Thinking About Grad School? Part 1

Aug 31, 2011 |Alex Chediak

Help for figuring out if graduate school would help you better pursue God's calling on your life

Mike was a motivated biology student with a strong GPA. Since graduating, he's spent the last three years as a research assistant in a large biotech company. Mike's always been interested in medicine, and that interest has only grown since he's been working. The thought of becoming a doctor seems increasingly exciting. Of course, it would be time-consuming to take the MCAT, apply to a bunch of medical schools, and then wait and hope for interview invitations. Not to mention the enormous expense and having to leave his job. Should he take the plunge?

Jenny always loved history. She's intelligent and enjoyed college. Her 3.4 GPA could have probably been higher if it weren't for her basketball and RA commitments. She likes her job as a tour guide at an important historic site, but it's getting old. Truth be told, she'd love to be married and starting a family by now, but that just hasn't happened. She's thinking about going back for a graduate degree to qualify for jobs that would give her more intellectual challenge. Why not, if she's going to be working anyway? But would going back to school derail her from someday becoming a stay-at-home wife and mom?

Chris is in his senior year as an accounting major. He's pretty smart, and is cruising through with a 3.6 GPA while making plenty of time for tailgate parties, Wii tournaments and other essential festivities. You're only in college once, right? As he thinks about graduation, he figures he's got two options: look for entry level positions (and face a tough economy) or stay in school. His professors are all telling him he'd have no problem getting into the MBA program across town. While he'd have to take out more loans, he could make a lot more money when he finally gets out. And if he's still in school, he figures he can hold off on popping the question to Jessica, who he's been dating for the last two years.

How can Mike, Jenny and Chris decide if graduate school is right for them? What are the pros and cons, the benefits and the costs? When is graduate school pursuing God's calling on our lives and when is it an irresponsibly expensive, time-consuming venture or (worse) sheer avoidance of adult responsibilities in the "real world"?

Passion and Preparation

Think of an undergrad degree as providing a broad education (even engineers have to take English classes and public speaking; even art majors have to take some science and math courses), whereas grad school provides depth in a particular discipline. So being passionate about that field — really wanting to dig deep — is important. It will fuel perseverance in what will likely be a multi-year, 50- to 60-hour-per-week commitment.

But as important as passion is, don't merely rely on a subjective sense of "I love learning. I feel I'm really good at ______. I know I'll do well in graduate school." Take a hard look at how you've performed until now. Only one in four people who complete a bachelor's or associate's degree go on to eventually complete a graduate degree. U.S. Census Bureau, 2009, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009 - Detailed Tables, Both Sexes, Ages 25 and up. It stands to reason that if you were not an above average student in college, you might want to reconsider your graduate school ambitions. Keep in mind that everyone in grad school will be like that top quartile of students at your undergraduate school. This will vary depending on the college. Some have very few graduates who go on to earn advanced degrees. By contrast, a school like MIT will boast that: “About 50% of undergrads choose to go to a graduate or professional program immediately upon graduation, and 66% go on to earn a graduate degree at some point in their careers.”

One way to dip your toe in the water would be to get your employer to pay. When I was an engineer with IBM, one of my jobs was to help our marketing/sales folks secure new business by serving as a liaison of sorts to the factory which engineered and fabricated the products for our external customers. When I was in that job, I took two MBA courses on the company's dime. It was a great way to consider that career track without having to commit or even pay.

Finances and Future

Graduate school is expensive; although, depending on your field, there may be a variety of fellowships (free money) and assistantships (money in exchange for research and teaching) for which you can (and should) apply. Fellowships and assistantships tend to pay for tuition and give you a stipend which is often enough to pay the bills, but not much more.

Purely from a cost/benefit perspective, graduate school is worth it if you can afford it or if the money you're likely to make on the other end will more than pay for any debt you accumulate in the process. Advanced degrees in medicine, law or business are often financed with debt, but if you're a bright, motivated student, and you work hard, this "risk" normally pays off in a job that pays enough to let you quickly pay back those loans as you're launching a career. Perhaps you disagree, given our lackluster economy. Sadly, some who have pursued advanced degrees even in historically “safe” fields have had difficulty finding positions. If you’re going to take out big loans for grad school, one strategy is to only do it if you get into a very reputable school with a good record of placement for its graduates. A friend of mine did that with his MBA ambitions. The first time, he applied to several top programs and was not accepted by any of them. Rather than attend a “fall back” school, he stayed in the work force for two more years, improved his GMAT score and earned stronger recommendation letters. He then applied again and was accepted into several highly regarded universities. I’m pretty sure he now earns more money in a week than I earn in a month. I’m not saying that salary and compensation are all that matters in life. I am saying that his strategy clearly paid off from a cost/benefit, risk/reward perspective.

Other fields, though no less worthy in God's eyes, are less lucrative, and you should have realistic expectations. Faculty jobs pay less than business positions. In addition, be aware that some graduate programs seem to prepare students almost exclusively for academia (e.g., many Ph.D. programs in English). If that's your aspiration, you should also investigate what percentage of graduates actually land positions in academia and have a fall-back plan if you aren't so fortunate. Adjuncting (teaching a class or two on a semester-by-semester basis) can be a good experience, but it pays diddlysquat and comes with no job security or health benefits.

Graduate schools seem to be more required in some majors than in others. Having a bachelor's degree in biology (like Mike) or health science is a good first step, but chances are neither will get you a job that satisfies your ultimate career aspirations. People with those majors, in my experience, almost always go on to further education — to veterinary school; to a physician assistant program; or to earn a graduate degree in physical therapy, optometry, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, or medicine (M.D.). Some of these take two years; others take more like six and seven. Master's programs are much shorter than Ph.D.s. But either way, you'll want to count the costs:

  1. 1. How are you going to finance yourself through the program?
  2. 2. Is a graduate degree necessary to bear the cost (in time and money) to get to where you think God is calling you, career-wise? Or could you get there with just a bachelor's degree and some work experience? Might you over-qualify yourself for certain jobs, and are you OK with that?
  3. 3. Realistically, how likely are you to land the kind of job you want after grad school? Do you have a "plan B" if that doesn't work out? Balance idealism with realism.

In our example, Mike has had several years in the work force under his belt, so presumably he's paid off his college loans and perhaps even saved a bunch. Since he has excellent academic credentials, acceptance into medical school and a job in medicine both seem likely.

What about Jenny? Yeah, she's bored with her job, and she loves history, but does she have a plan for what she wants to do with an advanced degree? Her current job is not well-paying, so she'll need to explore her options for financing a graduate degree in history. She also ought to have a few career options in mind, in case her first choice doesn't work out.

Part 2: Thinking About Grad School? »

Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.

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