A bad economy is a good reason to seek out a master’s degree, right? Think again.
As the owner of a test prep company focusing on graduate and professional school, I love it when people go to grad school because it helps my business. But graduate school is a huge decision – and some people choose it for the wrong reasons.
These days, a master’s degree can easily cost over $200,000 in tuition and lost wages. It might be worth it in certain situations, but not always.
If you’re thinking of applying to grad school, don’t make the mistake of going for any of these reasons:
1. To avoid a bad economy
Bad news, guys – the economy isn’t going to get massively better any time soon. People who followed this strategy in 2009 are graduating into just as bad of an economy today, with a wallet $50,000 lighter.
If you can predict economic trends that well, put that $50k into the market instead. And by the way, no matter how bad the economy is, there are jobs for top performers.
2. To learn unique secrets of your profession
Remember in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon claims he can get a Harvard education for a few bucks in library late fees? That’s not far from the truth. Grad school adds a credential to your resume and helps you meet others in your field. It also helps you structure a plan of study. But if you really want to learn accounting and you have the motivation, you can teach yourself the same principles from a book or an internship.
That’s not to say you won’t learn anything in grad school – just that there are much cheaper ways to gain certain skills if that’s your goal. (And if you won’t take the time to learn something unless someone hands you a due date, grad school is not the help you need anyhow).
3. As a last-minute decision
This happens more often than you would believe. Most schools have application deadlines from December through February for the next academic year. That means you’ll need to start planning in the summer or fall the year before.
Taking the GRE, researching schools and completing personal essays are enormous time commitments. Doing these things poorly just means you have a worse chance of admission and financial aid. If you are just now deciding you might like to go to school, better to wait until 2013.
4. Because a mediocre program is within reach
Let’s be honest – grad programs differ enormously in prestige. Remember how we said you can learn most everything from a book? Every program has access to the same books. What separates one from another is quality of faculty, alumni and relative prestige.
If you can go to a well-regarded school, you’ll gain access to great resources. If you’re considering going to the cheapest possible online-only program, grad school might not be worth it for you. Because when hiring managers look at your resume and don’t recognize the name of your school, they might not give the degree much weight. And if your degree is from an online degree mill, it could even affect you in a negative way.
5. Thinking you need a master’s
This is the big one. You’ve probably seen a ton of articles in The New York Times about a master’s being the next bachelor’s. I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. If you’re shooting out hundreds of resumes to job board posts, then sure, a master’s is practically required – a hiring manager who has 10 seconds to judge each of 1,000 resumes might as well just look at the 30 with a MA. But you shouldn’t be playing that game.
Instead, you should be constantly learning on your own – taking on new projects either during your day job or nights/weekends. Don’t stop learning – but learn things that will help you advance your career.
If you k and show that you understand how to add value, you’ll be head and shoulders above your MA-holding friends who will spend tonight submitting their resumes on job boards. My favorite Seth Godin posts explains just what you can (for close to free).
That’s not to say grad school is a bad decision! You should move forward with grad school if:
You really want to be a ____, and grad school is the only way to do it.
If you really, literally need a grad degree for a certain career path and you’ve done the research to be sure, by all means go for it. Professors, physician’s assistants, research scientists and many other fields really do require advanced degrees. If that’s your dream, make it happen.
You’re in a profession where grad school gives you a defined career boost.
Some professions like teaching give you a defined salary bump once you’ve earned an advanced degree. Some companies also that require advanced degrees to advance (though this is a huge mistake on the company’s part). If you know for sure that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you might as well start today. (And if this is the case, you might be able to ignore my advice about going to a less prestigious program. If it’s all the same in your profession, just get the cheapest/fastest acceptable degree).
Someone else will pay for it – all of it.
Every year I hear from hundreds of students whose families will pay for any education they want, for as long as they want, anywhere – and good for them. For the rest of us, see if your employer will consider paying for school. In the last three years, this has become a rarer perk, but it does still exist. Just keep in mind that this could shackle you to the employer for several years – and that might kill other opportunities with other companies.
John Rood is founder and President of , which provides one-on-one tutoring for the GRE, MCAT, LSAT and GMAT, starting at the price of a prep course. Get in touch with him .
Know what’s cheaper and way more fun than graduate school? . We’ll help you land a job in social media, revamp your resume and turn your passion into a business.