Best alternative to grad school

I’ve spent three years writing about how graduate school is a waste of time and money (yes, business school and law school too). So now when radio and TV producers need someone to bitch about graduate school, they call me.

Here I am on NPR today. I don't usually post my interviews, but this one is notable because I completely lost patience for people still defending grad school. It's so clear, even to defenders of grad school, that grad school is a bad financial decision, that this guy has resorted to saying that you need to go to grad school to be a good person. Of course, I went nuts on him.

I think the thing that is pushing me over the edge with graduate school is that people who are thinking straight about schooling are not even considering graduate school. These people are debating if college is a rip off (here’s a great discussion in New York magazine with James Altucher, a venture capitalist in NYC) And people are even debating if high school is useless (here’s a great post by Lisa Nielsen who is with the NYC Department of Education). And anyway, I’m losing interest in the debate about grad school because I’m convinced that the future belongs to home schoolers because they are self-learners.

Also, for those of you who keep telling me that there are some fields you absolutely have to have a degree for, check out the song 99 Problems by Jay-Z. The song includes great legal advice about Miranda rights, racial profiling and search warrants, even though he doesn’t have a law degree or a creative writing certificate to prove his poetic talents.

Click this link for an attorney’s analysis of the advice in the song, but here’s an excerpt, attorney’s advice in italics:

The year is ninety-four, in my trunk is raw

In my rear-view mirror is the motherfuckin’ law

Got two choices y’all, pull over the car or (hmm)

bounce on the Devil, put the pedal to the floor

And I ain’t tryin’ to see no highway chase with Jake

Plus I got a few dollars, I can fight the case

(Not running from the police seems like excellent advice.)

So I, pull over to the side of the road

“Son, do you know why I’m stoppin’ you for?”

Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low

Or do I look like a mindreader, sir? I don’t know

Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?

(In general, not volunteering information at a traffic stop is great advice.)


In the comments section on the NPR site, people complain that I'm bitter and angry and offer no alternative to graduate school.

Here's the alternative: Admit that adult life is scary because there is no clear path to success. Grad school is not a quick fix for the fears of adulthood. Instead, be grateful for the chance to be lost — it means you're living your own life, because no one can make choices in the exact same way you can, whether they are right or wrong.

So all there is for adult life is you, following your nose, trying to figure out what brings you joy. Each time I see someone who has done that, in some little way, I feel relief and hope for myself.

Image from Austin Kleon.

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  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    So what do you suggest one do if one wants to be a doctor or independent scientist? The MD or Ph.D. track seems to be the only option I am aware of. I don’t know of any medical technology or pharma startups, or even green energy startups that weren’t started by Ph.D.’s. So I think you need to draw a distinction between the “hard” sciences, which tend to actually PAY you to go (I made $22,000 a year my last year in grad school at the end of my Ph.D. in Biochemistry…NSF fellowship, and that was 6 years ago) versus programs you have to actually pay FOR.

    Anyway, just a thought. And I generally agree that any masters program in the humanities or most business programs and probably law school are not worth the time or effort. But, again, if you have the science and math aptitude, you get a free ride and decent cost of living (for a college town, at least.)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There are examples of when graduate school is a good idea. But for the most part, the economics of graduate school – in terms of both time and money — are not set up for the realities of the current workforce.

      The percentage of science Phd’s who actually get to run their own experiments after getting the degree is so small that there is talk in the science community of not giving out so many degrees.

      Which means that it’s a similar problem to the humanities – -you sign your life away for five years and then cannot get the job you went to school to get.

      Medicine is another problem. Most people will change careers five times in their life. The loans from medical school lock you into the profession for much longer than that even though there is no evidence that practicing medicine is something people want to do longer than any other engaging, rewarding career.

      The idea that you would want a free ride in a college town – that’s the problem right there. Grad school so often is not a decision of what to do with your adult life. It’s generally a decision of how to put off adult life.


      • Niki
        Niki says:

        I like your blog and I think you have a very interesting perspective on graduate school. I respect it and it is very rational.
        But what about going to graduate school for more sentimental reasons? Because you feel like you can do more of a difference with that extra specialty in a topic? What about people that love to learn and study their subject more, and are not interested in going out into the work force? I am totally in that boat! Why should people work if learning is so much more uplifting and they are getting it is paid for? (though unfortunately mine isn’t)
        And yes it is possible to get a good job without having that extra formal education, but not everyone has entreprenurial skills and would not even know how to begin finding themselves without a catalyst. Graduate school not only educates you, but gives you the chance to do your own supervised research project and gives you confidence in your abilities and analytical skills. This generation needs those baby steps to get them started, and I’m not going to deny that I am a part of this generation.
        Sounds a bit pathetic, but I that graduate school serves an important funcion by coaxing us to reach our potential.

      • Deckin
        Deckin says:

        “The percentage of science Phd’s who actually get to run their own experiments after getting the degree is so small that there is talk in the science community of not giving out so many degrees.”

        Here’s what grad school (a whole Ph.D.!) taught me. That percentage is not the only one of interest. What’s the percentage of non Ph.D.’s who are actually running their own experiments? The percentage in your direction can still be quite low and the decision to get a Ph.D. rational, so long as the percentage in the reverse direction is higher.

      • Greg D
        Greg D says:

        I went to graduate school so I could get a job in the field I’m interested in (Bioinformatics), a field where there’s enough people with degrees in the field that hiring managers simply aren’t looking at people who don’t have the piece of paper saying they can do the work. I got the degree, then I got a job at a world class research institute doing exactly the work I went to grad school to get to do.

        Did I go for a Ph. D.? Hell no. My field is in engineering, and I want to write software, not do research, so an MS is all I needed. But in order to get a job in the field, I absolutely had to have that peice of paper saying that I could do the work, the mere fact that I COULD do the work was not sufficient to get me even interviews in the field.

        If you want to “improve your life”, study on your own. If you want to get paid to work in the field, you’re going to need that piece of paper, be it a J. D., an M. D., a Ph. D, (required in “sciences”, or to have a hope of getting paid to do real research), or an M. S. Is that a good thing? No. Credentialitis is a very bad thing. But I can’t change it, and unless you can repeal every job discrimination law out there, and end all hiring discrimination lawsuits, you can’t change it either.

        Because HR departments don’t care about being fair, they care about not being sued. And requiring pieces of paper, rather than allowing hiring managers to use their judgment, is a fairly effective way of not getting sued.

      • Anna
        Anna says:

        I agree with Alex here.

        For medical schools: maybe want to change career 5 times, and maybe it is a bad investment – but there has to be doctors, and they have to be well educated. You can’t learn medicine by being street smart. You can’t be a good scientist either without a long education.

        True, not everybody PHD will use their education in the expected way, but it is not only about what pays off for individuals. The capacity for vital scientific progress and technological innovation over the long term depends on enough people being highly educated and willing to spend heaps of time without certainty that it will ever pay off. Who and how many science PHDs get to do independent research depends on somewhat unpredictable factors like the economic conditions at the time they finish, the commercial potential of their area of interest, luck, and of course talent and personality. Trying to balance supply and demand of highly educated people is short sighted, because cutting the numbers may reduce the capacity in vital areas which inherently don’t pay off in the short term and where break through insights often can not be predicted (like medicine, astronomy, math, and even social research).

    • sarahayars
      sarahayars says:

      I don’t think anyone is arguing about the degrees you need to practice in a specific field – if and when you actually do want to practice in those fields. That’s not what Penelope is saying, I don’t think. It’s all the people with law degrees who aren’t lawyers or business school degrees who would have the job they have without one. If you want to be a scientist, you often start being one before you have your degree anyway (doing research is, after all, how you get that kind of degree) and, speaking from experience, if you are paying someone else to let you do research (as a student) it doesn’t take long to realise that that road is not one you want to be on longer than you have to – far better to get someone to pay you to do the research. Of course, those are more competitive, so if you can’t get one, is it worth it to pay for a masters en route to a PhD? Probably only if you want to end up with either a career in research or a specific career in that field that *requires* the degree, like for licensure.

      I need my masters degree to be a licensed counselor, and I think the career will be more than rewarding enough (not just financially) to make up for the rip-off I’m tolerating now. I hope I’m right, but theres no way around the fact that I am paying too much to do research that has my university’s name on it in the end anyway, just underneath mine.

    • poppygirl
      poppygirl says:

      thanx Alex for your defensee re the MD/PhD track.

      In related health care, I am a nurse practitioner, and in order to be a nurse at the level I wanted, I HAD to get an MSN-um, that’s GRAD SCHOOL. I worked part time to full time while I got that degree, and have now been an NP for over 15 years. I LOVE it, never regretted it and oh, I also doubled my salary.

      But I know that doesn’t count, Penelope, because it’s not business related. Phhhhhhblt! to that!

    • Arturo F Munoz
      Arturo F Munoz says:

      Alex, you’re not aware of the Ph.D. glut that has made having a Ph.D. useless, unless you want to teach college with no likely success at getting tenure or making a good living, particularly if you’re going into the hard sciences.

      Although I favor Penelope’s position in considering college relatively useless (relative to what? see below), I do not consider the solution to be admitting that adult life is scary because there is no clear path to success. The path to success is to exploit the opportunity of serving a neighbor, and that is what business is all about!

      It’s true that it takes having an M.A. to work at a junior college and a Ph.D. to get a university position. But there is a 40-year glut of Ph.Ds. The Ph.D. prestige factor is a lure until you have one in your hand and cannot find work with it. That’s why I dropped out of my Ph.D. program.

      If you want the facts about this glut, read this:

      What is preferable to grad school? What is better? Starting your own business quickly! The moment you graduate, start one. Start one before you graduate. That’s even better. Starting your own business is entry level employment worth doing. It provides the serious level work experience so many graduates today lack.

      In fact, if you consider working as an intern for peanuts or for free, then it makes no sense to avoid being entrepreneurial, because you can accomplish as much if not far more than by playing the throw-away intern.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. Thanks. I hate when I do that. I loved the link so much, and then I got it wrong. Grrr. I hope everyone clicks. It was so so so fun to see legal commentary on a Jay-Z song!


  2. Caz
    Caz says:

    What if I want to go to grad school just for the sake of it? I love learning, I loved being in school and I thrived in that environment. I am aware a Masters in my field (kinesiology/sport management)won’t do much for my job prospects (in comparison to the value spent) but I feel the investment (not nearly as significant as American universities) is worth it for my own satisfaction and life experience…

    • Voyager
      Voyager says:

      Well, are you really going to get out of it more than you could if you put it to yourself to learn it on your own?

      I’ve been thinking about going for a masters in math, because I find myself continually running into spots where a stronger math background would help, but now that I think about it, I have the Princeton Math Companion, access to the US library system, the Internet, and email.

      The PMC is the overview of math. The US library system is a massive dispenser of top flight specialist books and periodicals, written by the very people who developed the fields of math I’m interested in. The internet and email can connect me with people who know more about math than I do, and enjoy talking about it, and enjoy challenging math problems.

      The only thing I won’t get is the official stamped degree, but my company doesn’t give big raises for math majors, and if I can use it to solve problems that I couldn’t before, or even put a couple of patents under my belt, I’ll still get the big bucks from it.

      The mind-blowing thing about the internet age is that knowledge is free. All you have to do is reach out your hand and take it.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        Yes, because in grad school there are deliverables and external review. I continue to read and think, but I don’t fool myself that it’s just like the process I went through to get my M.A.

  3. Justine
    Justine says:

    How do you feel about an MBA program if your employer is willing to subsidize it? I can get an MBA (with work’s help) for $12000 from a decent school. I’m in my late twenties with a paid off undergraduate degree in chemistry from a liberal arts school. I was told that the only way to get a management position with my company was with an advanced degree.

  4. Ashley Estrada
    Ashley Estrada says:

    Love the part where you mention that lawyers have the highest suicide rate. LOL! Loved listening to it, I’m forwarding to a friend who’s in the process of getting ready to start grad school within the year. Thanks for posting.

  5. Jen
    Jen says:

    I posted in support of what you said … I have a degree now, and it cost me a lot, and it was all things i could have taught myself, and financially I would have been better off without. But I’m not anti-education. I’ve said this to coworkers before and they just don’t get it. I can’t wait until the degree is paid off …

    • Mr. Mae (owned by Sallie)
      Mr. Mae (owned by Sallie) says:

      Vermont allows 4-year long clerkship with attorney in lieu of law school. You still must pass bar exam. (but does require a 4-year degree to commence clerkship)

      I’d be much more confident having someone who actually practiced law for 4 years represent me than a new law school grad….who are more than useless…they have few practical skills but tremendous expectations.

      Law school does not teach you how to draft a will or title search…. Or collect a fee. It does teach the Rule Against Perpetuities.

  6. Libby McCullough
    Libby McCullough says:

    I have been through graduate school, and am still considering law school because there are things I want to do that require having a J.D. I want to be able to teach parents about the law regarding IEPs and ADA. I realize I will probably have to start my own business because people are not hiring lawyers much in the large companies, but I am already making connections with professionals while I’m a paralegal; connections with attorneys in a suburb at a law office, and they are well connected. Additionally, I am looking for the best deal on law school so financially it won’t be as much of a problem. I believe helping the parents out there who don’t get help with their children with special needs is a problem the Lord has called me to do. That is why I have the MA degree. Because the Lord called me to help people. It was from a Seminary and even though I was never on a church staff, I use many of the skills I learned in what I do today.

    I know you are warning people not to go get those extra degrees unless they actually need them.

    BTW, you have inspired me to write, and I have been published. I love your blog, and read it often.

    So, your advice is not wasted… I just have some “living to do.” (Bye Bye Birdie) Specific goals which cannot be done unless I want to get charged with Unauthorized Practice. I want to be a Parent Education Center Director. I want to be unafraid to speak my mind and talk about legal matters that can change lives.

    • David Forde
      David Forde says:

      Libby, nothing I learned in paralegal school or law school taught me to navigate IEP Meetings for my kid. What you do need are critical thinking skills. However that said, if your passion is to be a lawyer, you can only do that by attending law school. Maybe the key is to not attend the really overpriced private schools.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I’ll second that, David. My dad has a Harvard law degree and he specializes in special needs law and his law degree does not help us with my son’s IEP either. The school systems simply do not have enough money to give kids what they are legally entitled to for special needs in the schools.

        This means that the laws are irrelevant. What you need is negotiation skills for the school district, people skills for the teachers, and self-control to deal with your kid.

        You don’t get any of that from graduate school.

        I wish ten million times over that I could get a law degree to make my life as a parent of a special needs kid easier. I would get ten law degrees.


  7. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Penelope, I really enjoy your advice.

    How do you feel about the M7 business schools? Is it worth the debt if you can get into a top graduate school?

  8. Hilary
    Hilary says:

    I don’t regret going to grad school (even when I pay my student loan bills), but I am very, very glad I waited until I’d tried on three careers and had developed a strong sense of what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and whether grad school mattered for my particular goals. It makes me nuts to watch the new college graduates I know going on to a grad program because it’s the next thing to do or because they don’t know what else to do.

  9. delhiboy
    delhiboy says:

    Grad students are the ‘underpaid labor’ who do a lot of grunt work for the Profs and the Univs (in science ad engg anyway). So, if the Univs shut down or cut back on the degrees, they are shooting themselves in the foot. and, there is still enough demand from overseas that things aren’t going to change soon.

    Am I glad I have a PhD.? Yes. No way NASA was going to hire this Intl student in the 90s with just a B.S. :-)

  10. Hillary
    Hillary says:

    Penelope–I loved it! You’ve got some spitfire and I’m so glad you broke it down like that. Really, took it to another level. Unfortunately he was talking about his experience 25 years ago which is exactly the problem since today’s kids are getting advice from ppl who aren’t necessarily tapped into the reality of today.

    • Dave
      Dave says:

      And isn’t that the current difficulty? Right now, the people doing the hiring are still mostly people who grew up and established themselves the old way…people with graduate degrees are very likely to think that only someone with a graduate degree can do their job.

      The question, then, is will employers eventually cycle so that the new guard appreciates skills over degrees? (In which case we should be patient and not jump into student loans) Or will it just cycle in more people who only value degrees (in which case we should probably still give consideration to getting the degree)?

      Actually, I guess the Penelope answer would be to forget all that and do what you want. I think I’m good with that advice, too.

  11. Emily
    Emily says:

    I’m confused–you said that people can learn outside of school but also described farmers who have been out of school longer as being financially disadvantaged (I’m guessing because they stop learning outside of school)? Your argument doesn’t hold up.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You can choose to learn out of school or not. Most people who are constantly learning are also constantly changing. So a single, lifelong career is not good for lifelong learners.


      • Danielle
        Danielle says:

        Not necessarily true. Most fields in which the person holds a license to practice require continuing education, and, certainly in my field (psychology) one must be abreast of new information and latest techniques constantly.

    • Interestinme
      Interestinme says:

      That may be true, but I’d rather be temporarily unemployed than $120K in debt with no real advantage over the competition. A grad degree is only as good as the subject your degree is in…and in the city I work…I see too many people picking the wrong grad degrees and showing very little for it after graduation.

  12. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    I would love a study – and perhaps there is one – of graduate school applicants or first year grad students – asking specifically why they are in grad school. I would bet dollars to donuts it is – at best – tied to their belief that it will improve their job opportunities…especially these days…where tons of college grads can’t get jobs or can’t get the jobs that they want to talk about at parties. It sounds much better to say ‘I’m in grad school’. Plus it’s easier for their parents to tell their friends ‘Sarah is in graduate school’, then to say Sarah can’t get a job or Sarah is waiting tables.

    Just sayin’….


  13. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    We are all self-learners. No teacher, whether it’s a parent or a professor, can put information in your head. The only way to learn something is to practice it. The easiest way to get nothing out of a class is to not do the homework.

    Given that humans learn by practice the primary factor that determines how good you will get at something is how motivated you are to keep practicing it. The value of a good teacher is that he or she can instill intrinsic motivation in students who then want learn for its own sake. Think back to your favorite teachers, I’ll bet you worked extra hard on the assignments that they set.

    Given how hard it is to teach your own kids I can easily believe that parents who home school have a high level of motivation but that isn’t necessarily going to translate to their students. Plus even if it does, the percentage of the population that home schools is very small.

    • Pishtush
      Pishtush says:

      We SHOULD all be lifelong learners. Many are not.

      There are people who have 20 years of experience with all the wisdom and judgment that implies.

      And there are people who have the same year of experience . . . 20 times.

  14. MarieP
    MarieP says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I don’t even think an undergraduate degree is the answer for everyone. Why should it be? Many, many good, reputable jobs don’t require a BA/BS. And an advanced degree certainly shouldn’t be an entitlement issue. If you choose to pursue an advanced degree, you figure out how to pay for it. That’s that. Of course, I’m writing as one who has a BA/MS. But I don’t apologize for that. I didn’t waste any time or money in getting to my career. My undergraduate degree is in communication disorders and my master’s is in speech-language pathology. That is the entry-level requirement for my job. That’s it; no negotiation. Master’s (or in progress on your Master’s) or nothing. I knew what I wanted to do and I got the degree, certification, license, and credential necessary to do it. I have to admit, I’m tired of students complaining about havin to pay for college. Why shouldn’t they? My tax dollars shouldn’t go toward someone’s educational exploration.

  15. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    You make so many great points in the interview than the other guy, who basically just repeats the same point (that you should go to graduate school with the aim of personal development and not to increase your value in the workforce). And his point about listening… wow…was that a dig? Anyway, I think his (one) point to some extent is valid, but two-dimensional and for the majority of the population grossly impractical, largely because of how programs are priced. The education system in the States is broken–high school, college, and graduate school. It is stuck, and it desperately needs entrepreneurial efforts and modern day solutions. It makes it quite exciting to be working in elearning right now, because there are so many directions to go in and improvements to be made. Maybe the alternative to graduate school is a startup that does the work of graduate school but calls itself a business and caters to the laws of supply and demand, because like you say these programs are all businesses anyway so it’s probably about time we just drop the pretense.

    I have my Masters, and I did it for exactly the reason you say not to over and over again: because I didn’t know what else to do. I love being in school and would spend my life getting degrees if that was practical. But I was in a great position to do my MA– I did all my higher ed in the UK, where there is a set rate for higher ed(although this is increasing) and where there are no bullshit general education classes in the first year which means most undergraduate degrees take only three years, and Masters programs are only one, which allowed me to do it all in four years. Also, I was at the time caught between two countries, and had some big decisions to make. Doing my MA bought me time (which I enjoyed), and by the time I’d finished I knew I didn’t want to be in England anymore and I didn’t want to be with my then-boyfriend anymore and I didn’t want to do English anymore. So it was about real-life experience, too, for me, and all the while I got to talk about Byron with people who get really excited about Romantic poetry, and actually those people are rather harder to find outside of university than you would expect.

  16. Diana
    Diana says:

    You made some really great points today about career trajectory these days. I am looking at this from the “been there, done that” stage of life and you are right about how much things have changed. Thanks for pointing out that your education doesn’t pay off in increased income past ten years. I could have used that information 20 years ago, lol.

    I can’t believe how many people in the comments said you sound angry or strident. I didn’t think so at all. But then, People have said I sound strident or irritating too so maybe it’s our style. Personally, I like that you have an emotional voice rather than the typical arrogance of most expert males when interviewed. One could say that you sound a bit defensive in your posture, but since I read your blog I know that you DO argue your point, and often! So what?

    Loved the interview.

  17. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    I’m a clinical neuropsychologist, absolutely need my Ph.D. to do this job, and love my job, have no plan to leave ever. It’s my dream job actually, personally fulfilling, highly paid (I have stable salary for my work on staff at a hospital), and I only work 40 hours per week. Top that!

    • Laurie
      Laurie says:

      No problem. Today I put on some comfortable clothes and walked up a set of stairs to my desk. I had no new client requests so I read for a while and had breakfast. Since I’m pregnant I decided to have a mid-morning nap. Around noon I took the dog for a meandering walk to the park and returned home an hour later to START work. I worked for a couple of hours before I began doing some personal research online which is how I discovered this blog for the first time. It’s now 3:30 in the afternoon and I think I’ll stop working for today and do some tasks around the house.

      If I worked 40 hours per week (plus commuting time!) I’d make crazy money – but I’d rather spend time outside and study topics that interest me like science, psychology, finance, gardening, etc. Plus, I don’t have to commute to work, make a lunch (or buy one), wear crappy office clothes, sit in meetings, tolerate lousy co-workers or answer to anyone for how I spend my work day.

      The best part about my “career”: no degree or formal education is required (unless you include actual life skills).
      The life of an entrepreneur is sweet – too bad most people don’t have the balls for it – because the long-term rewards are incredible. The reason so many people defend their need for letters after their name is because they crave the illusion of security that is working for someone else.

      You can be and do anything you desire and you don’t need credentials for that.

  18. Sam
    Sam says:

    You’re right, grad school is a bad investment, there’s not enough jobs around for those freshly minted Ph.D, and those who choose to pursue a career in academia have a bright future with 60+ hour weeks on temp jobs begging for money so that they can do what they are trained to do (research). Once they get close to 40, they are up for the decision of tenure, which has a very real risk of getting fired. The career options for a newly turned 40 year old former associate professor that just got a “academic waste” stamp on his forehead are, how shall we put it – limited. Industry finds him overqualified, and academic positions are out of the question.

    So far we agree with each other. I’ll let your prediction of the future belonging to self learners pass as well, you might be right on that one. Going from there to claiming that grad school is irrelevant/useless is a very big step though. There’s plenty of people around who are able to read existing knowledge, and even tweak/adjust it for their particular settings. There’s something fundamentally different about research and producing new knowledge though, because if there wasn’t, the undergraduate GPA would be a perfect predictor of success in grad school. Grad school is definitely not a requirement for building a successful company, but certain kinds of companies can not be built without solid research foundations (take Intel as an example, they have heaps of researchers on their payroll, and it’s because they believe they need them. They vacuumed the entire market from formal verification people in the mid 90’s when the $500 million Pentium fdiv bug happened).

    With that said, grad school is still a really bad choice financially. If we truly believe that research is the way forward to prosperity for our nation, it seems far too important to leave the direction in the hands of the few volunteers who are too stubborn for their own good.

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      That worked so here is my comment again…

      You made some really great points today about career trajectory these days. I am looking at this from the “been there, done that” stage of life and you are right about how much things have changed. Thanks for pointing out that your education doesn’t pay off in increased income past ten years. I could have used that information 20 years ago, lol.

      I can’t believe how many people in the comments said you sound angry or strident. I didn’t think so at all. But then, People have said I sound strident or irritating too so maybe it’s our style. Personally, I like that you have an emotional voice rather than the typical arrogance of most expert males when interviewed. One could say that you sound a bit defensive in your posture, but since I read your blog I know that you DO argue your point, and often! So what?

      Loved the interview.

  19. mo
    mo says:

    The only people who care about master’s degrees are the people in HR departments. They use them as a way to avoid having to figure out who actually knows the material in their field.

    An Ivy League professor told me that he is increasingly hearing from alums that a master’s degree is a red flag that the candidate may be flaky and insecure. If they had the chops and confidence to get a job out of college, they would have. “Love of learning” is considered flaky.

    That said, there are certain masters where the program is essentially licensing prep: Law, Civil Engineering, Social Work. If you know those fields, have worked in those fields (for at least a year) and the companies you’ve worked for say you will do well in the field if you get the masters, then go for it.

    And law schools where the grads are intending to do state level work should go to a two year program. With maybe a third year work/learn program for certain specialties like family law.

  20. Mitch
    Mitch says:

    Penelope, while I would concede that grad school is over-rated, I think it is unreasonable to call it a waste of time in the general sense. Two examples…

    1. Aside from a medical savant, I would strongly suggest that many years of schooling (grad school and beyond) are required for most, if not all, doctors. A high school aged person wouldn’t be prepared for med school much less residency or, gasp, practice.

    2. While Jay-Z’s lyrics are amusing, I suspect you wouldn’t want him defending you in a trial. And the commentary totally ignores that the person stopped was rather disrespectful to the officer. While not volunteering information is good advice, being disrespectful is horrible advise.

    I think the real take-away from your articles is that people should really consider why they are going to graduate school and whether that enhances their opportunities for future success. The same can be said for attending university at all… or even high school. The recipe for success has drastically changed in my lifetime and I’m sure it will continue to change. It reminds me of what my mother would say when I’d ask “Ma, how long do I cook this for” and she would answer… “until it is done.”


    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      If it were a jury trial, I would definitely want Jay-Z defending me rather than a lawyer! Who do you think is more likely to get me acquitted?

  21. Sydnew
    Sydnew says:

    I’m in graduate school right now and I love it. But I’m not in it for a piece of paper and a magic ticket into the workforce — the job I’ll get after I graduate will pay me far less than the one I have right now. I’m in it because I want to learn and because learning from people who know a lot more than I do and have been teaching other people for years is actually not an inefficient mechanism. When I pay my tuition, I know that I could use the same money to a) take a fancy vacation (although not too fancy), b) put a down-payment on a new car (although a really low-end car), c) or — I don’t know, eat a lot of fancy dinners — although frankly not even too many of those. I’m paying to learn because I value learning. I think it’s as worthwhile an investment as — oh, say, flying to LA to get my hair done (never) or paying to have someone pluck my eyebrows (never) — which is to say, I don’t think of it as an investment, I think of it as a pleasure and a reward.

  22. Richard
    Richard says:

    The last two paragraphs you’ve written in this post are probably the best things you’ve ever written, in terms of it “speaking” to me. Thanks!

  23. Alice D.
    Alice D. says:

    I wish they would get rid of undergraduate college and replace it only with grad school. High school should just teach decent writing, reading, verbal skills and maybe Microsoft Office to equip you for most entry level jobs. Then us flighty Gen Y-ers could hop around to multiple jobs until they finally found one worth educating themselves for. Younger people are not capable of making financial decisions until they have actually had personal experience living on their own and managing their own budget.

    BTW when you basically told that guy his art sucks, it was hilarious. Too bad tough love doesn’t go over so well with many people…

    • carol
      carol says:

      If companies could still give IQ or aptitude tests, this would be workable. Bright HS graduates used to go to work for big companies and get on-the-job training all the time.

      But now testing is mostly illegal, though govt and military have their own exceptions to the rule of course.

  24. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Education is great, if you apply yourself to the career path you choose. Having an education doesn’t mean you have gained understanding in a topic, only that you have endurance to last through 4 or so years of keg parties.

    My educational background is actually in Art. I had enough credits to graduate high school after grade 10. All I had to complete for the last 2 years of high school was 2 years of English and a year of Science. The rest of the time I took 2 art classes in my high school and half the day for my junior and senior year at another school for Graphic Design and Illustration (book covers, painting, etc).

    I went to college for Art. It was there that I learned that there were much better artists out there than me. So what did I do? I went back to my other hobby which was computers.

    At the time DOS was the PC operating system of choice and Windows was just on the horizon.

    20 years later.. I make a shit ton of money making company networks operate smoothly. I have no formal education. Sure art helps me visualize the conceptual structure but I can tell you first hand that education has nothing to do with my success.

    Passion and purpose are the only things that really matter.


  25. Christena
    Christena says:

    I have a BS, doctorate, and master’s. I agree with you. My career requires an advanced degree and the pay & schedule is awesome. I wish I were not locked in, though. If I had it to do over, I would NOT take student loans and take a lower paying job for the “life freedom.” But the grass is always greener….

  26. Marc Roston
    Marc Roston says:

    I know I’m stepping in it, so here goes:

    You really need to distinguish between “graduate school” and “trade school”. Law school, business school, medical school and rabbinical school are trade schools. They seek to impart the knowledge someone believes is a prerequisite to learning to perform a job. You don’t learn to be a doctor in medical school.

    In graduate school (i.e. a phd program) you learn how to produce new knowledge, only after you’ve learned the skills to perform a job. I’m not saying that skill cannot be learned on your own. I’m also not saying schools do a particularly good job of teaching research skills. However, it is the case that doing it once successfully has information value for the consumer, be it your mother or your employer. In the finance world, you don’t hire ABDs do do research because your probability of getting output is much lower. As others point out, you hire MD/PhDs to perform biotech research because the probability of any output is higher.

    With that said, degrees serve as signals of an individual’s position in the distribution of “smarts”. (I’m using that term loosely…not book smarts, not just people smarts.)

    If you are a very smart outlier, you don’t need a third party verification signal: It’s obvious. However, if you’re a dolt, or even slightly above average, it could be very valuable to wave a Latin-infused sheepskin…so that the average person in the world will think you are slightly above average.

    The “problem” here, of course, is that everyone thinks they’re above average, so they think they don’t need the signalling mechanism, when in fact they aren’t that good!

    (And, yes, I have a very nice third party signal that says I am at least a little bit to the right on the distribution.)

    • Erik
      Erik says:

      Marc – hopefully your mother and/or a potential future employer will understand your acquired signals to be able to identify an appropriate position for you to produce the desired higher output your mother (at least) expects!

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        What I love here is that my brothers (Marc and Erik) can comment on my post about graduate degrees and business and still digress to talk about my mom. (Also, I feel compelled to say that Erik is not really his name but a pseudonym. Though who am I to make rules about my siblings writing under their real name when I am on my fourth name?)

        This string does, of course, touch on Amy’s comment above, about how parents love to say their kid is in graduate school.

        My parents love to say they have one kid with an economics Phd and one kid with (almost there) a chemistry Phd. And, I have to say that I have never heard my parents kvelling that they raised a kid to be a blogger.


      • Erik
        Erik says:

        @Marc – I think I met her once. A piece of work.

        @Penelope – Luckily she is too busy scouring American Express job postings in sub-saharan Africa to have time to read this far down in your comment section!

  27. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    I sense an unspoken fear that a degree is not good enough anymore. As an honorary graduate of the “University of Saigon” I despise such “mission creep.” Conquer fear, then take responsibility to get on your alma mater’s board of governors so you can ensure a degree is demanding enough to be good enough. The degrees in Canada show that quality is possible.

  28. Riley Harrison
    Riley Harrison says:

    I think many have a legitimate need to go to graduate school, but many become professional students and use it as a avoidance-of- living-life mechanism.

  29. Tara
    Tara says:

    I really enjoy your column.

    I’m in grad school–I’m actually about to fail my comprehensive exams (no really, I already failed them once), and I’ve got student loans up the wazoo.

    But I also went to grad school for the challenge. My career goals: have a job where I get to wear jeans and proofread/edit. If I can sleep in, too, it’s a dream job. I went to grad school knowing my goal wasn’t to prepare for a career or be able to pay off my loans. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Oh, I admit to the stupidity of some of this, but I’ve got to tell you, even with likelihood of failing these exams again, it was worth it. In fact, I’ll probably do another Master’s either after the Ph.D. or as soon as I fail these exams. :-) But I’m doing it ’cause I love school, and I’m actually employable enough to pay off the loans, no problem.

    So, I’m going to grad school, but it’s because I love going to grad school. It is the ends not the means, I suppose. I suspect in this scenario, you’d be okay with grad school. I’m just enjoying being an overeducated administrative-type. It’s my thing. Don’t even have the grad degrees (finished or in progress) on my resume. Don’t need ’em. I do collages. I go to grad school. I like movies. They’re all hobbies.

    Can you believe that all that led to this: homeschoolers ARE going to rule the world. They are regularly my best students when I teach as a grad student or an adjunct. The critical thinking skills, which frankly, are almost the only thing worth practicing/coaching (probably not teaching) are so much higher among that population of students. Breath of fresh air to teach those students. In fact, my goal was always to try to get my other students to the level of THINKING that the homeschoolers walked in the door with, and sometimes, maybe I’d get a glimmer here and there.

    I decided not to become a mother (even recently had myself sterilized) ’cause I knew I wouldn’t want to devote the REAL time needed to do it right (i.e. homeschooling), so I wasn’t going to do it. I wish more parents would stop letting their kids hop from grade to grade. Send ’em to school, but my gawd, engage them in the learning they should be doing in school when they’re home and willing to think for themselves outside the gaze of their equally-confused and herded peers.

    Keep up the anti-grad school voice. If more people were demonstrating critical thinking skills, employers wouldn’t brush off the lack of them by allowing people to substitute independent idea-making with a degree.

  30. Tara
    Tara says:

    Note to self: If you say you like to edit in a comment, do so before posting a damn reply. Ah, well.

  31. Tom T
    Tom T says:

    Some thoughts:
    -> The host was so obviously biased towards grad school with his leading questions, frequent interruptions, and condescending attitude
    -> Penelope brought hard facts and logic; the other panelist brought flowery rhetoric and BS
    -> As Hillary mentioned above, going to grad school is at least 25 years old advice. My father went graduated from law school in 1979 when law school loans were around 3% and tuition, books, room, and board were less than $1,000/semester.

    The joke “don’t confuse me with the facts” rings loud and clear here!

  32. Marie
    Marie says:

    That’s it Penelope! I had JUST gotten off the phone with my best friend, telling her this exact thing, and even mentioning you and your blog in the same convo and here is additional evidence from you. I forwarded it right away. I’ll be graduating from grad school later this month! I know I have gotten “value” out of my graduate school experience, but I like school, and the network has been amazing. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.
    Thanks as always for your insights!

  33. Sarah Wood
    Sarah Wood says:

    That was so interesting!! You definitely let them get to you and started running your mouth. Still, I truly appreciated that you were trying to focus on the topic at hand and go deep into a real discussion.

    The other guest sounded slyly smug and elitist (how many more times, really, could he have mentioned his numerous degrees and years of academic experience?)… it reminded me of when Star Jones said she that she was so fortunate (blessed by God in fact!) that she had gotten out of Thailand right before the tsunami hit. Yes, right, YOU are so fortunate and blessed… but the 160,000 people that died? Oh, they were just a bit too lowly to be saved.

    I have a master’s degree. It’s in Liberal Studies. It’s from a ridiculously expensive private school in New York. I’ll be in debt for the next 30 years or so from it. I’m glad I got it. I learned things there I didn’t even know were out in the world to learn. That being said, it’s done nothing for my career I couldn’t do for myself all on my own.

    In my eyes, you won the debate today with flying colors. If you had done it in a softer tone, you would have been received better. But you know what? I found your rawness refreshing and independent. You go Penelope!

    • thatgirl
      thatgirl says:

      you forgot to, somehow, dovetail the fact that star jones has also spouted about being “blessed” to have her JD. i’m still trying to figure out how it prepared her for a life spent on chat shows and “reality” apprentice programs. maybe it’s about the arguing, but none of those arguments i’ve witnessed bear any marks of those from more evidently learned people.

  34. Erin
    Erin says:

    You say “Most people will change careers five times in their life.”

    Graduate school is my current career. As a biology student, I get paid $30,000 a year, I have no debt, someone else pays the tuition, and I’m saving money for retirement. I am guaranteed a position for 6 years, possibly 7.

    So what if I don’t get to design all my own experiments in the future? Someone will pay me to do their experiments for them. Or I’ll take my skills at writing and giving amazing presentations elsewhere and have a new career.

    I realize that many grad students aren’t in my situation, but for many of us, this is a career.

  35. LeeAnn
    LeeAnn says:

    Interesting post and comments.

    Personally, I have a bachelor degree (B. Commerce) and spent a year or two working, before I went back to school to do a post-grad diploma program.

    It cost me $26k – but without it, and my Bachelor’s, I would not have qualified for my TN-1 visa, nor been able to kick off my career in IT.

    In my first year working after finishing grad school, I doubled my salary compared to what I made working full time without grad school – and have since doubled it again.

    For me, my Bachelor’s degree and my post-grad program were absolutely required to get the career I wanted – I know it’s not true for everyone in my position, but in my particular case, I would absolutely not be working in this career without those steps.

  36. Jon Morrow
    Jon Morrow says:

    To me, this isn’t about grad school. It’s about ladders.

    Some people see their entire lives as a series of steps on a ladder. Graduating from high school is one step, college another, a graduate school the next, and so on. Or, in business, it’s go to college, get a job, get experience, become a manager, become a partner, etc.

    You can find ladders like that in every field. Some people (a.k.a. marketers) are actually paid to create them.

    But the question is, is the ladder real? Do you actually need to climb it? Or can you push it over?

    In fields like business and politics and literature, the ladders are appallingly fake. You can skip from the bottom to the top as fast as you want to. Just look at all the high school dropouts who are millionaires and the totally unqualified performers who become politicians. They don’t climb the ladders. They push them over.

    But in some fields, the ladders are there for a real purpose. Anything to do with medicine is a good example. If you try to skip steps, then there is a real risk people can die, and that’s not acceptable, so the ladder is rigorously enforced.

    So, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with this post, I think it’s better to ask yourself a question:

    Do I really have to climb all of the steps on this ladder to get to where I want to go, or am I really just climbing because I’m confused or scared or blind?

    If the ladder is real, then by all means, climb it.

    But if it’s not, stop wasting your time. Just push the damn thing over.

  37. Janis Schubert
    Janis Schubert says:

    One of the ways where grad school helps is to deal with employment gaps. Although I had planned to return to work after my kids were born, my first child was born 3 months prematurely and putting him in daycare was not an option. Later we discovered that he had Aspergers Syndrome so preschool was difficult, public school was a mess, and when we finally found a good place for him, I had been out of the work force for nearly 10 years. With that sort of gap in employment, especially in computer science, you are effectively locked out of jobs. It is great if you have the option of being an entrepreneur, doing without such things as health insurance, but I had to have a job with a company with medical insurance since otherwise my son would be uninsurable.

    What grad school gave me was a way to restart my career. Once I came out with a graduate degree, no one cared about what happened prior to that, especially since I got my degree in a field that was related to computer science but somewhat different. I could include relevant experience on my resume to show that I had work experience, but no one looked at gaps in employment.

    Personally I think it stinks when they penalize job seekers (primarily women) who have gaps in employment. I have a friend with a EE degree who was an excellent worker prior to having kids. Now she has been out of the corporate-type work force for over 10 years. She cannot get a job as an EE. She has been told it is because of the gap in employment.

    I don’t know if it would pay off for everyone, but in my situation it was essential.

  38. Ada
    Ada says:

    I gained admission into Columbia Business School and took some time off between quitting my old job and starting business school. In that time I had the opportunity to really think about my motives for grad school. In the end I decided that the opportunity costs of attending would be too great. Further, my ambition was to set up my own business so I reasoned it made sense to just do it rather than go to school to “learn” how to set up a business. It is very easy to get sucked into the marketing spiel about the relevance of MBA’s. Ultimately I think the main value they add to a person’s profile is to enhance their brand and give them contacts. Some would argue that this alone justifies the hefty price tag. In my case, it didn’t make sense at the time and I feel very happy with my decision.

  39. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    My husband is working on his phd in molecular biology. I’m pretty sure science is one of those fields where you still need a graduate degree. I think everyone who works on cutting edge research is a post-doc, because no one is going to hand a multi million dollar grant to an undergrad. Not going to happen.

  40. Say No! to the Office
    Say No! to the Office says:

    Doing a PhD wasn’t the best move for me either. Spent the best part of 3 years fighting my entrepreneurial urges and the development of my company seriously suffered. Now I have a doctorate that I have no intention of using and could have had 4 or 5 years more business experience than I have. It’s not all regrets, and being Dr is nice, but it’s mostly self-indulgent. I could have achieved more if I had recognised at an earlier stage that the academic path wasn’t for me.

  41. Heather
    Heather says:

    I agree with you about the world needing more lifelong learners. Thankfully the public high school I went to had enough free thinking teachers to try to break us of going after the grades and be more about what we were learning. I’m so grateful for them. I try to model this for my children all the time.

    BTW, I also thought it was funny you used the song 99 Problems. This song gets stuck in my head lately.

  42. Meem
    Meem says:

    The issue of perception plays a huge factor in many workplace and it partly contributes to the reason why young people choose to go to graduate school even if they know they could’ve learnt it by themselves or even if they know most of what grad school teach them.

    From my experience as someone who’s been in the corporate world for a number of years and as someone without a Master’s degree, the corporate world usually favors those with master’s degrees (especially if it’s from a reputable college). If you have two candidates for a position, and both candidates are excellent and can do the job, chances are the one with the Master’s degree will have an edge over the equally good candidate without Master’s Degree. This is one of the reasons that drive folks to get that extra paper qualification. Some people at the workplace (and in fact the world) just look at you differently because you don’t have the brand name Master’s degree as you go higher up in the corporate world and as it gets more competitive, it sucks but it’s true for many companies. Companies, even some start-ups like to brag that they hire people from top grad schools etc

    I agree with Penelope that the future in part will belong to the generation of Homeschoolers and those who are very good at self-learning. Higher learning institutions are not be able to keep up with the changes in the real world, as they are set up to be notoriously slow at adapting to changes. In the future when change will be much more rapid than it is now, they will become even more outdated and irrelevant and many people will be slowing themselves down and be outdated if they go to grad school. This is true for industries experiencing rapid changes which do not require grad school as minimum qualifications or as license for entry into the industry.

  43. brooklynchick
    brooklynchick says:

    For me, NOT having a graduate degree was getting in the way of jobs I wanted to get. So I went at night, my employer paid for most of it. Cost me almost nothing, except a LOT of time for three years. Totally worth that.

  44. Joe Scanlon
    Joe Scanlon says:

    I don’t know how I stumbled upon this drivel, but this one blog post tells me a couple of things…

    1. You’re thinking and talking more about what grad school is worth to *YOU* than about grad school in general. Medical school is a waste of time? Really? Dentistry school? Advanced degrees in mathematics, physics, and other sciences? Law school? Do you even know what grad school is? Sounds like, for you, it’s a place where you go for a couple of years to re-learn what you should have learned as an undergrad in areas like business, education, whatever, at fine (sarcasm) institutions like University of Phoenix. But for our truly bright minds in this country, grad school is what you do if you want to become one of the best in your profession. You don’t become a medical doctor by bullshitting your way through life and “knowing the right people.”

    2. Intellectually, you’re a weakling. Based on your writing, you should not be advising people on whether or not to attend grad school. Broad generalizations like “grad school is a bad investment” is an immediate give-away. You’re not very smart. I look forward to more insightful blog posts from you, like, “Black people are good at basketball.” You’re right about one thing; grad school is a waste of time for *SOME* people. Get a job.

  45. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    You’ve always made excellent points about grad school Penelope. Here’s another point. Grand school, and college? Is great for people who know how to follow the rules. They reward following the rules, and graduate people at the top who can follow the rules even better than their classmates. Unfortunately, most of the really successful folks agree that following someone else’s rules doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to go.

  46. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Who the heck is paying for grad school? My degree came part time on my former company’s dime. Same for my husband. All of my friends in grad school did it with funding from their departments. Any debt they have is small in comparison to what they racked up in undergrad.

    Granted we are all engineers and scientists from a top schools, but really, if you have to pay for your degree out-right, you aren’t looking hard enough for ways for others to pay for it.

  47. CreidS
    CreidS says:

    What is really interesting is how companies are taking advantage of this fear of adulthood.

    What is the Google campus, if not another college experiece? Facebook was founded on the idea of keeping up with your college social group. Even TED is a sort of college fantasy, sitting in the best class, with the best peers, with the best professors.

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