Grad School Isn't an Escape From a Bad Job Market

Grad school makes sense if you want to pursue a career that requires it.

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Alison Green
With the economy floundering and jobs hard to come by, increasing numbers of new college graduates are turning to graduate school as an alternative to going straight into a tough job market.

Many of them are enrolling in graduate programs without knowing exactly what they’ll do with the degree afterwards, or without knowing if their chosen career path requires the degree or even rewards it. Instead, the appeal of staying in school is more about avoiding a difficult and competitive job market or avoiding figuring out “what to do” now that their undergraduate program is over.

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But while this may be a way of avoiding the job market for now, you can't put it off forever. And even worse, these grads may have an even tougher time once they do enter the market than if they’d jumped straight into it.

The reality is that grad school is expensive and time-consuming, and it generally will not make you more marketable, unless you’re going into a field that specifically requires a graduate degree.

But what it will do is keep you from getting work experience for that much longer, meaning that when you’re done, your peers who have been working full-time while you were in school will be more competitive than you.

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It might also limit you by requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need, in order to pay back those loans (without actually increasing your earning power). Imagine being in a tight job market and having a whole swath of jobs that you’re qualified for off-limits to you because they won’t pay enough for your student loans. Ask anyone who’s in that situation—it’s frustrating and even scary.

And if you apply for jobs that have nothing to do with your graduate degree—as many people do—employers will think you don’t really want the job you’re applying for, since it’s not in “your field.” That alone can end up being a reason not to hire you—for the exact same job you might have been a stronger contender for before you got your graduate degree.

Grad school makes sense if you want to pursue a career that requires it. But it’s a bad choice if you can’t explain why you need the degree, or if you’re going because you don’t know what else to do, or because the job market is bad and it’s a way to prolong the day of reckoning.

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So think twice before joining the swelling ranks of job applicants with freshly minted masters degrees that they’re not going to use. You might only be prolonging the day of reckoning, and making it harder for yourself once that day comes.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.