Why going to grad school isn’t always a good idea

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I’ve never subscribed to the idea that going to grad school is a good strategy for escaping a bad economy.  Is the job market tough? Yes. Is it particularly tough right now for recent college grads? Yes. Does it make sense to wait it out another year or two (or three or four) in the hopes that the economy will be better when you graduate? Not if that’s your only reason for going. Getting a graduate degree takes significant time, money and energy. What’s the point if you come out just as confused as when you went in, further into debt, and still not competitive for the job market?

Some of the most common assumptions people make about going to grad school (in general and particularly in a bad economy) include:

The economy will be better by the time I get out of grad school

Hopefully the job market will continue to improve over the next few years, but it’s hard to say exactly what it’ll look like and you may find it just as competitive. Some industries/sectors are struggling more than others, and some fields have always had limited opportunities. Job prospects for a wanna-be philosophy professor are not likely to be dramatically better in 5 years than they are now. Make sure you research the job trends for the fields you’re considering, by talking to people in those fields and researching sites such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook www.bls.gov/ooh. (Doing this kind of background research, by the way, is essential to any kind of career-related decision-making, not just going to grad school.)

I’ll figure out what I want to do when I get to grad school 

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Most graduate programs are far more specialized than undergraduate degrees, and don’t usually give you time to “explore”. You don’t necessarily need to have an exact job title in mind, but you are expected to have some idea of a career path, and why that program would be a good fit for you. I didn’t know exactly what area of higher education I wanted to work in when I went to graduate school, but I knew I wanted to advise college students, and that was specific enough to identify relevant programs.

An advanced degree can make up for my lack of experience

Some fields don’t require or even care about graduate degrees. Many communications jobs, for example, emphasize relevant experience over advanced education. Unless you also get additional work/internship experience during your grad program, you’re still going to be competing with candidates who don’t have graduate degrees, but do have more work experience.  You could end up being over-educated but under-qualified.

I’ll make more money in my field with a graduate degree

Educational level is merely one of multiple factors that may affect the salary level of a given position. Others include experience, industry, size of company, a specific department’s budget, or geography.  As mentioned above, not all jobs require graduate degrees, and education may take a back seat to some of the other factors.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t ever go to graduate school. But if you can’t explain how you want to use that degree or why, then maybe postponing it is a better option (the world is not going to end if you work a few years before going to grad school). Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re going to have to find a job at some point anyway, and you may just be postponing the inevitable.

Tina Mello is Associate Director of University Career Services, and has worked at Northeastern for over 10 years. Nicknamed the “information guru” by other members of the staff, she loves to research and read about various job/career/education topics. For more career advice, follow her on twitter @CareerCoachTina.

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