Should You Go to Grad School? A Rational Analysis


A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today’s 20-somethings. She currently works as an international media representative, traveling to a new country every 3 months to live and work. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. Follow Elaina on her blog Life Before 30 or @_LifeBefore30.

With application season firmly closed, the dwindling number of “I’m happy to announce I will be attending Wharton in the fall!” declarations may be a relief for many of us who have not yet figured out where grad school fits into our timeline. We’re busy working our day job, navigating a career transition, traveling, writing a blog, or launching a small business. Or all of the above. (As aspiring Escapees, we know how to hustle!)

But with so much hustling, when do we have time to go to grad school? Should we do an MBA or study law? Is that Master’s in International Affairs a good idea?

In reality, it seems like grad school has become a “rite of passage” for our generation. The only decision is when to go, not if. For an aspiring entrepreneur, mold-breaker, do-gooder, future-job-lover, is grad school a power boost in the right direction, or simply an expensive distraction?

Society and Peer Pressure

There are many reasons why we may or may not decide to pursue an advanced degree, all of which are highly dependent on our individual career goals and financial situation. In an ideal world, this decision would be completely rational, informed by a litany of concrete benefits that the expense, or debt, is guaranteed to produce.

However, the reality is most of the time we’re dazed and confused in the initial years away from the classroom playpen and when it seems like everyone is going to grad school, we think we better go, too.

It’s OK. I’m guilty of thinking this way, as well. I recognize the complexity of the less cerebral reasons to attend graduate programs, like prestige, societal or familial pressure, or simply a true passion for academia and desire for self-improvement through higher education.

But if we’re to be completely rational, there are really only a few and highly specific situations in which attending graduate school is truly necessary and, more importantly, a financially sound decision.

The Real Burden of Debt

For almost every career path, I believe that your goals can be realized through experience, self-education, and hard work. Like Frances Bridges says to Forbes, “Perseverance is cheaper than graduate school.”

According to The College Board, students in the United States took out an estimated $112 billion in student loans, with graduate and professional students accounting for more than $35 billion of the total in the 2011 academic year.

While not quite as dramatic as in the United States, the cost of education in the UK is also increasing to an average of $15,000 per year, whereas in Italy it is still less than $9,000.

What would your life look like if you took that money and invested it in a few new business ideas? If you traveled for a year? If you put it in the stock market? If you saved it so you could quit your job any time you wanted?

That kind of money can buy FREEDOM. And it all starts with a freedom from debt, especially during the formative years of your career when all your potential, creativity, ability to formulate your own path is in front of you.

Smart Decision-Making

I believe that the foundation for making an intelligent decision about graduate studies should rest on knowing exactly what you want to do first and then talking directly to people who are doing it. Was a graduate degree necessary? Did their peers attend graduate school? In what ways did it help their careers to have an advanced degree? In what ways did it hinder them?

Top reasons you SHOULD go to graduate school:

The degree you want is REQUIRED for your profession. You know beyond a doubt that you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or professor and there is no way to become qualified to do that job without an advanced degree and the requisite training. Get back in the classroom.

You’re facing a real career roadblock. The best way to determine if you’re up against the kind of career obstacle that only a degree will abolish is to have a very clear vision of what you want to do next and talk to as many people doing it as possible. If everyone you meet needed a degree to get there and you’re getting rejected from every job you want based solely on the fact that you don’t have the required education, it’s time to think critically about going back to school. However, give this process at least a year because there is probably a way to get your foot in the door through dedicated networking and intelligent job-hunting.

You will receive a calculable, substantial increase in income and long-term earning potential. This is really hard to determine, but a recent study by the Georgetown Center of Education showed that individuals in Science and Technology-related professions can expect to earn about 70% more over the course of their careers than those professionals with only a bachelors. Creative professionals, such as journalists or graphic designers, may also earn a small increase in wages with an advanced degree, but an impressive portfolio and real experience still carries much more weight.

You got into a top university. If you get into Oxford or Harvard and can make it work financially, go for it. “When an employment recruiter looks at an Ivy League degree, they will usually look at it more carefully,” says Elena Bajic, founder and CEO of Ivy Exec, an online executive job search site. “An Ivy League education makes a candidate stand out, even before a recruiter talks to them.” Attending a top university helps build your personal  brand and both quantitative and qualitative studies show real advantages from studying in these institutions in terms of higher salaries, networking, job recruiting, and providing environments and services that fuel entrepreneurship.

You received a big scholarship, education is free in your country, or you’re completely loaded. If it’s free, absolutely go. An extra degree never hurt anyone who came out of it debt-free, but remember that education is no substitute for real-world experience, which is still the primary selection criteria for most employers.

Top reasons NOT to go to graduate school:

You’re suffering from a false sense of need. Most MBAs, liberal arts, and social sciences Master’s students fall into this dangerous category. Is it that you really need to spend that kind of money and postpone your career 2 more years or can you re-focus, re-center, self-educate, and try harder as an independent, creative, empowered, experienced professional? Maybe not, but probably yes. Speak directly to seasoned professionals 10-20 years into the career you want to have and ask them how necessary their degree was.

You want to find direction. If you don’t have a clear career objective, attending graduate school is frankly a waste of time and money. There are thousands of other ways to find career direction: Find a new job or internship, TRAVEL, read, watch documentaries, attend events, use LinkedIn, conduct informational interviews, set up your own business, take classes, pursue a new hobby, make new friends…the list goes on. “Direction” is a direct outcome of exposure. Invest in exposure and you increase the likelihood of finding something that sticks.

You place a high value on the prestige and status that comes from attending graduate school. This is hard to get over, especially if you went to a top undergraduate program and all of your friends are going to Harvard or Cambridge. But if you look at the top “self-made” billionaires on Forbes’ Richest Americans list, for example, only one holds an Ivy League degree: Warren Buffett (a Master’s from Columbia). Many others are even dropouts: Bill Gates (Harvard dropout); Microsoft’s Paul Gardner Allen (Washington State dropout); Oracle’s Larry Ellison (University of Illinois dropout), and Dell’s Michael Dell (University of Texas dropout). On top of that, a study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that most employers do think master’s degrees are nice, but would prefer to hire a candidate with a richer professional background than one that is flashing only brand-name diplomas.

You think graduate school will provide you with an invaluable network and/or help you start your own business. This can be one of the valuable perks of graduate studies, but in reality your network is the by-product of your effort and ability to put yourself around the right people. You don’t need to pay anyone to do that. Try a getting a new job that exposes you to more exciting people, travel to an emerging market for several months, or move to Cambridge and hang out with the Harvard kids anyway (while you invest the money you would have otherwise spent on the degree to launch your billion-dollar idea).


If you read nothing else in this article, read this:

You are under 27. If you don’t fall into the “required degree for your profession” category, you should not even think about graduate school until you have AT LEAST 5 years of real-world experience under your belt. The world is big — very big — and it make take a few years after being dumped out into it post-university to hit your stride. Give everything a chance. Try out many different kinds of roles in many different kinds of fields, try working for yourself, and dedicate at least one full year to travel. At 27, or 30, or even 35, you should have a deepened and sharpened knowledge of yourself and the world to decide what type of higher education makes sense. You will get into a better program because you know why you belong there and your experience speaks to that understanding. You will also probably be in a much better position to finance your degree in a way that minimizes debt and maximizes future earning potential. You will have more to contribute to the classroom discussion because you lived it yourself and you will have better ideas to share with your classmates. And you will build a truly valuable network that helps you maintain and accelerate your career stride.

This is really when a costly degree at a top institution makes sense. Not at 22 when things are confusing and what your peers are doing influence you more than a critical evaluation of your own goals and priorities.

Alternatives to Consider

Employ self-discipline and dedicate time to educating yourself. Identify a 4 topics you’d like to learn more about and find 3 good books on each subject. Spend 30 days dedicated to each area of study and keep a journal of you learn and share your reflections with people around you. Practice talking about the material over coffee with a friend or at happy hour with co-workers. After 4 months, you should have mastered a semester’s worth of new information.

Get a job that teaches you as much — or more — than a graduate program. Apply to a leadership development program at a Fortune 500 that teaches you a variety of concrete skills through structured corporate experiences (GE and IBM both have excellent examples), work under a renowned researcher at a laboratory at a top university, or talk to your manager about a a position overseas in your current company.

Travel. Take one-fifth of the cost of a fancy grad program in the US (approximately $20,000) and invest it in 6 months of travel to the  emerging markets. Spend a month each in Burma, India, China, Kenya, Ghana, and Mexico. This alone will give you a portfolio of inspiration and new business ideas, real-world insight into various political and economic systems, religions, and languages, and considerably expand your global network. Going back to school will pale in comparison to a firsthand look at the future.

Just do it. Almost anything you can study in the classroom can be accomplished with the courage to try. Remember Gurbaksh Chahal, who at 16 dropped out of high school to focus on his online advertising startup, ClickAgents. By 18 he sold it for $40 million to ValueClick. Another online advertising startup of his, BlueLithium, was acquired by Yahoo for $300 million in 2007.

Altogether, grad school should not be something you pursue because you don’t have a job or because you don’t know what you want to do with your life or because you feel you will lag behind your peers without a Master’s degree. There are much cheaper and more effective ways of addressing those woes.

It should be the product of a quality understanding of yourself and your career goals, born out of firsthand experience and exposure to multiple areas of opportunity in the world.

With clear goals and thinking about grad school with greater purpose, it can be the best decision of your career.

Grad School Resource Library

Detailed graduate school guide from Petersons

An entire site dedicated to convincing people to avoid graduate school. Perhaps too biased, but worth a look.

Alternatives to graduate school

Paying for graduate school

Statistics on student loan debt in the United States

Information on rising education costs in the UK

A great financial calculator that can help answer the question “Is it worth it?”

Kiplinger’s take on what graduate school is worth

If you think you’re going to become a professor

UK-focused postgraduate studies information database



Guest Blogger: This post was written by Elaina Giolando – read more on her website here

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