When to leave grad school off your resume

I have been railing against grad school for a long time, and  I’m starting to believe that you should leave grad school off your resume if you are not working in the field you studied.

Here are five reasons why putting grad school on your resume makes you look bad. (And at the end of this post, there’s a game plan for what to do with any gap you’ll have when you remove grad school from your resume.)

1. Grad school on your resume is a formal announcement of a mistake.
If you are working in the exact field that you went to grad school for, then this advice does not apply to you. But most people do not get jobs that are directly related to their graduate degree. Most people did not need to go to grad school to get a job.

Which begs the question, “Why did you go?” For most people the answer will be that it was a mistake. It was a lot of time and money spent for a degree they didn’t need.

Other people will say they love to learn. This is not a good thing to say because it is not remarkable. At least, not among the people you need to be better than to get hired. Those star employees are learning all the time and do not take time away from work to go to grad school. Are you so stupid that you cannot learn without getting grades? Because this is what it looks like if you say you went to grad school because you love to learn.

You might say that you went to grad school because your parents were paying, or because it was a free ride. But this does not bode well for your work ethic. Because your time is valuable. Or at least you need to talk like it is, so that you can get someone to pay you for it. If you just went to grad school to kill time, you will probably kill a lot of time at work, too.

2. Grad school on your resume makes you look like you’re worth less money.
Going to grad school in a field unrelated to your job is like having an irrlevant job on your resume. And you already know that people leave stupid jobs off their resume. Grad school is like that — a stupid job that detracts from your story.

The story is really important: A resume is a story of how you managed your career in a way that is focused on what you want to do right now. You don’t need to tell your life story. You need to tell a story that makes you look like the perfect candidate for your perfect job. If your resume shows that you’ve done tons of things—like study law and work at an online marketing firm—then you look more like a generalist, and you won’t be as desirable. Specialists get more money than generalists.

3. Grad school on your resume makes you look like you’re scared of adult life.
Generally speaking, people who have huge excitement about creating their own path in the workforce do not go to grad school. People who have excitement about deciding for themselves what to read and what to learn are people who stop going to school and join the workforce. The workplace, done right, is a place for self-directed learning.

Most people who went to grad school did it to prolong adolescent needs for grade-based approval. (Note: This analysis comes from writers at the Chronicle for Higher Education.) This is because the model of grad school is generally outdated for today’s workforce, and high performers see this flaw before they enroll. But people who are scared to try holding their own in the workforce see grad school as a way around the inevitable difficulties of finding a job one enjoys.

4. A Ph.D on your resume often makes you look like a poor self-learner.
Graduate degrees in the humanities are totally useless. I should know. I went to graduate school for English, which served only to give me a little break from real life.

But it’s not just English programs that are dead ends. The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported that one would have had a better chance surviving the Titanic than getting a job as any type of humanities professor. Humanities PhD programs suck up time and energy with little return.

Most people who go to grad school for humanities defend their decision by saying they love their topic. But look, if you love your topic, open a book and teach yourself, after work. You don’t need permission, or a graduate degree, to become an expert in something you love. There is little correlation between education and success in the workplace. There is huge correlation between success at work and ability to be a self-learner.

5. Business school on your resume makes you look timid.
If you went to a top-ten school—top ten in the nation, not in your state—then the selection process is so stringent that it’s meaningful that you were accepted. Put the degree on your resume. For those who went to business school anywhere else, the selection process was weak because they make a truckload of money from each student admitted. So having made it into an MBA program there is no big achievement.

But really, if you think you’re good at business, why did you dump $100,000 into business school instead of investing it into your own company? And even if you wanted to learn about business, there are reams of data proving how you learn faster by having your own company rather than talking about other peoples’ companies. So putting business school on your resume makes you look like you don’t have faith in yourself.

Solution: Leave a gap in your resume. Really.
The strongest candidates have gaps in their resume. Taking time off is an honest way to learn about yourself.  The interviewer will assume you did odd jobs to support yourself. (Which is what most people do when they are starting off in adult life.)

Instead of putting your graduate school degree on your resume, it will look better if you focus on the other stuff you were doing during that time. Travel, maybe. Or training for a marathon. Or learning to dance. You can tell people you took time off from the typical workday life of sitting in front of a computer. There’s intrinsic value to physically doing something, and you can talk about that when you talk about a gap on your resume.

When an interviewer says, “What did you do during this gap?” They don’t mean what did you do every second. They mean, what did you learn? And they want to hear self-learning, and self-knowledge. They don’t want to hear spoon-fed grad-school learning.

Some of the hardest parts of adult life are gaining self-knowlege and applying it to get a job that is right for you. The best way to show that you’re a strong performer is to tell the story of you facing this challenge head on, day after day, year after year.


131 replies
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  1. The
    The says:

    Couldnt agree more and wish I had your advice 8 years ago when I started an incomplete masters in communications, which is perhaps THE most useless degree.

    One thing to know is that certain cultursl groups put intense pressure on their kids to further their education, without realizing that a degree does not equal life experience.

    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Or you can go to grad school while your company pays for it, while working full time, and while running several marathons/half marathons and being and all around well-enduranced athlete. Tell your interviewer this and you’ll get any job your heart desires…unless of course you’re truly not a hard working grinder, then you can just perform one of these at a time :)

  2. my honest answer
    my honest answer says:

    Much of this advice depends on the reader’s ability to answer the interviewers questions thoughfully. If they can provide a good and reasoned answer to what they did in those years then great. But if they’re going to mumble about…um… seeing the world… without concrete examples of where they went and what they learnt, I’d still leave grad school on the resume.

  3. Wendy (with a History Ph.D. working in finance sector)
    Wendy (with a History Ph.D. working in finance sector) says:

    Although I agree with some of the critiques of grad school (too many people are there for the wrong reasons), I advocate putting grad school on your resume–but treat it like any other job.

    On my resume, my doctorate shows up at the very end, under a small education section.

    But, in the body of my resume, I put down titles like “lecturer” and “doctoral fellow” and then some bullets on what I did for those roles (i.e. “Prepared and delivered six 45 minute presentations per week on topics ranging from economic development to genocide”)

    Basically, I made my graduate experience fit the requirements for whatever job I was applying. Supervising, budget management, public speaking, working to deadline, etc. are all skills honed in grad school.

    If you make it relevant, anything can be helpful on a resume. I learned that from Penelope Trunk way back in 1998 when I was first figuring out how to leverage my graduate experience into a meaningful career.

  4. Marita
    Marita says:

    I agree with you on all of the above. There really is such a thing as too much schooling; there is no substitute for real life! I could name several people I know off the top of my head that only kept going to school because they had no idea what else to do with their lives.

  5. Maria
    Maria says:

    Leaving graduate school of your resume for the reasons you listed above are asinine. You should only leave grad school of your resume if you can’t connect the skills you gained there with real world jobs, and if you can’t do that (particularly if the grad school you’re leaving off your resume is a phd) then you haven’t tried hard enough.

  6. Calvin
    Calvin says:

    I think this is poor advice. I’ve interviewed for several jobs and interviewed many people to hire, and I’ve never seen it as a bad thing that they went to grad school in an area that doesn’t relate to their field. I actually find that more varied life/study experiences are sometimes better than a person who has only been on one track. I would love to hear some HR experts’ views of the matter or some data on this rather than a collection of the author’s personal opinions.

  7. Colin
    Colin says:

    I’m glad your anti-grad school mantra is starting to include “in humanities” or some such. I have yet to read a post of yours against grad school that was spot-on applicable to the sciences (biosciences in particular). My suspicion is that you don’t know how the biosciences differ from the humanities and I think “open a book and teach yourself” is a pretty good indicator that you do not.

    Unrelated, I’m curious on your opinion on jobs that require a grad degree in the “humanities.” Specifically, library science. Anything beyond a clerk pretty much requires an MLS/MLIS and there are a glut of people that have them, so not having one is a virtual guarantee that you will not get those jobs. In this case, it has nothing to do with learning or knowledge but mere possession of that “accomplishment.” Opening a book won’t get you there. Yet another exception to your anti-grad school rule?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My brother is getting a PhD in chemistry. He wants to teach. And he is willing to move to any university where he can get a job. So a graduate degree is great for him.


      • Matt
        Matt says:

        If your brother is getting a PhD in chemistry, you should know that most of what he’s doing is “self-learning” and self-directed inquiry, not highly structured coursework. (At least if he’s in a good program.)

        • Karl
          Karl says:

          Science grad school can be self-directed, but only after you get to a pretty high level. Almost all serious grad programs in the sciences start out with qualifying exams where you have to thoroughly learn the core topics in your area. (For chemistry, that might include physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and inorganic chemistry, for instance.) To start working on a research problem, you usually need some type of guidance from an advisor. The reason is that if you just try to do everything by yourself, you could easily end up replicating work that has already been done (the science literature is vast and there is no way for a young person to absorb all of it), or working on a problem that is too difficult to solve.

          That’s part of the reason I think comparing grad school to self-study is a little ridiculous. I don’t know what humanities grad school is like, but in the sciences, 99.99% of people would not be able to accomplish what you do in a grad program by themselves.

      • Nicolle
        Nicolle says:

        I wish you would qualify things, because you use “grad school” like it is one experience. It’s not. In example: I have a PhD in immunology and though I’m not sure I’d do it again, it’s not for most of the reasons you specified (many of which don’t apply in the sciences – even though I haven’t stayed in academia and am now in the business world). I sure as hell put my title on my resume, biz card, etc (granted I work in pharma but it’s not really a direct link to my graduate work). Also, a student may pay in wages lost, but a science PhD comes with stipend and no additional debt. Etc.

    • mysticaltyger
      mysticaltyger says:

      I work in a library and quite frankly, I think the MLIS is a waste of time PRECISELY BECAUSE

      • mysticaltyger
        mysticaltyger says:

        OOPS, sorry for my previous post. I was going to say I work as a clerk in a library the MLIS degree is a waste PRECISELY BECAUSE there is a glut of people out there with these degrees and few positions available. It’s better to find another job or career where there isn’t a glut of people competing for so few openings.

  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I love your blog and this article especially. I have a question that relates to this post. I spent 5+ years (In my thirties) in the teaching field and I recently returned to the internet sales/marketing world. What would be your resume recommendation for the 5 years I spent as a grad student/teacher? Thanks!

  9. aurora
    aurora says:

    I have been dealing with “gap” issues on my resume last week.

    I asked to different people to get different points of view about and figure out a truth in the middle.

    It is a “physiologic” gap I am expecting within next months, because I am switching from a system to another.

    Assuming that physiologic should not mean “ok, I am entitled to fool around”, I started to consider it as a PROBLEM, I started to ask advice presenting it as a problem. Silly mistake, because people will follow your mind track, it is effortless; unless they are ridicolously experienced about…or your best friend.

    A very honest potential boss I rely on, told me FILL IT, that’s a must, no gap is the best. I felt lost.
    A mentor told me that my career pattern involves some gap. Employers are not supposed to be so strict.
    A career adviser (ridicolously experienced) in my field, told me “Hey, we saw A LOT of gaps in CVs!you will work anyway” kindly laughing at my serious concerns.

    Generally speaking, a gap is not the end of the world, but it is qualified as MINUS in the quick.black.or.white.score.system. that employers use.

    They could focus on the psychological/second reading on grad school: on a second moment.

    At the very first drastic selection, I wouldn’t like to be excluded because of a white gap…and overridden by chaps with a massive “grad school” filling those white gaps.

    I would not overcomplicate the way an employer would not.

    Nevertheless I am grateful for that, just in case I won’t fill an actual gap in a short time:

    “When an interviewer says, “What did you do during this gap?” They don’t mean what did you do every second. They mean, what did you learn? And they want to hear self-learning, and self-knowledge”

    I was missing the point, I always assume that employers do not consider you as a person, life living, but as a performer.

  10. ValterV
    ValterV says:

    Pen, I seem to have read most of this post already. Did you repost some old post of yours, adding stuff?

    Anyway, I think your advice is too rigid: sometimes it might be ok, sometimes it doesn’t (see comment above).

    And I think you value your personal experience too much (see “I went to graduate school for English, which served only to give me a little break from real life.”)
    In the grand scheme of things, a single experience or event is next to meaningless.

  11. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    I have been in graduate school for almost two years, and it was the bets choice I ever made. I will have a “useless” MA in Religious Studies. During this time I honed my writing, research and presentations skills by authoring and presenting academic papers.

    Most importantly, I developed the self-esteem, self-knowledge and confidence necessary to move back into the workforce with my head held high.

    I will proudly put The University of ____ on my resume for the next few years.

    If you can tell a potential employer what you did in graduate school, then wear your useless MA or PhD with pride.

    ***On a side note, my university has an amazing alumni network that will, hopefully, help increase my chances of finding a job.

    • terri
      terri says:

      The alumni network you reference is one of the foremost reasons for grad school. And if anyone says it’s not worth the price, then perhaps they aren’t networking properly.

    • Steve C
      Steve C says:

      Yours may be the most important piece of information in this entire article. The alumni network at whatever institution you attend is HUGE, and is one of the most important components of top tier schools, especially Ivy League schools. Unfortunately, not all of us can access those networks, and not all schools recognize this and work on it for their current students. It’s the missing link for most graduates.

  12. Ruth Zive
    Ruth Zive says:

    Here’s the thing Penelope. The types of people who would actually be inclined to leave grad school off of their resumes (especially for the reasons you’ve noted) are not likely the types to waste their time preparing a stupid resume in the first place, or going for job interviews, for that matter. They’d be much more creative and ambitious in the ways they fulfill their career aspirations.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Ruth, you make a good point. Matbe this post is just insight into how top workplace performers think. And in general, the sentiment in the business world is that education is increasingly useless for business.

      It’s significant, I think, that Silicon Valley is done talking about if business school is useless. There is wide consensus that it is, indeed, useless. And Silicon Valley is busy debating whether college is useless.

      • Perizade
        Perizade says:

        Interesting how the pendulum swings, then. For a long time you couldn’t get anywhere without a college degree of some sort unless you had some very unusual and fortunate circumstances. And it’s been common knowledge that most people get jobs unrelated to their undergrad degrees for how many decades, now? With the tuition bubble ready to burst in the visible future I can see how people may go back to “I don’t need no stinkin’ school” because they won’t.

      • Boris
        Boris says:

        It’s funny that the “consensus” in Silicon Valley is that business school is useless when 90% of people at partner level at any decent VC firm have MBAs. I’m in business school (and indeed, the education aspect is not what I’m here for), and 10% of my class (including myself) is starting their own company, and probably another 10% are going to the finance side of tech (VC, PE). Not to mention that the alums I reach out to have overwhelmingly been helpful and accomplished amazing things as well. I could post a list of successful entrepreneurs in just the last decade who have MBAs, but you’d bring up Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs or some other silly comparison.

        Look, I understand that relentless preaching of Porter’s five forces and reading HBS case studies isn’t helpful if you’re trying to start your own company — but business school provides the “gap” on your resume where you can refocus on what is important. That’s the purpose of any top business school program. It’s an expensive experience, and you can surely make it big without one, but let’s be honest – most people will not start a company, and less than 5% of people who do will be successful at it. Business school gives you the piece of mind to be able to start something and fail, because let’s face it – if I’m just a burnout with a failed company, no one is paying me $150K salary to do anything. This degree ensures that even if my company fails, I can earn at least that much working for someone. In other words, it’s well worth it because you can’t put a price on piece of mind.

  13. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    If you are unemployed you can work as a freelancer in your field. You can state on your resume that you are the sole proprietor of a business instead of having gaps.

    • FatSquirrel
      FatSquirrel says:

      I works for getting interviews but when you get there the jig is up–you will need to have client references–assuming that the hiring manager isn’t offended by having been fooled.

  14. meistergedanken
    meistergedanken says:

    Ellie wrote: “I will have a “useless” MA in Religious Studies. During this time I honed my writing, research and presentations skills by authoring and presenting academic papers… I developed the self-esteem, self-knowledge and confidence necessary to move back into the workforce with my head held high.”

    Hang onto those pleasant thoughts when you are showing restuarant patrons to their tables.

    • Ellie
      Ellie says:

      Wow, that was not a very kind comment. I already have had several informational interviews and met with potential employers (mostly financial services firms). I have specifically asked about my degree, and no one has thought my degree will lead to waiting tables. Maybe it is because of my work experience prior to graduate school?
      Maybe it because I don’t spend time on internet forums tearing down others? Good luck!

  15. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    As I was completing my engineering degree I went and talked to the head of grad studies in my department. He listened to me, we chatted, then he told me that he didn’t think I was actually interested in grad school, and that he didn’t think researching & specializing would benefit me and that I should go to work. (i.e.: join the real world)

    After I got over my hurt feelings (you don’t want me??), I realized he was right, I didn’t have any particular passion that I wanted to get more indepth on, I wanted to go to work. Most grad school heads are just seeing the $$, this one was at least HONEST with me!

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      Actually for grad school in engineering, physics, chemistry and the like, grad students do not pay for their tuition and stipend, the vast majority will receive support from their institution either as research or teaching assistants. They therefore do not bring money to the institution but cost money (which is well spent in my opinion having known a lot of great, highly motivated grad students).

  16. Rachel Gross
    Rachel Gross says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post and I went to grad school! Even though I am working in my field I omit grad school from my resume for fear of what conclusions will be drawn about me. They can’t see from my resume that I graduated from college at 20 and had no idea what to do with my life so I extended college for two years earning my Masters. I often refer to my second degree as my “vanity project”.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I have to admit that I have no idea what negative conclusions could be drawn if you admit to having an MS degree. Could you give an example?

  17. Harry @ GoalsOnTrack
    Harry @ GoalsOnTrack says:

    Grad school or whatever school all have their value. It’s not just about book knowledge, grades, etc., it’s also about experience, people you meet and get to know, and to understand how that part of world (university/academia) works. I can’t really see why it should look bad no matter what kind of jobs you are looking for. I agree with a previous comment that this is indeed poor and very biased advice, which may only appeal to people who did go to grad schools but somehow regret it for some reasons=, which in itself isn’t rational thinking anyways.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here’s a way to think about this issue: In grad school you pay to meet people, hone thinking skills, gain confidence, etc. In the work world you get those same benefits except someone pays you instead of you paying them.

      So it should come as no surprise that the people who get paid to do that stuff look like much stronger candidates than the people who pay to do that stuff.


      • Ellie
        Ellie says:


        I see your point, and I (mostly) agree. Prior to graduate school I was miserable. Every day at work I looked at flights to Israel and imagined grabbing my purse (that held my Passport) and leaving. I was so unhappy, I had no self-esteem, and I felt trapped, angry and frustrated.

        I am in a program at a *very* good university. Luckily, they offered me a lot of financial aid.

        Right now, I am happy, optimistic and, hopefully, due to the skills and self-esteem I gained in graduate school I will be a good fit for a job.

        I often say, “Humanities degrees are only as worthless as the people who have them”.

      • Tzipporah
        Tzipporah says:

        “In grad school you pay to meet people, hone thinking skills, gain confidence, etc.”

        Who the hell does that? They pay you. I agree, if you went without a full fellowship and stipend you’re an idiot, but those of us who got paid to take a break from the dull jobs we could get out of college should brag about that. I mean, when was the last time someone paid you to take a break from work and go play for three years?

  18. Grace
    Grace says:

    I’m a career counsellor. I have the hardest time finding work for people with a Master’s. Unless you are in a specialized technical field or want to teach at a community college, this degree often doesn’t lead to more opportunity or higher pay. In fact, your extra education means employers have to pay you more and they often don’t want to do that.

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      Yes, but the good ones often do get jobs, and I like to think that I am a good one :). Of course it is harder to find a high-paying job, but they ARE out there and employers are willing to pay to get people with good credentials. I have a MS degree with lots of experience in a scientific career. However, there was a time when I was out of work due to a layoff and I was able to get the low-paying jobs easily. I got an office job, and I also got a job working in the market at Whole Foods. I think Whole Foods was intrigued that I had a masters degree but wanted to work there so they gave me my first choice department to work in. I have applied for bookkeeping jobs in the past and was very well received. You are probably right in general for a mediocre candidate, but I wouldn’t want someone to NOT get a MS degree because they were afraid they couldn’t get a job when they got out. There are fewer high-paying jobs out there, but if you really want one, you CAN get them. The trick is NETWORKING — not sending out blind resumes.

  19. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I went to grad school because I didn’t want to make the decision whether to stay in England or move back to the US. Then I spent my time writing a dissertation on the identities of mixed race women in America, and fell in love with Nella Larsen, who in Quicksand followed her heroine as she moves between NYC and Europe and the Deep South looking for fulfillment, and herself, but never finding either. I should have known then what I really wanted. And now I’m paying for it, since being in the States for that extra year would have made getting my citizenship now just a little bit easier.

  20. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Why is it more interesting and valuable to put on a resume that you learned dancing rather than going to grad school? Oftentimes people also “find themselves” in grad school. It’s just another life experience. I can tell you that grad school matured me in very important ways and taught me how to learn on my own and how to pass on my knowledge to others. I was fairly helpless before grad school and after 2 years came out able to solve problems on my own. Doing original work (data collecting and writing thesis) is of tremendous value, no matter what discipline you are in. I admit, if I had a fabulous idea for a business and I had the money to invest in it while supporting myself, it may have paid off and I may have learned more than by going to grad school, but that is rare in 22 year-olds. I know my employer would not look favorably upon someone who took 2 years off to discover themselves. Not every company is that forward-thinking. Some of us don’t live in Silicon Valley.

  21. Josh
    Josh says:

    It all depends on where you get your graduate degree, what you study, and where you work after/career aspirations.

    If you want to do economic research for the World Bank, getting a Harvard Master’s in Economic Development would be very beneficial.

    The thing about master’s programs is that if you go to a good school, it will help you more often than not because: 1) You need to achieve a high school on the GRE/GMAT (which shows your capable) 2) That your a hardworker because you have good grades in undergrad 3) it teaches you to critically think in different ways.

    Essentially, it’s a screening process.

    Now, if you do a Master’s at a not top-tier school, it will be less beneficial.

  22. Bethany
    Bethany says:

    I’m glad you started this off with the qualifier of “if you’re not working in the field you studied.” I went to grad school and now have a job in the field I studied; really, what ended up happening was that grad school paid for me to spend two years interning and networking (I didn’t pay anything to go). I had to have the degree to get anywhere in my field but I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been free.

    But other jobs I’ve applied for, I’ve definitely left it off. The other thing I’ve found that served me well is, even if you do go to grad school, don’t just do things that can go on your CV or whatever. I also worked a bunch of odd jobs during grad school, which I think works pretty well serving as a gap in my resume. I can talk about being a part-time bookbinder in a library, a UPS driver’s assistant, a speed-reading teacher, and an SAT tutor. There’s some pretty excellent stories from those things that have served me well in interviews.

  23. kelsey
    kelsey says:

    This was the reason I decided not to continue on with my PhD- I didn’t know what I was doing or why. Unfortunately my husband thinks it was a bad decision. But I am ready to work. I was lucky and had a research assistant stipend during my masters program and had all my schooling paid for. I gained valuable experience in research. However, when I went into the peace corps, all that schooling was no longer valuable. However, in some fields (like if I want to go into school counseling) I will have to eventually get a more advanced degree, as some jobs require it.

  24. Justine
    Justine says:

    I’m getting my MBA at night, work-paid because they said it was either spend 8 years in the lab or 2 years getting an MBA to move into a better role. I was wondering what your opinion was of work sponsored graduated degrees?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This example seems quite exceptional because you have a guarantee that you will get a job that you absolutely want if you just go to school at night for two years, for free. This is not really what grad school is about in the US. This is more like what corporate training is about, and it’s why your company is paying for it.

      Corporate training: Great. Say yes every time.


      • Vanessa
        Vanessa says:

        This is basically my story as well, except I’m paying for my own degree. I’m doing it part-time, on top of my full-time job, to get into a specialized field. My own employer has not told me that I will be promoted once finished, but I’ve been informed elsewhere that I would be hired after finishing. I also live in Canada.

        I’m curious about you opinion — I thought long and hard about this before I started my program, mostly because of things I’ve read and heard from you.

  25. Brad
    Brad says:

    A two year unexplained gap is better than a completed graduate degree? The interviewer (assuming you even get an interview) will assume you did odd jobs? Why would they assume that, instead of assuming you spent the time playing video games in your parents’ basement?

    It’s axiomatic that something is preferable to nothing.

    • Shandra
      Shandra says:

      Yeah, I was thinking this too…how does a bunch of unmentioned survival jobs – not to mention fake, if that is the assumption – somehow demonstrate direction and self-guided learning.

      I think it is very, very good advice to say: Employers will not be impressed by your grad degree and you will have to sell them on it the way you would a bunch of survival jobs, explaining how you discovered you passion for x thing the company does and how y part of grad school was a place you had to be a quick learner who was proactive. I think it is fine to downplay it. But in most cases I think a two year gap where it might be assumed you sponged off parents/boyfriend/girlfriend and went clubbing a lot is not preferable.

  26. KW
    KW says:

    You have a strange view of graduate school, in the sense that you believe the majority of people pay for their degrees. Perhaps in terminal master’s programs, but the vast majority of graduate students working towards a PhDs receive stipends and do not pay tuition to get their degree. Even in MBA programs, many, many companies pay for their employees to attend. If you are going to make claims towards paying for graduate degrees, at least limit it to those folks who are doing so!

    • Jake
      Jake says:


      What’s the opportunity cost for getting a PHD? Most PHD programs will require 4 to 8 years to complete.

      Stipends really depend upon the program and school. Biomedical program = no problem. Humanities program be prepared to supplement your income.

      Company paid degrees have costs too. Most employers require repayment if you leave within a certain period time. Very few companies will quickly promote someone upon completing an advanced program. I have known many people that decided to repay their company because they could do much better by going to another employer after graduation.

      • KW
        KW says:

        If people do much better by repaying their employer than that serves to reinforce the point that the degree provides some market-place benefit, at least for those who aren’t trying to just “cut losses” (for which one would have to wonder why they wouldn’t stay put). And sure, opportunity costs can be quite extensive by removing oneself from the market place for a period of time. But there can be quite significant opp. costs to NOT getting an advanced degree in one’s field. It is a tricky calculation, but my point is that the blanket analogy that folks are dropping thousands of dollars to pay for their tuition for a graduate degree is just flatly inaccurate in many, many fields. Others in this board have made the point after me as well.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      Here’s the thing: most PhD students have teaching assistentships which pay tuition, and a small stipend. Most pay maybe $1,000 a month (only for the months you are in classes). At least this is the case at our state university here in the South. Anyway. I think the biggest loss is in retirement contributions (there are none), and lost salary during those years. Who wants to live on $10,000 a year? So yes, school is “free” but no one I know is actually going without incurring debt. They are simply taking out loans to live off of, instead of taking out loans for tuition.

  27. Mark
    Mark says:

    Instinctively, I agree with the point pasted below. Wondering if there is some research to support the point?

    “There is huge correlation between success at work and ability to be a self-learner.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The fastest growing fields are mobile apps, social media and online publishing. People over 35 did not go to school for this stuff. They taught it to themselves, after graduation.


  28. GingerR
    GingerR says:

    I always like to read this kind of thing because I felt bad for years that I didn’t go to graduate school. Truth be told, I wasn’t a good student.

    Instead I got a job and got my employer to pay for some training. I have a job I like a lot.

    Fast forward almost 30 years, the college smarty-pants I always envied aren’t doing nearly as well as I am. Turns out well focused technical skills garner more rewards of the financial kind.

    Probably it wasn’t such a bad thing I wasn’t a good student!

  29. Heroine Worshiper
    Heroine Worshiper says:

    Gaps in the resumes are the hardest times. Instead of sitting in traffic 10 hours a week & blaming someone else, you have to produce something. It’s like 2 ordinary day jobs.

  30. Sam
    Sam says:

    While I agree with the overarching premise that grad school may not be the silver bullet it used to be and going forward appears to be even less of a value with the price of tuition vs. post grad opportunities, the data still bears out the most important thing- those with graduate and professional degrees make more money than those with undergraduate degrees only. Furthermore, the collaborative skills and networking with other optimizers are the intrinsic returns that being a motivated self-learner can’t give you.

  31. Arturo
    Arturo says:

    I like when Penelope posts topics like this. I got an MBA in Marketing from a regionally accredited online school. Penelope told me not to get one in a webinar years ago, but I was already half-way through it. Anyway, it’s challenging me to look at how I can make this MBA relevant on my resume. I have been in the teaching field for 10+ years so it is unrelated to my job. I have generated a lot of ideas since reading the post. Thanks Penelope for the post and to Wendy Ph.D for her response about emphasizing Grad School Roles on the resume and placing the Degree on the bottom.

  32. Louise
    Louise says:

    Simply happy that you included “gaps” in your post — I needed some resume guidance in this regard. Much appreciated.

  33. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    I went to grad school because I wanted to be a scientist. A PhD in your field is not optional if you want to be a professional scientist.

    I wanted to be a scientist because I was passionate about science, and at 21 I didn’t know that I was asking myself the wrong questions about how to choose a career field.

    Between a scholarship and teaching, I was making money on a par with friends who were freshly in the workforce. A few years into it I figured out that being a professional scientist was not the smartest choice for me (job opportunities and salary), but having come so far I needed to finish the degree.

    In my first post-academic full time job, my salary was equal to what I would have made if I’d stayed on the science career path and worked a post-doc. I also essentially stepped into a management role without having to pay my dues as an entry level person.

    If you think working an entry level job is more ‘adult life’ than doing a PhD, then you are completely clueless about what PhDs are doing (at least science ones). I’ve been on both sides. I can’t think of any job working for an employer that has more autonomy, more challenge, and more self-directed learning than was required to do my PhD. Maybe starting your own business would be about the same though.

    It freaks me out that you’re so clueless, because then probably most my potential employers are clueless too. The trick will be getting people to understand what the hell I was actually doing for those years. Hint: it doesn’t involve assignments or grades.

  34. Georgia
    Georgia says:

    The Brown Executive MBA program advertisement is the banner at the top of the page right now. For a second, I thought this was part of the photo art, but no, it is just a moment of irony.

    To speak to this post from the perspective of an HR Director, I view gaps in resumes as ‘bad’ if they occur in the middle of your career or if they are recent. A gap 10 years ago, I don’t care about, so including a graduate degree to fill that time isn’t nearly as relevant. A recent gap however, is better filled with graduate school than left blank because I don’t particularly care if you can dance, sing, weave baskets. I want to be sure you weren’t making license plates for the state for those “gap” years. Or that you weren’t playing video games in mom’s basement.

    If your education was more than a few years ago and you are working in your field, per Penelope, your degree strengthens your resume so include it. If your degree is remotely relevant to your career, I also say include it. If you have never used your degree, including it on your resume may actually hurt you for all the reasons Penelope indicated. I want my job candidates to be focused and passionate about their career field of choice (be it finance or manual laborer) so the resume should be targeted to display targeted focus and passion. If the grad school makes you well rounded (rather than focused and passionate) exclude it and save mention of your degree for one of those getting to know you conversations with your new boss some time down the road.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s funny. I’ve been watching the ads, too. Sometimes it drives me nuts that the ads are not in line with the editorial content. But I guess that’s the beauty of online advertising vs print advertising. There is charm in the dissonance — like inside joke.


  35. redrock
    redrock says:

    Grad school is good if you are intellectually inclined – if you desire to make a living of certain abilities, but not on others. Want to run a business? Grad school is probably not the way to go. Want to work for Intel or Micron? Get a science PhD, and make sure your BS grades add up to 3.5 at least. Want to become a professor? No way around it, but make sure you have a plan B. And the percentage of grad students really aiming for the academic route is probably less than 20% – indeed a smaller percentage than to make it off the Titanic alive (that one was about a 1 in three chance).

  36. Rhea Watson
    Rhea Watson says:

    I started reading your blog two years ago as I felt you had something different to say. You looked at situations differently, and made me do the same. A few times your advice was harsh, but I liked it for that. This blog however, is pure ignorance. You are echoing workplace sentiments ofr ‘the real world’, students being childish, scared and ‘bookish’. Your blog says nothing new, it says students could learn more out there while getting paid, instead of in the ‘safe’ environment of grades. I could go to any shop, pub or office and hear these same things from people who have never been to uni and most fervently from those who failed at it.
    Some employers do carry these ignorant judgements, but some employers are also homophobic and/racist, that doesn’t make it right.
    Education is invaluable in itself, anyone who has gone to grad school, who has chosen their subject because they love it and achieves high results thinks the same as me. You can make anything work on your cv, I do and I kno others have. Not to mention the many job s which do need the qualification to get into, doing what you love is the most important thing. If you wish to progagate ignorance, then carry on, but we would all benefit from educated bosses and open minded work colleagues. I have worked and been in education for years, there is a dangerous gap emerging between the narrow minded work mentality and the educated mentality. The too focused closed mindedness of work bosses and colleagues causes an environment of discrimination, judgement, and error. The same kind of sentiments I’m coming to see from your blog. You say ‘read a book’, but out of the environment of education it can be hard to put the learning into context, or know where to learn more. An error you have obviously made.
    Now it is my turn to make a snap judgement. You say you have authority to say all of this because you did an English masters, but an English masters is so different from other subjects, as all subjects are different from each other.
    If you didn’t benefit from the university environment, then that says more about you then it does education. If you couldnt utilise/tailor the experience on your cv, then it is again an inadequacy on your part.

  37. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    In my country (South Africa), an extra year for an honours degree is usually helpful and almost never detrimental. It shows that one is capable of working and thinking independently. Also, law in SA may be done as a college degree – but the best hires are those who first studied something else, because a law degree on its own (here, anyway) teaches rote learning of rules, whereas a college degree in something challenging teaches independent thinking.

    However, I am beginning to understand why Penelope argues against going to grad school – in America. Since the quality is very similar across schools in SA, it doesn’t really matter which university someone went to. But I have a friend who moved to the US to do a second Master’s degree, since she felt that an American degree would be more respected. She took the first school that accepted her, which was not an Ivy League school. To her surprise, she found the American Master’s degree less challenging than even college had been, never mind honours and her first masters, and her final paper was required to be the length of a second-year term paper at college. It seems my friend’s American masters IS going to be useless – but her South African one was not, and got her a job which will be waiting for her when she returns.

  38. JD
    JD says:

    If you went to grad school but didn’t finish, leave it off. Killing time because you were lost, whether in grad school or somewhere else, doesn’t help your resume. If you graduated, that at least demonstrates that you can pursue a goal to completion, even if the goal itself is of dubious value.

  39. AES
    AES says:

    I disagree. My MA in museum administration may appear useless in my current career in communications in the financial industry, but in fact that graduate degree prepared me for the working world in a way that an undergraduate degree never could. I engaged in a much higher level of critical thinking and analysis, authored more in depth research papers, and honed my communications skills. The fact that someone committed to higher education should never count against them. Previously I worked in the arts and humanities field and no one would even consider you for a position if you did not have at least one graduate degree.

    • Kathy Cox
      Kathy Cox says:

      I agree with you. Higher education should not count against anyone. I wonder what happens when someone, who dropped the degree in the interview process, later sees an opportunity at the company in which master degreed individuals are competing. Do they suddenly pull their masters degree out of the hat?

  40. jen
    jen says:

    I totally agree with you about grad school, with one acceptation. If you are looking for a job as a teacher (at least in my state) you don’t even get in the door without a masters in education. It is not my field…but I was at a friend’s house and looking at his screening check list (he is a principal) and they have hundreds of candidates and you don’t make the first cut without a masters in education..and several other criteria.

  41. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Interesting post, although there are definitely parts of this that I disagree with. I did an MA in Women’s Studies because I thought I wanted to become a university professor, and the MA was a necessary step in that career trajectory. However, after re-entering academia (I worked for 3 years in between degrees) I realized I preferred working in the non-profit sector. My degree was only 1 year, and was mostly funded, so I’m glad I did it. Otherwise, I always would have felt that I hadn’t pursued my dream of becoming an academic.

    Interestingly, although Women’s Studies is probably seen as a ‘useless’ degree by many, I’ve found it’s been really helpful for the sorts of jobs I’ve pursued (working at a homeless shelter for women, working on a violence prevention program for girls, and providing counselling and support to families affected by intellectual disabilities). Having an MA helps set me apart from other candidates, although I also make a point to really show how what I learned during my schooling is relevant to each job that I’m applying for. Of course, having really great work experience has probably been more important to my success than having an MA (although being able to say that I assisted with a course on women’s health while doing my MA – including units on mental health, racism in the health care system, and women with disabilities – has been great for interviews in the non-profit sector). I guess my point is just that it really depends on what sorts of jobs you want, and that including grad school can be useful, as long as you can show it’s relevant (even if not directly related) to whatever job you want.

  42. Jake
    Jake says:

    PHDs are meant to be the training grounds for someone to become a researcher (probably life long) in their field of study.

    If you want to be a scientist, medicial researcher or other various research type jobs; a PHD aligns nicely with that goal.

    However, if you apply for one of my lower level finance jobs after recently completing your PHD (Yes, I have seen this with nearly every job posting – even postings before the recession) ; I will make some assumptions.

    First I’m going to assume that you are not very good at what you do – otherwise you would be employed in your preferred field of research. This makes you a bigger risk than the other candidates in the pool because I do not know if you can do better in this field.

    My other assumption will be that you are good in your field but you are burnt out or have other issues that are preventing employment in your field. Again that makes you a look risk. I do not want to be someone’s defacto therapy program.

    I might be passing up good candidates by doing this. However, I’m always able to find good candidates.

    If you have work experience after the PHD program, I will focus upon that work experience and not worry about the PHD.

    • lusia
      lusia says:

      This is a bunch of you know what. Before I had my M.S. degree I had a problem finding a job due to recession. I was recruited to do many projects that fell through. People who were in my graduate program just 3-5 years before me would get a ton of projects to work on, even without interviewing for them. Those were the times when consulting firms needed grad students to help them with qualitative research or writing. These projects gave these people a lot of experienced that prepared them for their future roles. I wasn’t that lucky, while I and my colleagues were recruited we didn’t get to do as many projects because many got cancelled during recession. Because of that I had a gap and didn’t earn that experience but I would be happy to start in an entry level job. I am committed to all projects I’m doing, I’m smart, very innovative, very organized and I improve the projects that I work on. It’s sad to see that instead of doing your job and recruiting the best candidate, you are making assumptions that haven’t been confirmed by research. In many cases those assumptions are not even true. You should actually be happy that someone has the humility to start from the entry-level. I think that says something better about one’s character than when someone is lying on their resume.

  43. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    Ms. Trunk: In the middle ages they used to burn heretics at the stake. I wonder if there are people in the higher education industry who read this and secretly would like to do this to you? Did not the venerable Bill Gates drop out of M.I.T.? I wonder what he puts on his resume? I wonder what his credit score is? Maybe in high school all guidance counselors should ask each freshmen, “if everyone got paid the same. what would you do”? Trite yes but maybe not.

  44. Yuliana
    Yuliana says:

    Gaps in your resume are great! It’s an opportunity to tell an interesting story and differentiate yourself from other candidates. It’s a chance to make yourself memorable.

    I am a Queen of resume gaps. I used to stress out about it not knowing how to present them in an interview. And then I tried a different approach. I started seeing them for what they truly were: opportunities. Every gap was a chance for me to reinvent myself, gain a new perspective, do something completely different and push my comfort zone. I think it’s much worse to stay in some job you absolutely cannot stand and cringe and the thought of Monday morning, but you “tough it out” because how are you going to explain those resume gaps? (recognize that’s probably your dad’s voice in your head)

    You are not learning anything besides how to be miserable for eight hours a day. Have the guts to quit. Try something completely different. Fail. And then sell that to your next employer. Because who does not want to hear a good story?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Your comment about gaps being an opportunity to be memorable in an interview – that’s great and so on target.


  45. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    Okay, you believe graduate school is a bad choice for most people. (I don’t necessarily disagree.) But there is a problem in the educational system that makes grad school a requirement for some.
    High school has been dumbed down so much over the past 60 years or so that a high-school diploma is virtually worthless now. It proves you had a pulse and didn’t get kicked out of school.
    Because high school diplomas are given away the way AOL compact discs used to be, people have to go to college just for a basic education. Most bachelor’s degrees prove that the recipient is trainable, and that’s all. High school diplomas don’t even prove that.
    So the problem is that people who need to show more than trainability are going to have to pick up that academic knowledge that they should have acquired in their undergrad years somewhere else — either in graduate courses or from their company’s training department.

    • Ellie
      Ellie says:


      If you went to a good school (top 5 or top 10) people will be interested in your graduate work. If not- you need to aim higher. I am job hunting/career changing right now, and the best companies are very interested in my graduate work.

      Furthermore, the alumni network is amazing. How about leave a mediocre graduate school off your resume?

  46. Steve C
    Steve C says:

    P. I think you are getting a little OCD on this subject, but aside from that, here is my take on the discussion: first of all, misrepresenting yourself on a resume(even by omission) is always a bad idea, for too many reasons to go into, but mostly unless you are a really good liar, or maybe a really good actor, you will be sniffed out by any interviewer with any experience and qualifications for their position.
    Secondly, you are over-looking the fact that graduate degrees in most fields, at bona fide universities, are really difficult to complete successfully. The world is full of DNF degrees, including the Bill Gates examples. They are the exception, not the rule. You should be proud of making it through. The problem is no one ever told you that one of the most important parts of getting a degree is the job of putting it to work for you when you are done. This is one of the questions you should ask yourself, and others, before you dive in: are you really positioned to make it work for you, and how are you going to do it?
    Lastly, if you are using Human Resources people to plot out your life’s journey, you aren’t exactly getting your advice from the best resources available. You are most likely not dealing with unbiased individuals, probably with people who have no degrees at all, much less a master’s or Phd.
    Even if you do feel like it was a personal mistake, what is so awful about admitting that and developing a way to express that and build on it? There are plenty of people who ended up on different paths from the one they started out on. It’s not something you should go through life being ashamed of.
    If you are applying for positions that disdain higher level degrees, you are aiming too low. You should be re-thinking your job goals,not your educational history.

  47. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Great post Penelope. I run into more people during my work in federal accounting who are impressed at how smart I am regardless of my graduate degrees or related accounting certifications. Being young and competent in the workplace has its advantages and grad school delays or gets rid of that possibility.

  48. Steve C
    Steve C says:

    This post reminds me of a small article a while back in the local Palo Alto rag where someone asked: “Why would anyone in their right mind buy a home in Palo alto right now, when they can rent for less” or something like that. It was essentially a discussion on the economic wisdom/efficiency of owning versus renting given the huge cost of buying a home in the bay area.
    There were something like 10,000 responses to that in the comments sections in something like 24 hours, and the responses fell on the side of those who owned already versus those who would normally buy but wouldn’t under the current market conditions.
    It was a very divisive subject, and drew a huge response.
    That’s about the same thing that is happening with this subject.

  49. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I agree with you. Unless you are in a field where a Masters Degree/Ph D is critical (Medical/Science) do not put it on your resume.

    I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum as the one who is hired and the one who is doing the hiring. In every company I worked for, the top management either had only some college or graduated from college and have one year of business school under the belts. They do not want to hire someone with more education then themselves, in fact I’ve actaully been told that by one COO.

    Most upper management have college age children who are or anticipates to get the master’s degree and all they see is their children putting off work while draining their pockets and other mouting school debt(and keeping them on their health insurance for as long as possible which keeps their premiums up high) Putting that info on your resume just reminds them of this and your resume goes on the bottom of the list. Sad and unfair, but true.

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