To Grad School or Not?

Disclaimer: This is what worked for me. It will not apply to everyone. There are plenty of people who are on the path to their graduate studies for a good reason. The point of this is to encourage you to be honest with yourself and do some good analysis and retrospection before making big decisions.

I always thought I’d go to grad school right after college. I did my research, talked with different people, and asked for advice. I quickly realized that I needed to be a citizen of the U.S. to apply for graduate fellowships that I was interested in (which I wasn’t at the time). That’s when I made the decision to work full-time, and apply to grad school once I become a citizen. Turns out, that was one of the best decisions of my life.

I remember the advice I was getting from college professors. You see, in college you are surrounded by professors who have their PhDs and who are usually academics (OK, maybe sometimes they are practitioners in their field). Those are people who spent most of their life in school.

So what kind of advice are you expecting to get from people who’ve been in school most of their life? Of course, they’ll tell you to go back to school! I remember vividly talking with one of my professors on this topic, when suddenly I had a feeling that he was pretty much afraid (and very uncomfortable) of being outside of a university environment.

While in school, you are being “protected” from the “real world” by the walls of academia. Going to grad school can seem like extending this feeling of safety. Be honest with yourself. If the only reason you’re going to grad school right after undergrad is because you’re afraid to face the realities of life outside of school, think twice.

If you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll realize that you are probably postponing an important career decision by getting extra schooling.

Yes, read that again: You are probably postponing an important career decision by getting extra schooling. Are you? Now, if your goal is to become a college professor, medical doctor, or a lawyer – mazel tov! You should stop reading this article and go back to studying for your classes now, because that extra schooling is the way to go. If you are not taking those professional paths, I urge you to consider the following ideas.

Here’s some food for thought:

  • If you just aren’t sure about what to do after graduation, grad school is a pretty expensive way to “figure things out”. Think about your finances and the impact your decisions will have on your financial life. Think about the time commitment, too.
  • If you never questioned your plans after college, or felt like getting a graduate degree is a “must,” or just the normal thing to do (i.e., you’re doing it because your peers are doing it), STOP and at least consider your alternative options. Don’t go blindly to grad school just because that’s what’s expected of you.

A few side notes:

Side note #1: I’ve met people who regret getting their MA/MS/MBA/any other advanced degree right after school, because now that makes them overqualified for some jobs. Employers would hire someone without a master’s because they can pay them less and likely achieve the same level of output from that employee. So now the person with a master’s degree and a little bit of work experience is stuck applying for entry-level jobs*. Only they now have a lotta bit of student debt.

Side note #2: I’m all for education, whether formal or informal. If you’re a perpetual learner who needs to satisfy that thirst for knowledge, find a company that will pay you to learn. That way, you won’t feel like you’re missing out by working full-time. For example, my employer had a training program that prepared you to earn securities licenses (Series 7, 63, 24, and even the CFA exam). The best part about this? You get paid to learn.

They also had a tuition reimbursement program, which came with some strings attached but covered a good chunk of your tuition expenses. One of my other employers had a special fund that allowed you to attend conferences or take part in professional development events. If you are a perpetual learner, take advantage of these things.

Side note #3: Create your own “rotational program” if you’re not sure about what you want to do with your career. If you have a few ideas in mind (an industry or position), try to get a job that exposes you to that environment. In this way, you can see if you actually enjoy the work before you commit your time and money to a master’s. It would really suck to find out you actually don’t like the work after you spent two or more years on a graduate degree. I actually wrote a blog post on this topic here.

Side note #4: Have a plan, stick with it, but also be willing to pivot. One of my professors told me once that if you delay graduate school by 3+ years, you probably won’t end up going. I don’t know if that’s true. If grad school is a personal goal of yours, you’ll make it happen.

Closing thoughts:

You can’t beat experience. Whether you love or hate that full-time job, there is always something to learn from it. Whether you decide to earn your graduate degree afterwards or keep your job, that full-time work experience will be useful. In fact, nowadays many graduate programs either require or recommend some form of full-time employment before beginning your master’s degree.

Working full-time gives you perspective. You’ll know the “market value” of your job and your skill set. In turn, that will give you confidence when you apply for a new job and need to negotiate your pay.

Be aware of who you’re taking advice from and their bias.

* This is probably not the case if you get your degree from an Ivy League school. But there are always exceptions to the rule.

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