You wake up in your swanky downtown apartment, get dressed in your favorite business-casual attire and speed off to work in your trendy new coupe.
At your new job, you no longer have to perform the menial tasks that bogged down your previous “desk job.” Now, you command respect. Whether you’re delivering high-power orders in the boardroom or traveling overseas to monitor the status of your organization’s latest startup, you have the authority to make real change.
When you drive home after eight fulfilling hours of work, you cannot help but smile in eager anticipation of the next day. You have finally attained your dream.
Fact: Graduate school is not a golden ticket to this reality.
While most of us know great accomplishments require hard work over long periods of time, many are tempted to believe graduate school can automatically launch eager students into dream careers where passions and skills relentlessly thrive.
Unfortunately, an extra line on your resume will never possess miraculous power, even if it costs six figures and has numerous “MBAs,” “M.Div.’s” or “M.S.W.’s” attached to it. Many ambitious students complete graduate school and find themselves stuck in heaps of debt with few job prospects.
With that said, there are many legitimate professional and personal advantages to having a master’s or doctorate degree under your belt, and depending on your ambitions, those could be worth the sacrifice of a lot of time and money.
These contradictory perspectives show that before deciding whether to commit a few years of your life to reading obscure journals full of six-syllable words, the question has to be asked: Is grad school worth it?
I want to outline a number of pros and cons an admissions counselor likely won’t tell you. I’m no education expert, but I’ve jumped through enough higher-education hoops to know the practical advantages and disadvantages of graduate school that are often left out of university welcome brochures. Consider this Grad School 101.
Plain and simple: If you’re coming in with the wrong motivations, graduate school could be a whopping mistake.
Dissatisfaction with your current circumstances, feeling obligated to continue school, lack of direction or a desire to spend a few more years after undergrad on a college campus playing Xbox until 4 a.m. every day are all dangerous reasons to consider going back to school.
So before devoting any more time to exploring prestigious-looking university websites with smiling models on their homepages, ask yourself this fundamental question: Are you considering graduate school because you have a vision for your career or because you lack one?
I once knew someone who spent weeks applying to 11 different grad programs in separate fields, ranging from politics and business to entertainment and technology.
While some people may enjoy shelling out hundreds of dollars to write lengthy existential essays on the convergence of experience and intellect, the application process is typically grueling and frustratingly expensive. Therefore, before you apply—and more importantly, before you decide whether to attend—prayerfully define your career goals and how you believe a particular graduate program could help or hinder you in achieving them.
More than likely, if you’re not sure what you want to do but attend grad school for lack of a better option, you could be pigeonholed in a field you do not like with debt you don’t want to pay.
For help solidifying your ambitions, consider asking some professionals for “informational interviews” (a fancy phrase for boosting people’s egos by buying them coffee and asking them about their jobs). But if you know what you want to do and feel highly motivated to become an expert in that field, grad school could certainly be worth it.
A Word to the Wise
Obtaining a graduate degree can be a great way to stand out from the crowd. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 10 percent of Americans hold master’s degrees while more than 30 percent hold bachelor’s degrees.
However, before you assume an extra degree will boost your chances of landing a great job, do your homework and figure out what types of degrees the people who get hired in your field actually hold.
For example, if you want to work for an international relief agency, you may be better suited acquiring a tangible skill such as nursing, urban planning or business administration than obtaining a master’s degree in international development (of course, this varies depending on the organization).
Some organizations hire most of their employees for entry-level positions, so you could actually educate yourself out of a job by obtaining a master’s degree. On the other hand, if you have a strong passion for a less-tangible subject, such as anthropology or global health, you should not allow a competitive job market to kill your dreams of becoming an expert in that niche.
Although this seems obvious, it is important to remember that you do not have to go to graduate school to study a subject in-depth. Half of grad school consists of reading academic journals, and chances are, you have internet access and therefore have the ability to type phrases like “historical verisimilitude” or “technological disintermediation” into Google Scholar.
Unlimited knowledge is at your fingertips for free, therefore, master’s degrees and Ph.D.s are only worth the effort if you know you want to make a given subject area your profession.
The Real Benefit
Let’s talk about the real perks. Graduate school can increase your mental stamina, boost your professional credibility and enable you to dominate one category of Trivial Pursuit, but its greatest benefit can be summarized in one word: access.
Giant corporations and professional organizations rarely open their inner doors to random strangers, but graduate students have the opportunity to apply for internships, fellowships and various other “-ships” with these entities. Moreover, the same professors who might have seen you as one name on a long class roster during your undergrad will begin treating you as a peer, inviting you to take part in their cutting-edge research.
By enrolling in a respected graduate program, you are grafted into a network of intellectuals and thought leaders who can connect you with bosses and bigwigs in the real world. It’s therefore essential to consider where a school is and to whom it’s connected before applying.
When I arrived in Washington, D.C. in 2012, I knew no one and had no job prospects. Over the course of my studies, however, one professor connected me to one journalist who connected me to my current boss. The access has been priceless.
The Dreaded Question
If you’re still seriously considering graduate school, you have to answer the final dreaded question: How will you pay for it?
There are many biblical debates as to whether or not debt is OK. When I began considering taking out loans to help pay for classes, multiple friends called me and quoted Proverbs, saying, “Dude, don’t you know? ‘The borrower is the slave of the lender.’”
Since I did not go to graduate school for theology, I will have to defer to my seminarian brethren to define the circumstances in which debt is OK. Certainly, grad school is not worth financial ruin, but with a combination of scholarships, loans and a lot of frugal living, I believe an advanced degree is worth taking on some debt if it enables you to take a significant jump forward in your career.
Of course, debt can be an unbearable burden if you do not have a plan in place to pay it off. Before signing the dotted line to receive $40,000 in federal loans, for example, ask yourself if the kind of job you will get once you have your degree will give you a salary large enough to repay this amount. If you plan to work in the nonprofit field, you may qualify for federal “public service loan forgiveness,” where your remaining federal debts are wiped away after 10 years of making payments while working at a nonprofit.
The main point is this: Debt is not an issue to take lightly. It should only be used if no other options exist after you have sought out grants or scholarships and prayerfully sought the advice of individuals with financial wisdom.
So, is it worth it?
Before I officially decided to go to graduate school, I remember thinking, “Why won’t God simply tell me what to do?” Although I know some people have received very specific direction from God on graduate school, more than likely, you will have to rely on limited wisdom and knowledge to decide whether graduate school is worth it for you.
This may seem risky, but just as Abraham obeyed God and followed Him “not knowing where he was going,” you can take a leap of faith even if you don’t know exactly where you will land on the other side.
Once you have prayerfully weighed the pros and cons, you should feel the freedom to decide what is best. Graduate school may not be a golden ticket to your dream job, but it can be one valuable step toward it, and if you’re a nerd like me, it’s a great excuse to spend countless hours reading 10-pound books while connecting with professionals who can give you a leg up.
So now I will ask you: Is grad school worth it for you?