Graduate Degrees: Yes or No

Career Blog

In the post, Is an Advance Degree Worth It? I offered a three-step process for making the decision. These consisted of:

  1. Embracing the Informational Interview: to ascertain the value of a degree from those who hold it.
  2. Challenge the Job Description: to test whether the credential is a non-negotiable.
  3. Consider Certifications: to see if a less expensive option is a viable alternative.

During a recent guest lecture, I was pressed for more details by some students who would soon face the question in the real world. The following is a summary of the exchange.

  1. In what situations does earning a graduate degree make sense?

To make this decision you first have to select the criteria by which you will measure the cost of pursuing the degree. Common costs are time, money, effort, and opportunity cost. The first three are easy to calculate. For example, to get a MA in creative writing you will spend X dollars, Y time, and Z effort. Opportunity cost is tricky and requires you to model various scenarios. For instance, because you pursue the degree you will forgo other opportunities such as working on a novel or getting an entry level job at a publisher.

You also need to calculate the likely short and long-term return of pursing the degree. To do this you need an objective view of the average starting and mid-career salary of those who hold the degree. From there you can calculate your breakeven point. For example, a dentist may rack up considerable debt chasing the credentials, but given the high earning power, may actually break even sooner and ultimately earn more than someone who secures an on-line degree in Elizabethan poetry. 

  1. What if I’m really passionate about something?

Consider your passions, but don’t be fooled by outlier cases. Schools will hold up their famous grads as proof points of why you should attend. And there are countless tales of those who dropped out of university and made it big in a given field. But those are by far the minority. You should always bet on yourself but play the odds. 

  1. In what situations does receiving a graduate degree not make sense?

To answer this, you must think of the market. Will the extra degree secure you a higher wage via a better job or a promotion in your current field? If so, what is the economic value of that win? 

You should also take a long-term view of the profession. Is the degree valued because there is a legitimate shortage of accredited talent or is the higher wage the result of a dying or changing industry and a need to temporarily entice candidates until a transition is complete? If the math doesn’t add up, don’t go.  

  1. Is grad school the safe bet if you are unsure of your career goals or can’t find a job?

No. Graduate school can be a great tool to advance your career, but you have to know which road you’re walking. Never use school as a way to delay real life. The better play is to get a job in the profession you think you want to pursue and make friends with colleagues who are 10 and 20 years ahead of you to find out:

  • How they live when they are 50.
  • What’s the good, bad, and ugly of the profession.
  • How things have changed over time.

Finally, don’t complain about your choice once made. Every profession has its pros and cons. If what you value changes over time (and it will) change professions. Yes, it’s hard, but at least the process for conducting a cost / benefits analysis will be familiar.

Check out my latest book The HR Guide to Getting and Crushing Your Dream Job and follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn

Photo by Vantha Thang from Pexels

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