Should you go to grad school? That largely depends on why you’re in interested going in the first place. Make no mistake: grad school can be expensive, time-consuming, mentally challenging, and emotionally draining. As such, it might not be the best fit for everyone.
To be clear, I’ve had a great experience in grad school so far, and would be quick to recommend it to anyone interested in furthering their education. However, deciding to go to grad school without fully considering your own interests and needs is likely to make you burn out and break down.
Here are three incredibly stupid reasons to go to grad school:
1) To hide.
Many potential job seekers who’ve been frustrated during their job hunt see grad school as a place to quietly bide their time and wait for the economy to improve. This is a terrible idea. Graduate programs (especially Master’s programs, which are commonly unfunded) are notoriously expensive, which is only going to make your financial problems worse.
Even if you are fully funded by your program, don’t expect to be able to keep your head down and relax. Here’s a description of a typical graduate program, as stated by a counseling student at the University of North Carolina:
“Other people decide what you will do when during daytime (and sometimes evening) hours, such as going to class, doing practicums and internships and fulfilling other duties, like assistantships. Your weekends will be spent on studying, reading, assignments and projects. Expect lots of group work as well, which will be challenging to coordinate with classmates who have similarly packed schedules.”
Let me be clear: graduate programs require a lot of work. Without passion for your research and coursework, you will flounder.
Some of my students have suggested that grad school is a place where they can find themselves. However, there are many less expensive and mentally taxing ways of doing this. If you are currently a college student, visit your school’s career center and take a self-assessment test—the two most popular ones are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory. (Non-students and students at universities without career centers can purchase these tests themselves.) These tests can help you figure out what careers might be right for you.
2) To make your mom proud.
So your parents (or your spouse, or siblings, or your Great-Aunt Evangeline) have always wanted you to go to grad school. And why not? They want to have someone with an MA and/or PhD in the family, and you want to make your loved ones proud.
However, as I’ve said before (and will say again): grad school is no cake walk. It’s a stressful and emotionally exhausting experience that requires a lot of work and dedication. Even with a strong social support network, the pressure causes many grad students to struggle with mental health issues like depression.
Grad school is much easier if you have concrete and passionate goals to work toward. But if you never had any real desire to get a graduate degree in the first place, the road ahead of you is going to be all that much more difficult.
Also, bear in mind that the average graduate student owes an average of $57,600 in student loan debt. In fact, 25% of graduate students borrow about $100,000, and about 10% borrow more than $150,000. Do you really want to get into that much debt for a degree you don’t even want? Really?
3) To become a college professor.
In many academic disciplines (especially the humanities and, less so, the social sciences), becoming a tenured college professor is the dream. However, only about 1 in 5 grad students are able to land a tenure-track position, and that number is slowly but steadily shrinking.
Because universities are increasingly relying on adjunct labor, tenure-track positions are going the way of the dinosaur. Though it’s unlikely that tenured professorships will disappear entirely, there will more than likely be fewer of these academic positions available as time goes on.
This isn’t meant to discourage you. Obviously, many grad students can and do become tenured professors, and you might be one of them. Publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and gaining teaching experience will help you reach that goal.
However, be aware of the reality of the current academic job market, and have clear ideas about what other careers you might be interested in pursuing if academia doesn’t work out. (As mentioned in a previous post, career centers and online resources can help you find the right career for you.)
The final verdict?
I’m happy to be a grad student, and don’t at all regret my decision to go to grad school. I’ve built strong relationships, done fascinating research, and been exposed to jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without my graduate experience.
However, grad school isn’t a good fit for everyone. If you want to go to grad school, you have to have to be ready to endure a lot of hard work, stress, and financial hardship. Be well-informed about current issues in academia—reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed will help. And, most importantly, have realistic expectations about what grad school will be like and what your degree will help you accomplish.
What do you think? What has your grad school experience been like? What other advice to you have for potential grad students?