A relatively successful friend of mine told me the other day that she was thinking of going to grad school.
This caught me off-guard because her career doesn’t need grad school. She hasn’t tapped out her opportunities in her current role or company. She’s on a pretty reliable path to financial and professional success before the age of 40. She doesn’t work in a career where she can’t progress without a graduate degree.
Few people really go to grad school for “continuing education.” They go for other perks. Nobody goes to the gym to lift weights. They go to lose weight or get strong. Nobody buys a book to have content to read. They buy a book to get ahead in their careers, their relationships, or to entertain themselves.
Grad school is no different than other products. People sign up for grad school because of the perks and benefits they get from it. They don’t sign up because of the direct experience or features.
These perks generally fall into a few categories:
Gatekeeping Perks are those opportunities and benefits available to you as a function of having a graduate degree. You can join most states’ bar associations only after you have a JD. You can only become a doctor with an MD. You can only become a tenured research professor with a PhD (and a ton of research).
This really isn’t a perk of graduate school. This is a perk of the credential you get when you’re done with graduate school.
The Gatekeeping Perk is hard to substitute without grad school for highly regulated jobs that work through professional organizations (like lawyers, doctors, etc.).
But if you aren’t working in one of those fields, the benefit of having the credential is less Gatekeeping and more Signaling.
You can test whether or not you should go for gatekeeping reasons by asking yourself this: “on my current professional trajectory, is it possible for me to do what I want to do without going to grad school?”
Signaling is separate from Gatekeeping. A Gatekeeping perk means you can legally enter a field or get a job that you otherwise couldn’t. Signaling is a recruiting shorthand.
When a company sees that somebody attended Harvard Business School, for example, they make quick decisions about that person based on the reputation that Harvard Business School accumulated over the years.
Signaling is easier to substitute than Gatekeeping.
For example, imagine two young professionals.
One has a graduate degree in his field.
The other has risen to the level of vice president at a growing and profitable startup, has a network of experienced professionals who endorse him and his work, and writes in a respected industry journal.
Which of these candidates signals competence and drive better?
The second, professionally experienced candidate has a stronger signal than the inexperienced, credentialed candidate.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have both experience and a graduate degree, but the opportunity cost of taking time off to go to grad school often includes professional experience.
The question you want to ask yourself is this: if I go to grad school, will that or my current professional trajectory be a better signal to the people I want to meet?
Will you meet the people you need to meet at grad school?
Who attends the kind of grad program you want to enroll in? Are they the kinds of people you want to know? Or can you better meet those people by consciously networking in your current job?
Grad school is usually great at networking with people around your level of experience in your field (plus a few experienced professors). While better than not expanding your network at all, these people usually don’t help as much as older, experienced professionals in your field (I call this vertical networking, where you network vertically up the experience timeline).
Think consciously about who you want to network with. People, young professionals in particular, are bad at consciously thinking about their networking. They think “networking” is some kind of unqualified good like “experience.” Networking is only good if it helps you meet the people you need to meet. Having a Rolodex full of people who are totally unhelpful to your career (and to whom you are also unhelpful) won’t get you anywhere.
Make a list of the people you want to network with in order to get ahead in your career.
Now make a network of the people you’re likely to meet in grad school.
Circle the people who appear on both lists.
Can you meet the people who are on your first list without grad school and in a way that’s less costly than grad school?
In my friend’s case, she’s part of a professional organization of young female entrepreneurs. She’s active in the organization and regularly meets and builds sincere relationships with established businesswomen. She’s even had a phone call with Arianna Huffington that resulted in a referral to an editor at Thrive Global.
For her, focusing on grad school (an MBA, in her case) would take her focus away from this organization. She’d network with other ambitious young professionals in her field, but at the cost of the other women she could meet through her professional organization.
Human Capital (Skills) Perks
Human Capital Perks are the increase in skills and abilities that come with graduate school.
I actually do think there’s an active place for studying. Sometimes people come to me and say, “I know you’re going to make fun of me, but I signed up for a class…”
No! That’s great. Do that. Make time to study. Make time to sit down with other people who are actively investing in their own personal and professional educations. You absolutely should do that.
What you shouldn’t do is assume that that only happens in a grad school classroom.
Don’t assume that school has a monopoly on education. I wrote about this in my book The End of School. Education =/= school. Sometimes education happens at school and happens best at school. When it does, you should probably go to school. When it doesn’t, you should consider alternatives.
There’s good economic research that shows that the human capital benefits of additional schooling are negligible at the higher education levels. Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education goes into this in detail. Most of the perks received by students at the collegiate and grad school levels are Signaling Perks, not Human Capital Perks.
Most people learn what they need to learn to pass the test and then forget what they don’t use. And there’s a lot in school that they don’t use.
Assuming you can get the Signaling Perks you want elsewhere in your career, then compare how much you’ll learn in grad school against alternatives.
Think about incentives for outcomes: I’ve actually found in many cases a quality online course with qualified, believable instructors and a strong community can outperform graduate school. Why?
The online course creators have a stronger incentive and clearer feedback system for success. If students take a course (often more focused than an entire graduate program) and fail to hit the outcomes promised in the course, the course eventually develops a negative reputation. The content creator has to either improve the course or lose money.
University programs obfuscate results. They rarely offer specific outcomes, making it harder to say whether or not students got a lot out of the course. They also don’t offer refunds and face fewer repercussions for not being up to snuff.
This is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Income Share Agreements. Programs like Lambda School don’t make students pay until they’ve successfully received a job with a specific pay outcome. Then, students repay a percentage of their income. This gives the program an incentive to make sure students not just enjoy their time in the program, but that they perform well in the job market and get placed.
Some people just really enjoy classes and studying. They enjoy not having to balance studying with work. They like the idea of getting some time off from work to go talk to other people about ideas and case studies.
That’s great. I actually sympathize with these people. I actually loved the intellectual component of school. I spent one summer as a research fellow to a philosopher at Penn where all I did was read philosophy books and take notes on them. I spent my summer after graduating high school working for an organization that just ran summer seminars. I spend tons of time every year going to workshops and conferences where I can learn more. I organize reading groups in Pittsburgh.
Learning is fun. Talking about ideas is fun.
Again, the question you want to ask yourself is, “can I get this fun and enjoyment out of learning without going back to school?”
How to Decide if You Should Go To Grad School
Like any decision, you want to compare going to grad school with the next best option. Take into account the opportunity cost.
Do not compare it with sitting around at eating cheetos for a few years.
Compare going to grad school with what you would otherwise do if you didn’t go.
Would you enroll in a serious professional development course? Would you organize a reading group? Would you make a point to spend more time at professional events and conferences? Would you start a podcast and interview experts in your field (my friends AJ Goldstein and Aaron Watson do this well)?
Compare that against going to grad school.
After sitting down to discuss why she was thinking about grad school, we got to the question at the core of her decision:
Do I need to go to grad school to get the perks of grad school?
In her case, the answer was a resounding no. She enjoys learning. The Fun Perk was strongest in her mind. She brainstormed some ways that she can dedicate some time to learning, engage with other students in her field, and keep working at her job she loves.
This post is written primarily for professionals thinking about grad school. If you’re an academic thinking about grad school, I recommend checking out resources from The Institute for Humane Studies.