Applications for graduate and professional schools have been arriving at educational institutions all over this country in the fall-winter season, as potential grad and professional students dream about their future careers.
However, in this winter of our economic discontent, all predictions for the state of the US economy seem negative.
In the past, that situation has invariably paralleled an increase in the number of applications to grad and professional schools. I’ve heard students admit they came to grad school so they could “hide out” until the economy improved and they could find a job.
Sometimes, it even worked out.
With the economic gurus saying that THIS economic depression seems different from other times (when we’ve bounced back relatively quickly), the question becomes, “Is it wise to start an advanced degree program NOW?”
Having spent more than a few years in grad school myself, and having worked in university career services for more than ten years, I still advise potential grad students to go back to the basic questions that should be asked no matter what the economy is doing.
1. Why do you want to be in grad or professional school?
Will you positively value the time you spend being in grad school? Do you see that as a positive time, or a stage to be suffered through on your way to becoming a professional? If you think that you haven’t really started your life because you’re still “in school,” think again.
Grad school is not a dress rehearsal; this is IT.
“Hiding out” until the economy improves may not be a great reason to be in grad school. Ask yourself if grad school is just a way to avoid something else, especially if that something is not knowing what you want to do next.
If you accumulate debt while you’re in school, you may find yourself in serious financial straits if that vague concept, “the economy” doesn’t improve before you finish.
2. Why now?
Consider the big picture of how grad school fits into your own unique life.
Just because your classmates are going to grad school doesn’t mean you have to. People enter grad school at all stages of life; you have that choice, too.
If you’ve just finished four years of undergrad education and have not had a chance to get some work experience that relates to your chosen career, can you be sure this is the path you want to follow? Even if you can’t find a job paying as much as you want with your undergrad degree, factor the cons of doing grad school now in with the pros.
What will you not be able to do if you’re in grad school for the next 2-5 years?
3. Have you done your research on the economic issues that hide behind degrees?
Will you be better off when you finish (not just intellectually and socially, but economically, too)?
Do you know what kinds of jobs will be open to you when you finish the degree?
What salary can you expect? What working conditions can you expect, and are they what you want?
How many jobs of that kind opened and were filled in the past few years?
What are the trends for the occupations you want?
Having this kind of information not only gets you closer to occupational reality, it gives you a goal (whether it’s a certain kind of job, or income, or social goal) and that will help you keep going through those inevitable discouraging times in grad school.
4. How will you pay for it?
As we all know, many students accumulate huge debt burdens in grad and professional schools in expectation of recouping that investment in the form of higher salaries they’ll earn with the degree. I’m told that it used to work out in our parent’s generation.
But I’ve seen too many alumni returning to college career centers, hoping to find new jobs or careers, but unwilling or unable to leave jobs they hate because they have education debt – on top of mortgages and car loans– not to mention families depending on their income.
As a society, we seem to have come to accept debt as a given, but it is often an avoidable burden, and there are many practical and creative ways to earn your way through grad school without resorting to loans. (But that’s another whole series of articles.)
Even if loans seem necessary, at least stop to think about the consequences of education loans on your potential future – and your future family’s.
5. What would happen if you didn’t finish the degree?
Of course you’re going to finish…but the attrition rates in grad school are high.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of finding it isn’t what you expected and quickly finding something else to do.
But I’ve known many who didn’t finish after years of paying tuition. Some have made a good transition, and some flounder for years.
Even before you enter those hallowed halls of learning, find out more about what skills you’ll be gaining, not just what subjects you’ll study.
Will you become a better writer, or interviewer, or will you learn to deal with huge data sets, or how to modify plant genetics?
What will you be able to transfer to another occupation that may not have been in your original plan?
Being able to articulate those skills can help you find part-time work while in grad school, as well as after you’ve left it.
If you’re still sending applications, give up the dreaming and start looking for solid information about your potential future careers. “The economy” should not be the one determining factor for running your life.
© Copyright, 2009, Kate Duttro. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
Job-Hunt's Academic Job Search expert Kate Duttro is a career strategist, coach and instigator. She writes the Career Change for Academics Blog, for current and recovering academics, and other smart cookies. For more than 10 years, she has provided career services at the University of Washington, where she has counseled, taught classes and workshops, and dug out information for thousands of undergrads, grad students, post docs and alumni in all phases of career development. Holding several degrees, including a PhD in anthropology, Kate has also earned many professional certifications in the field of career coaching.