Note: see comments on my Reddit post about this topic.
In my job as a guy who runs a graduate exam tutoring business, I field a lot of calls from people who want to go to graduate school. Sometimes, the people I field calls from know exactly what graduate school they want to go to. Sometimes, they don’t, and they’re just looking to go to graduate school to do something totally different than their current path.
For this latter group, I end up being half a tutor, half a career coach. If you are someone who just wants to do something totally different than what you’re doing right now and thinks graduate school is the answer, then I have some advice for you in a handy numbered list.
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1. Figure out what you want to do before you go to graduate school. I tell literally everyone that, and everyone’s surprised to hear that from the guy who will make money helping you get to graduate school.
But here’s the basic reason why: there was a time in the US in which you could go to graduate school, mess around and explore, and then graduate and find a good job in your field. That time was 40 years ago. Now, there are way too many graduate schools and not enough jobs that require those graduate degrees.
So, what should you do instead? My best advice is to explore the spaces immediately around your current field using Reddit. So, for instance, if you are currently in sales, you can just Google “Types of sales Reddit” and then type, for example, “What’s it like to be in enterprise software sales Reddit”. If you’re in banking, you can just Google “Types of banking jobs Reddit” and then type, for example, “What’s it like to be a corporate banker Reddit”.
Key things to look out for when you look at people’s descriptions would be:
d) Culture (although keep in mind this can change a lot from company to company)
e) How your performance is judged
Once you have ideas of what jobs you might be interested in, I’d recommend trying to look at people’s profiles on LinkedIn to see what kind of experience and education people in those jobs have. Do they have MBAs? Did they get entry level jobs?
Sometimes people are really tempted to just do something totally different from what they’re doing now. I hear sometimes from people who are engineers but want to become physician assistants, or are electrical engineers and want to become accountants. I usually advise against that unless there’s a really good reason to. Throwing away all your current experience is a big step, and you should make sure that there isn’t a better job closer to your current field first.
2. Either go to an excellent graduate school, or get a scholarship. This advice is easier said than done, but it is important.
The average MBA student leaves with $66k in debt. The average MD leaves with $200k in debt. The average JD leaves with $118k in debt.
This is a lot of money. You will have to pay it back. If you make $100,000 a year with your degree in Massachusetts, you will take home about $6k a month. If you devote $2k of that a month to your debt, it will take you 3-4 years to pay off your MBA. During that time, if you are living on your own ($2k/month rent if you’re lucky), you are going to have only $2k/month for everything else. Do not expect to be buying a house during this time.
The only ways to make this not as bad is to either make a lot of money or not take out so much debt. The best way to make a lot of money is to go to a top graduate school. The best way to not need debt is to get a scholarship.
It’s worth noting that this rule can get particularly important depending on the type of graduate school you go to and its ranking. Outside of the top 40 or so business schools, most graduates (i.e. people who get their MBA) will not get a job that asks for an MBA. The same goes for graduates outside of the top 100 or so law schools. In 2015, only 63% of law graduates in the US obtained positions as lawyers.
The best ways to get scholarships are usually by your academic background and test scores, which is where the services of test prep instructors like myself can actually make economic sense. Identity-based scholarships are harder to come by. You can also get scholarships by working for certain institutions like the military or universities, although those come with their own complications.
3. Do not get a degree that you are not required to have unless you are absolutely positive it will be helpful.
You can’t practice architecture if you don’t have a degree in architecture. You can’t practice medicine if you don’t have a medical degree. You can’t practice law if you don’t have a law degree. So, it’s pretty easy for me to recommend to anyone that wants to practice in any of these fields to get these degrees.
The same is not true of, say, journalism. Most journalists do not have degrees in journalism. For example, Corey Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2022 for investigative journalism, just has a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (see how helpful LinkedIn is?). If Corey Johnson doesn’t need a degree in journalism to win a Pulitzer, I would think carefully about why you feel a masters in it.
Other dishonorable mentions for useless degrees are degrees in cooking, MFAs, and entrepreneurship. Most of the chefs you admire do not have degrees in cooking. Most of the authors and artists you admire do not have MFAs. Literally none of the entrepreneurs you admire have degrees in entrepreneurship. And, speaking as an entrepreneur, I am very, very skeptical of people with degrees in entrepreneurship.
Half-dishonorable mentions are advanced degrees in the humanities. While it’s true that you need a PhD in English to become a college English professor, it is impossible for literally almost anyone to get a job as a college English professor, as each English professor has 3-4 PhD students, the field isn’t tripling in size every year, and English professors almost never leave their job. Therefore, you’ll be getting a PhD in English to do something other than teach English at a university level, which, again, you do not need to do.
4. For the most part, don’t expect your graduate school to teach you stuff that’s relevant to your profession after graduate school.
Most graduate schools will not teach you stuff that will be useful to you after graduate school. MFAs, almost all MBAs, and even most PhDs won’t teach you stuff that you can use after graduate school.
This ties into the last point. If you’re not legally required to get these degrees, and they won’t teach you stuff that’s useful after graduate school, you need to think about why exactly you’d be getting them.
The schools themselves would like to say something like, “We teach you how to think”, which I think is a cop-out if they don’t have a curriculum devoted to this. Meanwhile, a lot of students just want the chance to be in an academic environment (or, in the case of an MBA, a party environment). I understand the appeal of this, but, again, you are going to be taking out a lot of loans in order to do so.
The only things that will make those loans worth it, to me, are signaling value and networks. Biology PhDs, for instance, signal to potential employers that you probably are used to dealing with scientific experiments and the stuff around them. MBAs, on the other hand, can provide great networks for specific companies. This is especially true if you have an undergrad from a not prestigious university, and you want to hang out in spaces that people from prestigious universities hang out (e.g. management consulting).
Once again, the easiest way to see if your degree will actually have signaling or networking value is LinkedIn. If it does, you should see people from the school you want to go to working at the companies that you want to work for. If you don’t see that, that’s a bad sign. To figure out if you will be going to one of the rare graduate programs that will actually teach you relevant stuff, I once again recommend Reddit. People tend to be honest there, if often neurotic.