to take it on, of course you should calculate the risk.

    Generally school or military programs will not make you rich. What will you make you rich is yourself and how you interact with the market. It is an arduous journey there are no 2,5,6 years institutions that will give it to you instantly.

  38. Em
    Em says:

    The fundamental issue is that the workplace has, in fact, NOT changed. The majority of companies still run their businesses the way they always have and those businesses value experience, maturity, humility, and, yes, degrees.

    There is an extreme shortage of PhD candidates within the academic world, so this is actually a great time to be looking at a PhD (if you want to teach at the university level). The shortage of PhD candidates ultimately means a shortage of qualified teachers at the collegiate level and, as a result, jobs. By the way, a master’s degree will only get you teaching jobs ins K-12 or community colleges.

    Masters degrees are still valuable when people pursue them as they were originally intended- after several years of work experience. Only the most disciplined of students can learn the same amount reading books from the library as they could from an advanced degree. Furthermore, an MBA IS STILL NECESSARY IN MAINSTREAM FORTUNE 500 companies. If you want to be a brand manager at a CPG or an HR executive or a CFO you, in MOST cases, need an MBA from a ranked program. BTW- you don’t need an MBA from a top 10 program but you DO need an MBA with a strong reputation and a national brand.

    Finally, I am always intrigued at how many people confuse “enlisted military” (often the poor kids with no options) with “military officers” (college educated professionals). Regardless of rank, military experience is probably the last remaining great leadership and management training ground in the world.

  39. Julie
    Julie says:

    I have one of those disappearing tenured jobs at a university in the humanities. I always advise my students thinking of pursuing a PhD: If you get a full assistantship which pays your tuition and a stipend for teaching/leading discussion groups and you can survive that way without taking on any debt, then go for it. There are worse ways to spend 5-6 years of your life than studying something you love and not going into debt in the meanwhile. If you don’t get a full assistantship, they’re telling you that you have no chance of making it in this profession, so don’t go.
    And while you are in that doctoral program, try to get some administrative experience along the way. Universities hire many non-faculty administrators with PhDs, as do museums, historical societies, nonprofits, etc. Stay flexible when you’re on the job market, be willing to relocate, be willing to shift gears to administrative positions. But you’ll still be in a supportive educational environmentm where you might get to teach a class sometimes and use the library and enjoy campus life.
    Life is short. If this is a pursuit you love and if you have your eyes open about the job market and options down the road, then go for it.

  40. Arjun
    Arjun says:

    Joining the military is not tantamount to walking off a cliff. There are incredible benefits to serving and protecting your nation and military experience is often a leg-up in government jobs and some private sector areas.

  41. Allen Laudenslager
    Allen Laudenslager says:

    Most of the people I know who got college degrees (including graduate degrees) got them because they recognized that HR is using the “Degree – yes” block as a prescreening mechanism to avoid reading "all those resumes" for abilities. If they can eliminate a lot of qualified and experienced people who don't have a degreed ( or MBA, or whatever) they can reduce their personal work load.

    A lot of it is caused by the 20 something HR clerk that has no practical experience and doesn't realize just how many ways beyond the classroom there are to master most jobs.

    There is a commonly accepted idea that it takes 10,000 to become an expert in most fields. Since classroom instruction in college adds at most 1,000 the other 9,000 must be practical experience. 40 hours a week for a year is 2080 hours, minus vacation, sick leave and holidays thats bout 1884 hours a year of work time. So in one year you get the same number of hours in your core subject that a college student gets in 4 full years.

  42. Smith
    Smith says:

    Perhaps many people graduate from college with “degree ready” majors such as engineering or accounting, but for those who have social science or humanities degrees I think that graduate school can be a wise investment.

    The take home point should be that not all graduate degrees and schools are equal. You need to do your homework. PhD/JD/MBA should not all be lumped into the same category. For instance, I was accepted into a top-20 law school and most people in my graduating class landed jobs with starting salaries well above 120k. This allowed them to quickly repay their student loans, and they are doing much better off than their counterparts who hit the job market straight out of undergrad. Most people are very satisfied with their career and find the work very engaging.

    Many of friends who went into the corporate world straight out of undergrad have the same levels of stress and hours as I do, but get paid half the salary. Don’t think that just because you are not going to be a Doctor or Lawyer you won’t have to work long hours with high stress to climb the corporate latter.

    Of course the same can not be said for lower ranked law schools. Graduate school can be a very wise investment or it can be a very poor one. It depends on where you go and your degree….DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!

  43. Heather Maietta
    Heather Maietta says:

    Any position you hold will teach you something. Turning to grad school in a recession is an excuse for not wanting to exert the extra bit of energy it takes to conduct a job search. Spend the extra time it takes to secure employment. In the end you’ll end up learning much more in job than you’ll learn in grad school.

  44. Paul
    Paul says:

    I have a law degree and a Masters in Mathematics/Statistics so I have some insight. With a few minor agreements, I completely disagree with this article.

    First, yes, law school is a bad idea to “ride out” a recession just as medical school is. They are very expensive and grueling and are for people who want to be DOCTORS and LAWYERS, no half@$$ about it. While a doctor can be useful anywhere, I have found little success funneling my JD into something not law related.

    Second, going for a PhD is not a trivial pursuit and requires years of little pay and lots of grief. Ironically, it also limits your job opportunities.

    However, going for a Master’s degree in a Science, Math , or Engineering is a great idea for many reasons:

    1) It delays your student loans and gives you a breather.

    2) A Master’s in Science, Math, or Engineering (sorry English/History people) is very valuable because these fields are so large and complex you really don’t learn anything until Grad school anyways.

    3) My main disagreement is that Grad School is like “being a kid”. Either the author never went to Grad School or went to Cracker Jack Tech because if you are supported you will be working 40 hours a week, teaching kids, learning, and researching which are fantastic skills that undergrad does not allow you to develop much. I never worked harder and I worked at law firms for several years.

    4) It only takes two years which means your resume does not get stale. I was an unemployed attorney for two years in California and let me tell you how difficult it is to explain why you couldn’t find a job for two years. Looking for work, when it takes too long, YES IS A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME. At least a Master’s shows you care about yourself!

  45. Kenneth Wolman
    Kenneth Wolman says:

    First–I imagine that the original article meant to suggest that graduate school delays adulthood because all the decisions are made for you: all the requirements are spelled out, starting with basic course requirements up to and including the dissertation (if we’re talking Ph.D. here). You don’t have to think creatively, and often there is some cost to doing so.

    Second–anyone who rides out a recession/depression by going to law or medical school should instead attend a psychoanalytic training institute, but as a patient.

    Third–I do not know whether an advanced degree enables the holder to advance professionally, or whether such degrees merely allow the universities that award them to chest-pound about having graduate programs that award such degrees.

    Last–this is a real question, not a baiting point. Is an MBA worth anything in terms of the holder’s skills and ability to learn? Is even an undergraduate degree that significant? Look at the ads that run on Dice or Hotjobs and all these companies say “Bachelor’s degree.” Why?

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