Is Graduate School Really an Investment?

My sister has said she feels badly for young professionals because they are skilled and want to do more than their jobs allow, but without the years of experience, they can’t be in the positions that really challenge them or are particularly meaningful.

I think something that contributes to this is the way our culture presents higher education and the pathway to the golden career! We runrunrun through school, gain minimal experience, and expect a big fancy job with a big fancy paycheck and big fancy tasks. Unfortunately, this is the reality for a rare few. I really wish that people would talk to youth honestly about the MANY options they have and the real pros and cons.

Penelope Trunk wrote about graduate school recently and I love what she has to say:
It’s pretty well established that non-science degrees are not necessary for a job. In fact, the degrees cost you too much moneyrequire too long of a commitment, and do not teach you the real-life skills they promise.


Then she goes on to comment on the six most common arguments people make for graduate school and why they’re wrong. 


1. My parents are paying. 
Get them to buy you a company instead… if you spent the next three years running a company, even if it failed, you would be more employable than you are now, and you’d have a good sense of where your skill set fits in the workplace


2. It’s free. 
But you’re spending your time. You will show (on your resume) that you went to grad school. Someone will say, “Why did you go to grad school?” Will you explain that it was free? After all, it’s free to go home every night after work and read on a single topic as well. So in fact, what you are doing is taking an unpaid internship in a company that guarantees that the skills you built in the internship will be useless.


3. It’s a time to grow and get to know myself
If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper. 


Bah! I love that one. Yes, therapy. 


4. The degree makes me stand out in my field. 
Yes, if you want to stand out as someone who couldn’t get a job. Given the choice between getting paid to learn the ropes on the job and paying for someone to teach you, you look like an underachiever to pick the latter.


Before I went to graduate school I solicited a lot of advice: work force v. school and people had very different opinions. Obviously, there are times when I wish I had gone the other way. I don’t think my degree is useless but I don’t know that it has made me stand out…especially with such a large group of peers who have the very same degree. 


5. I’m planning on teaching
Forget it. There are no teaching jobs.


6. A degree makes job hunting easier. 
It makes it harder. Forget the fact that you don’t need a graduate degree in the humanities to get any job in the business world. The biggest problem is that the degree makes you look unemployable. You look like you didn’t know what to do about having to enter the adult world, so you decided to prolong childhood by continuing to earn grades rather than money even though you were not actually helping yourself to earn money.


In some ways I think this statement is very true and applicable. I believed I couldn’t penetrate the public health field without a degree but people do it ALL the time. Why was I so different? I don’t know … but I think I was afraid to start working and stop schooling, especially when graduate school was always in the plan.


Obviously I am not the biggest fan of graduate school. Degrees seem to be a business transaction these days – you pay money, you get a piece of paper and some letters behind your name. I absolutely believe in the benefits of education but in today’s world, work experience is a bigger asset and more rare to come across. 

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6 thoughts on “Is Graduate School Really an Investment?

  1. Penelope Trunk is smart, but in an effort to make her work more commercial, she made an ass of herself. The two of you should go fist each other while talking about how higher education is ruining the country. I'll repeat that last bit for you so that you hear how stupid it sounds; higher education is ruining the country.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I certainly do not think that higher education is ruining the country. In fact I'm not sure you'd see that anywhere in my post. However I do think it's far too expensive for what it is you get out of it. That's what needs to change. Until it does, experience seems to be worth more than the degree when it comes to finding a job. Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. As someone with a humanities degree, I pretty much agree with Anna. Too many people are being encouraged to go into grad school (especially in the humanities) by professors who are unaware of what's going on, lack perspective, or cling to strange idealistic visions of higher ed. It IS a degree factory where people get pushed through one hoop after another. The market is terrible and enthusiasm for a subject is just not enough to get you a job. So many of these students are "bright," but not brilliant and/or lack the people skills to teach, and it's sad to see them invest all this effort only to have to start over a new career in their early 30s. But universities will continue to take in grad cohorts because they need cheap TA labor. That's what it's about. Does anyone in this country really value intellectual development for its own sake anyway?

  4. Well, honestly, the first "Anonymous" comment is just mean-spirited trolling — I guess some people just feel a need to spew their venom while cowardly hiding behind an "anonymous" handle. Sad, really. Just sad.But as far as the Penelope Trunk stuff goes….Okay, Anna: In short, she is wrong. And here is why:1. "My parents are paying. Get them to buy you a company instead…" This applies ONLY to those people who want to go into business, which, I imagine, is (thankfully!) not everyone. She is assuming that most people ought to have a single goal: to make as much money as they can, and to be as "employable" as they can, through any means that would make them so. But is this a very short-sighted view of the kinds of things that people would want to do — and why is it such a bad thing if one's parents decide to "invest" in their child's intellectual development (which could also be their career-building development, by the way)? Yet instead of cutting out all the boring preliminaries of trying to figure out what one wants to do with one's life, she reduces any and all useful parental/familial involvement in one's future to one thing: cash.2. "It's free. But you're spending your time. You will show (on your resume) that you went to grad school. Someone will say, “Why did you go to grad school?” Will you explain that it was free? After all, it’s free to go home every night after work and read on a single topic as well. So in fact, what you are doing is taking an unpaid internship in a company that guarantees that the skills you built in the internship will be useless."This is just dumb. Graduate school is not about "going home and reading on a single topic." Nor is it like an "internship" where one acquires "useless" skills, unless one has a very distinct notion of what "useful" means.3. "It's a time to grow and get to know myselfIf you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy?"Seriously? "Therapy"? First, (most of the time) one does not go to graduate school to get to know oneself" — one goes to graduate schools because one ALREADY knows what one wants to do with one's life, and is willing to work very hard at it for very little money. Perhaps this kind of commitment is unfamiliar to Ms. Trunk. Second, this is just a cheap shot, and a gross (deliberate?) misreading of both therapy and graduate education.

  5. 4. "The degree makes me stand out in my field. Yes, if you want to stand out as someone who couldn’t get a job. Given the choice between getting paid to learn the ropes on the job and paying for someone to teach you, you look like an underachiever to pick the latter."She seems to (again, deliberately?) miss the point that the kinds of degrees that most graduate students seek are for jobs that REQUIRE a graduate degree (college professor, even a lot of k-12 teaching positions, not to mention legal, medical, and other specializations).5. "I'm planning on teachingForget it. There are no teaching jobs."False. There is a need for teachers (especially of science and mathematics), and even those of us in the humanities manage to find jobs — yes, it is hard, and it might take some time to find a good job, but hey, some of us care that much about what we do. Perhaps Ms. Trunk might want to check her facts and her presuppositions before engaging in such unsupported and uninformed generalizations.6. "A degree makes job hunting easier. It makes it harder. Forget the fact that you don’t need a graduate degree in the humanities to get any job in the business world."Again, see my earlier comment: not everyone who goes for a graduate degree (especially in the humanities!) wants a job "in the business world." Moreover, in my own experience, I have never met (an intelligent) business person who scoffs at an advanced degree — if he or she does, then this should tell you something about the attitude/environment/etc. of that particular company or organization — and you might be well advised to stay away!And finally, my favorite: "It’s pretty well established that non-science degrees are not necessary for a job." Wow, where do I start? Perhaps with "WHICH job"? "Well established" by whom? And what does she mean by "non-science" — do mathematics degrees not count? What about the social sciences? Psychology, etc…?Perhaps Ms. Trunk could use a refresher course from one of these useless humanities-degree holders in basic argument structure, research, and support.

  6. Anna, thanks for your commentary. That's exactly what I was hoping you'd say. It's obviously easy for me to be bitter about my personal graduate school experience but there are a lot of things you say that I absolutely agree with. You've given me lots to think about.

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