Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Should you go to grad school?

Anyone who knows me knows I am usually adamantly on the pro-grad school side of this debate. In a trade-off between higher immediate and lifetime earnings and the culture and work of academia, there is absolutely no contest in my mind. But this is certainly a personal preference, and one that I have a hard time understanding how anyone could truly disagree with (even if the temptation of a high-paying job might immediately win out after four years of eating ramen noodles in college.) So, I'll step out of that personal tunnel vision for a minute and address the question more generally.

As Penelope Trunk points out, graduate school is an overinvestment for the average American worker, who changes careers four times during his lifetime. Most graduate degrees are not flexible enough to be useful beyond the first career. But, take Penelope's analysis with a few grains of salt. On several points, she omits the very important consideration that knowing things is not at all the same as having a degree - a graduate degree proves you know things, and qualifies you for the many positions that have hard requirements in this department. (An undergraduate degree serves the same purpose, but to a much lesser extent; as it becomes more universal, undergraduate education has evolved into a period of personal growth and discovery and a signaling mechanism for educability, rather than education.)

Also, Penelope is mostly talking about professional school. Law school won't teach you anything but law, and medical school won't lead you to any career but medicine. This is not true of other masters programs, however. A masters degree in the hard sciences and engineering or, especially, mathematics and statistics, will teach crucial quantitative and research skills that are very transferrable. PhD programs, on the other hand, serve a different purpose: such a degree is almost useless in the private sector job market, and if you already know you want to stay in academia, there is no option but grad school. So this decision should be very clear cut.

So how does the fact we are in a recession change this reasoning? It's no news that grad school applications were up enormously this year, but is that a smart decision? For the most part, no. If grad school is not a smart career decision for you normally, it's still not during a recession. An average recession of 18 months may be painful to get through with a low paying job or none at all, but most graduate programs commit you to many more years than that of poverty level pay or huge sums of debt with little upside in lifetime earnings. But, as is the case right now for my roommate who has an engineering degree from one of the top departments in the country in her field and a year of field experience but cannot find a job in this climate, a masters degree could both open up additional doors and be a transferable commodity throughout future career changes. A recession may be an optimal time to make that investment: she might as well pass the down times traversing a significant learning curve, rather than with a random pay-the-rent job.

So that's that. But on a more personal note, watching the experiences of people who entered the private sector last year and were very quickly laid off as the recession wiped out the lowest-ranking workers, and people who entered the job market at the bottom of the downturn with no hope of finding a position matching their skill level, and people who are finishing school now and entering a more-competitive than usual grad school application process, I add this to the very long list of reasons that accidentally skipping 10th grade was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I would hate to be a year behind in this process.