Should You Go To Grad School? When it’s a good idea . . . and when it’s not

  • “There’s a recession and the job market is kind of tough. May as well head into grad school for a few years till the economy turns around!”
  • “So I’ve finished my degree, but I’m not really sure what to do with my life. I’m pretty good at school, so maybe I’ll stick around in grad school for a few more years and think about life goals later.”
  • “Everyone else I know seems to be heading straight into a grad program – I guess I’d better jump on board that train too!”
  • “You have to get a graduate degree to be able to make money or get the good jobs.”

Maybe some of the above thoughts have crossed your mind at one point or another. Going to grad school can seem like a pretty safe bet in a sorry economy, or can be a good way to stay in your “I’m a student” comfort-zone, rather than dealing with the working world.

And for sure, grad school is great. Learning more and getting an advanced degree is never a bad thing. But is it always your best bet?

There are times when it may not be. If you’re going back to grad school for all the wrong reasons, you may find yourself disappointed, and feeling some serious regret about debt you’ve gained or income you’ve missed over the years you spent in those hallowed halls of higher learning.

So let’s explore some of the Grad School Myths.

1. Ride Out The Recession

Is grad school a good place to ride out the recession? If it’s going to be tough getting a job anyway, why not stick it out in school for a few more years? After all, school can be a good answer to the recession.

It can be, but it may not necessarily be, a number of experts say. In the current economic environment, a masters won’t really help you get a better job – unless you know exactly what you want to do and know for sure a grad degree will help you accomplish it. As Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career management at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario says, when it comes to grad school, prospective employers “don’t want to hear you were waiting out the economy; they want to hear it was part of a grander plan”. If you’re using grad school as a “stay of execution” to avoid dealing with the job market – well, it may be better to grab the bull by the horns and go look for that first after-degree job, rather than get yourself all caught up in a tough program to get an advanced degree you don’t truly want.

2. I got my degree but I don’t know what to do with it! I guess there’s always grad school . . .

Grad school is a huge investment. Time, money, and hard work are all required. Sacrifices too – income you could be making at a full-time job, debts you could be paying off, even just good times you could be having, like evenings spent out of the house with friends instead of in a secluded university computer lab.

If you’re only going to grad school because you don’t know what else to do, you may well end up resenting the work required and the sacrifices you’ve made. Spending a good portion of your youth as a  struggling student is not ideal if you don’t have a darn good reason for it. If you don’t know what to do, getting out in the work field or even doing some volunteering/unpaid internships/travelling can be hugely beneficial in helping you find your true passion, and then choosing to invest your time/money as needed to follow those dreams.

3. Everyone I know is doing it!

It can be a little discouraging when you graduate from a Bachelor’s degree and feel like all your friends and classmates are heading back to school in the fall. “I’m going to do my Master’s! I’m going to law school! I got into an MBA program!” You might think your “Well, I guess I’ll be looking for some kind of job” response sounds pretty lame. It might be tempting to apply to some grad programs just to feel like you’re keeping up.

Well, you’re smart. You know that doing something just because everybody else does it isn’t a really good strategy. But if the temptation is there, let’s talk about it practically.  Are you really going to get a better job or make more money because of that grad degree?

4. You can’t get a good job without a grad degree.

Umm . . . no! While a grad degree sure can help you get a better job, if all you have to show off is that degree, employers might look at your education not quite as fondly as you hope.

According to Lauren Friese, head of (a career website for students and new grads) the opportunities you can gain from getting good work experience – whether its paid work, volunteering, or unpaid internships – shows a prospective employer your interest and drive in your field of interest. And that reflects well in a job interview.

Graduate degree holders who are seeking a job but have very little experience might also run into problems because employers see them as over-qualified for entry-level positions, but not experienced enough for more advanced jobs. As well, according to Ms. Friese, they may “see the person as more expensive” or that they will have “higher expectations in the workplace.”

And remember that a grad degree doesn’t mean you necessarily have great work-related skills. Soft skills, such as maturity, interpersonal skills, and communication skills, are very important in the workplace and are highly valued by employers. According to Wendy Cuiker, the Associate Dean, academic, at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, “Being a well-rounded person requires having a well-rounded background that includes school, work, volunteering, and a social life.” That “well-roundedness” will show up on your resume and in your interview, and more than likely it’ll be seen as a definite plus.

5. Money, moneymoney 

Does a graduate degree really pay off? Well, as a recent article in Maclean’s magazine points out, a study by the C.D. Howe Institute shows that going to grad school doesn’t always pay off. In many cases, a bachelor’s degree is dollar-for-dollar a better deal.

Here are the stats from that study, courtesy of Maclean’s: after an undergrad degree, men can expect an average annual return (after taxes) of 12 percent on what they paid for tuition, books and living expenses. For women, that return is 14 percent.

For a master’s degree, men can expect an annual rate of return of just 2.9 percent, and women of 5 percent. Ph.D’s are even less – women end up with a 3.6 percent return, and men come out in the red!

The article acknowledges that grad school does unlock earning potential, but the very high costs of tuition and living expenses weighed against all the income lost during the degree can mean that your bank account doesn’t end up bigger.

So I should forget about grad school?

Not at all! If you would consider grad school no matter what the economic climate, no matter what your friends are doing, no matter what the costs/sacrifices involved, because you truly have a desire to know more about the field you are pursuing or truly know what you want to do with life and know the grad degree would help you do it – then grad school may well be a perfect fit for you!

If you think you might like a grad degree but aren’t too sure, there is nothing wrong with getting out there and gaining some real-world experience. It’ll help you feel much more secure when you want to go back to school that you are making the right choice, and all that extra life experience will be great when you do get out into the job market with your educational credentials and your experience to support you as a candidate.

If you know just want you want to be – a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a university professor – then yes, going straight into grad school may be fine (although extra life experience is always good to have on those applications, and just in general).

Follow Your Own Path!

So really, it’s a personal choice. Remember that – make the choice that works best for you. Don’t panic because of the economy, because you aren’t sure what to do, because everyone you know seems to be going, or because you think you need a grad degree for a better job. To go back to grad school is a big decision – make it carefully, and you’ll make the right choice for you!

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