The Grad School Option

A young friend decided to enroll in graduate school this month as a way to wait out the lackluster job market.  Since he always had planned to get a master’s degree, I couldn’t debate the decision.  However, I encourage everyone to make sure they’re pursuing advanced degrees for the right reasons. 

I enlisted Syracuse University professor Bill Coplin to weigh in on the grad school quandary.  Bill has written extensively on the subject and I, coincidentally, agree with his approach to graduate school. 

   Bill Coplin 

Graduate school has always been appealing to people in their 20’s. With the economy going south, the appeal has increased. Like all investments, the decision needs to be based on sound reasoning; not because it delays dealing with adulthood, the loss of freedom in working 40 hours a week, student loan payments or the current tough job market.

In advising college seniors and young alums over the past 40 years at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, I have found that too many students go to graduate school for the wrong reasons.  The vast majority of my 1,500 undergraduate majors over the past 40 years have had wonderful careers without going to graduate school. Less than 5% have gone right after graduations and about another 10% have gone at a later date. Many of those went part-time while holding down a full time job.

Deciding to go to graduate school should be a business decision where the risks, costs and rewards of this significant investment in time and money are carefully considered.

In some cases, the advanced degree is absolutely necessary but there are still some things to consider. Some professions like law and medicine require graduate school so you need to go but don’t do it unless you have had some relevant real world experiences like an internship in a law office or working as a volunteer EMT. Some businesses, government (especially teaching) and non-profits want you to have an advanced degree but do it part time and as easily and cheaply as possible.  

In other cases, an advanced degree is a matter of choice.  The decision should be made only after thorough investigation. Going to graduate full time is like deciding on whether or not you want to do surgery on a bad back.  Try all other options first.

You can reduce the risks and costs and increase the rewards in the following ways:

  1. Work for at least two years after you have graduated college even if it is in a low-end job. Why?  The better graduate programs want students with work experience.  The work experience may to a rewarding career in a way you never expected.  You will have a better idea on what you want to do. If you can’t get a job because of the poor job market, go to a staffing firm and get a temp job. If you have had several relevant jobs and internships in our college year, you may find it useful to go to graduate school right out of college.  Otherwise, don’t do it.
  2. Go part-time if you have a job.  The primary value of a graduate program is the application you can make to the real world of the theoretical material taught in class. If you have no work experience, you have not basis for application. In addition, the network of alumni and student graduate schools provide is the biggest payoff so whatever educational benefit you get from full time attendance is secondary. In addition, if you find the graduate program is not what you thought it was, dropping out is not such a big deal.
  3. Investigate the publicity material provided by the school by interviewing current students and alumni. Ask for a list of graduates that you can call.  Carefully review any job placement material provided. “Buyer beware” applies to graduate school sales pitches as much as it does to TV advertisements about automobiles or bathroom cleaners.
  4. Don’t be enticed by rankings.  The top ranked schools have an edge in job placement if you want to look nationally for a job. However, if you want to work in the location of the graduate school, the less prestigious might be a more direct path to a valued career.
  5. Cost savings should be a key consideration especially if you are incurring debt or if you have debt from undergraduate school.  Debt burdens may require you to share an apartment with 3 roommates, live at home, have no car or even take a job that pays more than a more interesting job in a place you don’t want to be.  All of this can counteract the benefits hoped for in going to graduate school.
  6. Don’t go into a Ph.D. program unless you want to be a professor or a professional researcher and understand that the average time to graduation is 9 years and jobs in almost all fields are scarce.

Check out Chapter 21 in my book 25 Ways to Make College Pay Off for a more complete discussion on how to think about graduate school.

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and The College of Arts and Sciences of Syracuse University, and author of “Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College” (Ten Speed Press, 2003) and “25 Ways to Make College Pay Off: Advice for Anxious Parents from a Professor Who’s Seen it All” (AMACON, 2007). Readers may  e-mail him at

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2 thoughts on “The Grad School Option

  1. I received the following comment from a top tier MBA school graduate who asked to remain anonymous: “I actually think a strong grad school brand matters a lot – especially when it comes to business school. If someone just wants the education, it doesn’t matter as much. But if you’re looking to make more money or stand out, going to a top 10 or 20 school is valuable. It also seems to offer a badge of credibility for PR people. Having said all of this, I don’t think it’s gotten me any extra money! I just think it’s helped me gain faster credibility with business leaders – especially the finance set.”

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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