Why I’m Going Back to Grad School — Or Not

You've got the bachelor's degree; do you go on to grad school? There are a lot of factors to consider. Photo: COD Newsroom

You’ve got the bachelor’s degree; do you go on to grad school? There are a lot of factors to consider. Photo: COD Newsroom

To go or not to go? That is the question.

If you’re in a mental traffic jam about graduate school, this post is for you.

The grad school debate has been going on for years in my own head, and in the minds of countless others. With the rapid evolution of technology, emerging sectors of commerce, and century-old industries fading away, deciding whether to attend grad school is more confusing than ever.

Much of the writing on the benefits of grad school focuses on starting salaries, career advancement, and donations from alumni — which in the most simplistic terms assumes the alum has achieved a level of success that allows him or her to give back.

If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume you are debating going back to graduate school. Is it right for you? Is it the best use of your time and money? That depends. There’s no universal answer.

Growing up with a dad who attended law school and parents who stressed the value of education, I assumed grad school was in the cards for me, whether it was law school or getting an MBA. Today I’m 33 and blogging — a job that didn’t exist 20 years ago — and I haven’t been to grad school… at least, not yet.

So how would I think through the grad school decision today? It depends on a number of things: age, financial health, desired career path, undergrad college performance, work experience, and any other unique personal factors that only you as an individual can properly weigh.

Grad School in Your 20s

Prior to starting college, I had planned to get a business degree and then attend law school. I was convinced the business background would help me get into corporate law and also provide a solid business foundation, which would be applicable in many personal and professional settings.

After four and a half years of undergrad and three switched majors, I graduated with BBAs (Bachelor of Business Administration) in finance and real estate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although I graduated with a respectable GPA and a handful of extracurricular activities, grad school was the last thing on my mind upon graduation. I was tired of living in the financial penalty box of poverty that is inherent to most college students.

Furthermore, a declining demand for lawyers was forecast as the supply of law degrees on the market was increasing. In response to a weakening economy, many people decided to go back to grad school; in turn, the job market was extremely competitive, and many folks with graduate degrees were working in low-paying jobs and careers that didn’t require the postgraduate work.

Following undergrad, I immediately took a job in finance and risk management in San Francisco and moved the Monday after graduation. The move was a good one to help me learn to live and budget on my own for the first time, with a starting salary of about $50,000 a year.

As I became entrenched in corporate America and working my way up the ladder, the idea of grad school started to fade. A graduate degree wasn’t necessary for my first promotions from analyst to senior analyst at Benfield.

As I made my first career change at 25, grad school was again a fallback option if the new position didn’t work out, but it wasn’t a pressing need. Throughout my 20s, I worried about being too old when I graduated from grad school. Two or three years of life seemed like an eternity of time and, in hindsight, the time passes just the same.

If you’re in your 20s and thinking about grad school, here are some things to consider:

Pros

  • Lower “opportunity cost”: You’ll lose some potential earnings and experience from not being in the workforce, but not as much as if you were to go back to school later in your career.
  • Improve your future earning potential at a young age, which gives you more years to recoup your investment.
  • Potential tuition reimbursement from your employer.
  • You may not have a mortgage or other fixed expenses, making it more affordable.
  • You build a strong academic network at a young age, which can help you in your career.
  • The memories and habits of being in school are fresh in your mind.

Cons

  • Less certainty about your career path.
  • Incurring large amounts of debt when your undergrad loans might not be paid off yet.
  • You may not see the benefits of increased salary for many years.
  • Losing two or three years’ salary, plus the cost of school, if you attend full-time.

Intangibles to Consider

  • Location: Are you living in the area where you grew up or where you went to undergrad? Is this where you want to stay? Although many schools have national alumni networks, the network will be strongest near the university.
  • Will your employer pay for you to attend grad school? What demands will they make in return?
  • Do you want to work for a company, or do you aspire to be an entrepreneur? A graduate degree won’t do you much good if you’re looking for the latter.

Grad School in Your 30s

When I turned 30, I had done my stint in corporate America and was running a startup. While an MBA might help you find your way to the corner office in corporate America, it doesn’t carry much weight in the startup world.

There have been times in the last five years when I have done B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business) consulting, and what I charged wasn’t affected by my academic pedigree. The two biggest factors in what I was able to charge and earn were 1) my ability to sell the services 2) my ability to provide the needed solutions and results.

So when thinking about graduate school in your 30s, here are the top pros and cons:

Pros

  • Undergrad loans may be paid off.
  • More clarity with your career path and interests.
  • Can be a good steppingstone to an industry or career change.
  • You’re likely earning more income to help pay for school.
  • Potential tuition reimbursement from your employer.

Cons

  • You likely have ongoing monthly expenses at this point.
  • Higher opportunity cost: If you have a good job by now and a family to provide for, being out of the workplace for a few years could result in a substantial loss of income.
  • Losing two or three years’ salary, plus the cost of school, if you attend full-time.
  • You may have developed enough work experience and industry expertise that you may not need grad school.

Intangibles to Consider

  • With a decade or more of work experience, do you really need it?
  • Does your company, career, or industry require a graduate degree to advance further?
  • How will going to grad school affect your family and personal life?

Grad School in Your 40s and Beyond

Don’t throw in the towel yet.

At an age when most have tossed aside the idea of graduate school, it’s worth a second look. At 40 and beyond, we may assume your financial cards are in better order than in your 20s and 30s, and by now you will have a better understanding of what interests you and how you want to impact the world.

While 40 may seem late for graduate school, with the advances in technology and health care, people are living longer than ever. And with so many Americans failing to save enough for retirement, people are working longer than ever, too. Should you attend grad school in your 40s or beyond, you may still have a few decades to pursue work in your chosen field.

Pros

  • Likely in your best financial position to make the large investment.
  • You have a firm grasp on what you want in life and what you want to learn in grad school.

Cons

  • Not an advantageous time for a career interruption.
  • Higher opportunity cost of being out of the workforce in what are likely your peak earning years.
  • Losing two or three years’ salary, plus the cost of school, if you attend full-time.

Intangibles to Consider

  • Additional earning power may be less of a factor at this stage of life.
  • Do you really need to go?
  • Aside from a career change or company-required graduate degree for a promotion, there are very few reasons to go after 40 given the alternative options below.

Alternative Options

One of the reasons grad school makes less sense today is that technology has vastly expanded the ways to learn cheaply or for free.

Online Learning

You’re aware it’s going on but don’t have the patience to research what’s out there? Here are a few of our online learning favorites for anything from computer science to the French Revolution.

Khan Academy

Started by Salman Khan, who has almost as many degrees from Harvard and MIT as Michael Jordan has NBA championship rings, Khan Academy has thousands of microlectures in the form of short YouTube videos (free to watch) to learn just about anything.

Codecademy

Thinking about learning how to code? Codecademy has taken the coding world by storm and lets you learn to code interactively, and it’s free.

If you need or want additional coding challenges, check out Scott Young’s story. Scott simulated a four-year computer science degree from MIT (tests and all) without actually setting foot in a classroom or applying to MIT. Point being, you can learn virtually anything online these days without shelling out a fortune on grad school.

Coursera

Need something more formal than Scott’s choose-your-own-adventure studies at MIT?  Enter Coursera, which allows you to take free online classes from more than 80 top universities and organizations.

Networking

At this point, you should be aware that the education you seek in graduate school is more than likely available online, with a few exceptions. But what about the “experience” of being in grad school? The endless nights at the library, the relationships with fellow students, professors, and advisors?

Meeting people and forming a strong network of alumni are among the most common reasons for going to grad school. It’s like a joining a country club of your peers and, in some ways, investing financially in your network for the next 40 years.

So is graduate school the only way to get access to professors and other graduate students? Nope. There are options so you don’t have to drop 100 grand to meet thought leaders and graduate students in your field.

Events

There are plenty of live events, conferences, and educational seminars in almost every field. Last year I attended a three-day Tony Robbins seminar in Chicago and met dozens of business owners and entrepreneurs.

Browse the halls at your local university. I’ll all but guarantee there are bulletin boards full of events and get-togethers. While some might be for students only, others will likely be welcoming to the public. While you’re there, pop into the library and do some studying — you never know who you’ll meet.

Into the arts? There are frequent events at local galleries and artist meet-ups in most cities. Struggling to find people in your area? Check out Meetup.com to find events and connect with people who share your interests and may have the subject-matter expertise you seek.

Courses at Your Local College

Before you consider going all in on graduate school, take a look at your local university or community college course catalog and sign up for a class. Classes will provide education and connect you to experts and peers at a fraction of the cost of full-time graduate school. Your local college may even offer a shortened certificate program to help you gain the expertise or credentials you need to advance in your field without spending the next two years of your life in school.

In Closing

As you can see, there are a number of considerations and alternatives to graduate school. As an entrepreneur, graduate school doesn’t make sense for me at this point.

Perhaps if I were in another field that required a graduate degree, drawn to teaching or nursing or med school, or working my way up the corporate ladder, graduate school would be a stronger consideration. But with a rapidly evolving world, one must consider whether the skills and experience of graduate school are worth the investment. Just think of the things you could do with all of those tuition dollars…

Joe Sweeney is a social entrepreneur, committed to helping individuals and organizations grow and solve problems. Most recently, he was the co-founder and CEO at 100state, a nonprofit, startup community of entrepreneurs, educators, and innovators in Madison, Wis. Joe was recently named one of 53 entrepreneurs on Madison Magazine’s ‘M List: The New Who’s Who’ for his work with 100state. 

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