Should I go to graduate school?
This is a question many juniors and seniors are asking themselves as they get closer to graduation and application season. While it might seem like a good option for many who are looking down the barrel of a liberal arts degree and undergraduate loans, it’s a risk that should be well thought out before taking the plunge.
I myself am currently contemplating whether or not it would be a good decision to go to grad school, and I have found myself falling into many of the pitfalls prospective graduate students often engage in.
There are many good reasons to go to graduate school.
More education often means a bigger paycheck; oftentimes, it’s necessary for certain careers, and it can give you more specialization in a field that you can market easily. However, these facts alone do not mean you should begin filling out those applications and getting recommendations.
Here’s something to think about before applying: Will this actually help me achieve the job I want? If you are an English or philosophy major and have no idea what you want to do career-wise, then going to graduate school is not something you should do. You shouldn’t use graduate school to delay your uncertainty.
I recently read a book on why you shouldn’t go to law school, and it made a point to not “double down on useless degrees” if you don’t know what you want to do. If you’re not sure what you want to do, then work for a few years, figure out the sort of work you enjoy and what fields interest you. Having two years of work experience will not be a setback and might even make you a more valuable graduate student. Sometimes employers might even send you back to grad school and offer employer tuition assistance.
Another thing to consider is how much debt you already have and how much debt you would incur following grad school. One good way of figuring out if it’s worth the investment is adding up the total of your undergraduate student debt and the potential debt you will incur from grad school. If that total is more than your first year of projected income following graduate school, then it’s probably not worth it.
This brings us to an interesting variable. Certain fields have better projected payouts if you get a graduate degree. For instance, if you are getting a degree in business, the pay bump with an MBA might very well be worth it. People pursing degrees within the accounting, nursing, engineering and pharmacy fields may find that shelling out the cash for a graduate degree is worth the risk.
However, graduate programs in social work, law and education have a large debt burden with a low income return. The average debt of a law student is $140,000, and some law schools only put about 50 percent of their law school graduates in the law field.
As far as the liberal arts go, the cost is generally not worth the risks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who majored in communications saw no real pay difference after getting a graduate degree.
The social sciences see the smallest pay jump after receiving professional degrees in comparison to engineering, business, computer science and the natural sciences.
With the liberal arts and the social sciences, as a general rule of thumb, if you can’t get a teaching fellowship or some sort of grant, it’s probably not worth it. Ask any professor and they’ll tell you something similar.
When I was first considering graduate school I met with three different professors who all proceeded to try to talk me out of it.
Now, I know what you might be saying: “But, Sebastian, I’m super-duper intelligent and will graduate in the top of my class in my grad program and will easily find a great job, live frugally for a few years, pay off my loans super quick and then be living the high life.”
This sort of mentality is what author Paul Campos calls “the special snowflake syndrome.” I hate to shatter the illusion for you, but that’s unrealistic.
Yes, I’m sure everyone’s read the article about the woman who paid off $90,000 in loans in a few years. Her situation is unique, and she was in a solid career path that allowed her to be successful in her endeavors.
Unless you’re making a six figure salary straight out of school, assume you’ll be paying loans off for a while. You simply can’t pay off $65,000 of loan debt with a teacher’s or a social worker’s salary.
What you need to do when considering graduate school is ignore the top 10 percent of successful graduates who quickly find a career and are doing fine. You also need to forget about the bottom 10 percent who are living in their mom’s basement with their framed M.A. in history over their futon.
When looking at grad school, always assume you are mediocre. Unless, of course, you are graduating top of your class from a reputable school and get a high score on the GRE, LSAT or MCAT. This will allow you to make realistic, smart and low-risk decisions that will hopefully put you ahead and not set you back three years with $50,000+ in debt.
So, for all those who are considering graduate school, who don’t know what their career objectives are, who are considering pursuing graduate work in the social sciences or who are already overcome by large undergraduate loan debts, seriously think about your options.
Short answer: if you aren’t an engineer, not getting school paid for through a teaching fellowship or a grant and don’t know how your degree will help you, don’t go. Don’t throw away two to three years of your life and incur more debt if it’s not worth it.
However, for those who have weighed the risk and plan on applying in the fall, good luck to you and I wish you the best.