Why Bother With Grad School?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Princeton University Princeton University (carbonnyc/flickr)

With the unemployment rate for people in their twenties hovering around 15 percent, it’s tempting for recent college grads to just skip the terrible job market and stay in school. And many of them are doing just that. Last year, there was a 6 percent increase in graduate school enrollment, and this year, 27 percent of college grads will go to grad school instead of entering the job market. But Takeaway work contributor Beth Kobliner says it might not be the best choice for everyone.


She lays out the hard numbers on the debt people will likely incur by going back to school, and whether they’ll even get a better job out of it at the end of the day. Deanna Nairns is one of those people. Last October, she graduated with a master’s in film studies, but she’s considering going back for a PhD because she can’t find work in her field. Nairns joins us from the bakery where she’s been working to pay the bills.


Deanna Nairns

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer


Beth Kobliner

Comments [9]


Mr. Verkuilen's comment about opportunity costs is an important one.

Grad school can cost years of your life at a time in your life when you could be establishing yourself in a career. Consider the money that you could have been earning in those years, and the debt that you might have to incur.

Worst of all is the fact that all that time and money may leave you in no better shape for finding a job than you were in the first place. That's a tough thing to face at 30 or 35 (the time it takes to get through grad school is much longer than most people anticipate).

Here are some things to think about:

100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

Nov. 13 2010 04:17 PM

I feel eventually the Master's degree will become what first the high school diploma, and then the Bachelor's degree, have become: just about essential. I'll go to grad school some day, because I have a feeling my generation is going to find that we will have the same experience with Bachelor's degrees that our parents had with high school diplomas: around middle age, the world will have evolved so that this is not enough. I don't want to be 40 and crowded out of a job by all these "kids" with Master's degrees.

It'll be a few years, though. 5 years after my undergrad graduation, I still owe almost $15,000 out of an original $17,000 (yeah, I don't know how, at this rate, their payment plan figures I'll have this paid off in 10 more years like I'm supposed to, either). I don't see a point in racking up even more debt until I'm at least halfway through the current one. I also don't see a point until I know which job I wish to have for the rest of my life--right now I'm a secretary, so it's not like I'm going to get a graduate degree majoring in my current profession!

Jun. 22 2010 07:57 PM
Joel from OKC

I think going into grad school to make more money is not always a winning battle. When I was an engineer, the money from industry favored people with a BS. A BS would get you a lower starting salary, and an extra 2+ years of experience, which would put you ahead of a MS or PhD when they started. Those with the BS usually ended up on a faster pay grade track.

However, sometimes grad school is needed for the job you want. I left a good paying job that I got during the gas bust so I could go into the wonderful 6 figure debt known as med school. That was a very hard decision, but in the end, the lack of a job, and the huge amount of debt are going to be worth it, not for monetary reasons, but because I'm happier in this field.

Jun. 22 2010 11:14 AM
Smith from Michigan

It sounds like lots of people go into a field with out any understanding of how much they will make when they graduate. I was fortunate enough to be able to work my way though my undergrad, at U of M - Dearborn, and graduate with out any debt. Even though the dot com bubble popped right as I entered school and the stock market crashed right as I finished I was able to find a good job with my CS degree. As Celeste mentioned the benefits of a University of Michigan degree cannot be overstated.

Jun. 22 2010 10:03 AM
George Dorris from New York City

I would like to comment on the appalling debts that are accumulated by undergraduate and graduate students at American colleges and universities. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon from 1948-50, for residents of the state the tuition was minimal: with fees it ran to something like $150 a year. When I went on to graduate school in English at Northwestern, the tuition was about $1000 a year. My family was moderately comfortable, our family filbert farm just outside Eugene bringing in enough money for our parents to put the four of us through college (my older brother assisted by the G. I. bill) and my parents offered to give me enough for tuition and basic living expenses at Northwestern, while I got a job to provide my spending money. Fortunately the second year I was given a University Fellowship for two years, which took me through my course work and exams, and then after returning from a Fullbright to Italy (don’t ask, the explanation is reasonable but complicated), I had a year teaching a section of Freshman English before setting out into the academic market without any debts. Of course I was fortunate that my family was able and willing to help me and in another way, my timing was lucky, as the drastic cutback in faculty that came in the early 1950s (when those on the G. I. Bill had largely completed college) was now followed by an expansion, so I got a job immediately.
My companion, Jack Anderson (we’re legally married in Canada), had much the same experience. His parents had good but not high-paying jobs, but although he worked summers to gain spending money, they could send him to Northwestern in Theatre and then to Indiana University for an M.A., before he started on a Ph.D. at the University of California in Berkley as a graduate assistant, but decided that the academic world wasn’t for him and eventually ending up as a dance critic as well as a fine poet.
Our question is why the costs of education have escalated so much more than inflation alone would explain. Academic salaries have improved since I began teaching in 1957, first at Duke, then at Rutgers (where I think I earned $4500 a year) and eventually at York College of the City University of New York, but not nearly enough to explain why those costs have gone sky high. Those costs indeed need to be addressed as long as higher education in this country remains so highly dependent on being able to pay tuition, whatever the source of the money to pay it.

George Dorris


Jun. 22 2010 09:43 AM
Jay Verkuilen from Queens

I spent a LONG time in grad school and now teach PhD students. It was worth it for me, no doubt. I ended up getting into a career for which I am admirably suited. However, I gave up a lot to do it. At least I've kept my debt down to a reasonable level and I worked my way into an area that has a lot of demand (statistics), so finding well-paying employment isn't a problem.

Opportunity costs are important to keep in mind. When you're in grad school you're NOT doing something else. These things may pay you financially. They may be more intangible, like having a family, which is not impossible when you're a student but much more difficult than when you have a real job.

I always counsel new doctoral students to be as clear-eyed as possible about this decision as possible. Giving up six years of your life in your 20s-early 30s is no small decision. A book I often recommend people take a look at is Robert L. Peters, Getting What You Came For, 1997. It's now a bit old but the basic logic is still solid. (There are other books out there now.)

Students should also consider the price issue of where they go to grad school. A choice that requires you to incur a lot of debt will leave you with diminished opportunities when you leave.

Jun. 22 2010 09:19 AM
Clint from Olympia

It seems like the problem here is that people are choosing degrees in low demand fields. I have a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and I've done reasonably well. I think any time you go into debt you better be very sure what you are doing (by that I mean either you are very interested or you really think it will get you a job).

Jun. 22 2010 08:56 AM
Sweetman from Beverly, MA

Interesting topic, I've been hearing more about this subject lately.
The area of study has much to do with job opportunity/availability (and the ratio of debt to the hopeful future income).
Obscure subjects and "downsized" professions are going to have a more difficult time to be certain but I am sure those who delve deeply into their chosen profession by gaining a Masters level or PhD level of knowledge have a desire in the subject beyond job security/money.
It is disturbing to listen to the amount of debt garnered in this pursuit.
Thanks for the great show.

Jun. 22 2010 07:53 AM
Geoff Dutton from Natick MA

I returned to grad school for a PhD (in Geography) in my mid-fifties when my career was almost on hold. I attended a program in Europe. As a grad student, I paid only about $1,000 a year in tuition and was supported by my department via grant money. Three years later I cam home to the US with $10,000 more than I left with from my research assistant pay.
My new science degree helped me get the job I still have, working as a technical writer. I urge potential doctoral students to study abroad. It is far cheaper, there are fewer hoops to jump through, and you get the invaluable experience of living in a different culture.

Jun. 22 2010 06:38 AM

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