It used to be that the smart kids went to graduate school. But today, the workplace is different, and it might be that only the desperate kids go to graduate school. Today there are new rules, and new standards for success. And for most people, graduate school is the path to nowhere. Here are seven reasons why:
1. Graduate school is an extreme investment for a fluid workplace. If
you are graduating from college today, you will change careers about
five times over the course of your life. So going to graduate school for
four years—investing maybe $80,000—is probably over-investing in one of
those careers. If you stayed in one career for your whole life, the
idea is more reasonable. But we don’t do that anymore, so graduate
school needs to change before it is reasonable again.
2. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to play. It used to be that
you couldn’t go into business without an MBA. But recently, the only
reason you need an MBA is to climb a corporate ladder. And, as Paul
Graham says, “corporate ladders are obsolete.” That’s because if you try
to climb one, you are likely to lose your footing due to downsizing,
layoffs, de-equitization, or lack of respect for your personal life. So
imagine where you want to go, and notice all the people who got there
already without having an MBA. Because you can do that, too, in a wide
range of fields, including finance.
3. Graduate school requires you to know what will make you happy
before you try it. But we are notoriously bad at knowing what will make
us happy. The positive psychology movement has shown us that our brains
are actually fine-tuned to trick us into thinking we know about our own
happiness. And then we make mistakes. So the best route to happiness is
one of trial and error. Otherwise, you could over-commit to a terrible
path. For example, today most lawyers do not like being lawyers: more
than 55% of members of the American Bar Association say they would not
recommend getting a law degree today.
4. Graduate degrees shut doors rather than open them. You better be
really certain you know what you’re going to do with that degree because
you’re going to need to earn a lot of money to pay it back. Law school
opens doors only to careers that pay enough to repay your loans.
Likewise, your loan payments from an MBA program mean that you cannot
have a scrappy start-up without starving. Medical school opens doors to
careers with such bad work-life balance that the most popular specialty
right now is ophthalmology because it has good hours.
5. If you don’t actually use your graduate degree, you look
unemployable. Let’s say you spend years in graduate school (and maybe
boatloads of money), but then you don’t work in that field. Instead, you
start applying for jobs that are, at best, only tangentially related.
What it looks like is that you are asking people to give you a job even
though you didn’t really want to be doing that job. You wanted another
job but you couldn’t get it. No employer likes to hire from the reject
pile, and no employer wants to be second choice.
6. Graduate school is an extension of childhood. Thomas Benton,
columnist at the Chronicle of Higher Education, says that some students
are addicted to the immediate feedback and constant praise teachers
give, but the work world doesn’t provide that. Also, kids know how to do
what teachers assign. But they have little idea of how to create their
own assignments—which is what adult life is, really. So Benton says
students go back to school more for comfort than because they have a
clear idea of what they want to do with their life.
7. Early adult life is best if you are lost. It used to be that you
graduated from college and got on a path. The smart kids got themselves
on a safe path fast. Today there are no more safe paths, there is only
emerging adulthood, where you have to figure out who you are and where
you fit, and the quarter-life crisis, which is a premature midlife
crisis that comes when people try to skip over the being lost part of
early adult life. Being lost is a great path for today’s graduates. And
for most people, graduate school undermines that process with very
little reward at the end.
Dan Ariely, economist at MIT, found that when people have a
complicated choice to make—and there is a default choice—they pick the
default nearly every time. So if your parents or friends went to
graduate school, you are likely to do the same, not because it’s good
for you personally, but because choosing the alternatives seem more
difficult. But making exactly that kind of difficult choice is what your
early adult life is all about. So don’t skip it.