Dear Liz,

I’m considering going back to school for my Master’s Degree (possibly an MBA). I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I think graduate school will open a lot of doors and help me figure out which one I want to walk through. I know I’ll learn a lot, have fun being a student again, and build my network too, which can only mean good things, right?  

I’m wondering, is graduate school worth it? Should I just take the leap, or how do I decide?

Sincerely,

Mulling-a-Masters

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Dear Mulling-a-Masters:

First let me say this: I get it.

I completely understand why grad school sounds so appealing.

You want more out of your career (and you deserve it)! You don’t know exactly what that looks like, but you want to set yourself up to succeed. You want to reignite your passion and take a break. And if you’re like most people, you probably hope that graduate school will quash your career challenges and anxieties, and guarantee you a great and happy career.

In many ways, you’re right. Graduate school can be a phenomenal experience that yields many of the benefits you are seeking: new career levels and opportunities, learning and development, a stronger network and sense of self-confidence.

But, but, BUT -- if a great and happy career is what you seek, please do NOT “just take the leap” to concluding that graduate school is your best or only avenue.

Let me explain with a question:

Would you spend $100,000 on a product without knowing you wanted it, needed it, and couldn’t find a less expensive alternative?

(Even more importantly, would you spend $100,000 you don’t have on that product?)

I’m guessing that’s an easy no.

And yet too many professionals blindly trust that graduate school is “worth it,” and miss the opportunity to give this massive decision the due diligence it deserves.

Every day I hear from job seekers walking away from masters programs with fewer and different benefits than they expected, or the worst-case scenario, benefits they could have acquired in 1/10th the time for $100k-$200k less.

I don’t want this to happen to you!

Rather, I want you to look deeply at yourself, the benefits, costs, and the data -- and sleep soundly knowing you made the best decision for you.

So how DO you make the decision?

When helping my clients evaluate graduate school, I tell them they’ve got to be able to check the below five boxes.

Box #1: “I have a specific career path I want to pursue.”

Many people hope graduate school will help them figure out what they want, but unfortunately graduate school isn’t geared towards career exploration. At its core, graduate school is a professional degree program; it’s about obtaining the credentials and skills required to be a specific kind of professional.

The graduates I’ve spoken with who are most happy with their decision to attend graduate school went in with a specific career goal in mind. Their grad school experience had an explicit, specific purpose -- allowing them to focus their energy and achieve their desired results.

As Next Steppers know, you have to get to a place where you can say “What I’m most interested in doing next is…” Once you do, it becomes much easier to assess which graduate degree you need (if any), and how to invest your time to achieve your goal.

But if you don’t know what you want, you deserve to figure it out before making a massive commitment. There are programs and coaches that can help you do it quickly!  

Box #2: “I have validated my deep interest in this career path -- by speaking with professionals in the role and/or through hands-on experience.”

You may think “It would be so amazing to be a nurse!” But before you double down on investing $100-$200k and years of your life, make sure you know that you would actually enjoy being a nurse.

Have conversations with people who hold the role, or invest a little time shadowing, volunteering, or taking on a consulting project to experience the day-to-day responsibilities. Learn about the challenges of the role and where the field is headed, and ask yourself if these are the kinds of challenges you want to navigate.

The last thing you want is to invest in graduate school, work off your debt, finally land the role you thought you wanted, and then realize you don’t actually want it!

Box #3: “I have considered the total cost of graduate school and how this would impact my spending and life decisions during and after school.”

There’s no beating around the bush on this one -- $100k-$200k is a lot of moolah!

Unless someone else is footing the bill, this level of debt can impede years if not decades of your financial stability and career happiness.

For this reason, graduates often wind up putting their career and life preferences on hold while they take jobs that will help tackle their debt. But...

  • Just last year, only 46% of MBA grads received job offers over $125k.

  • The earning-to-tuition ratio of MBAs in America has steadily fallen the past three decades, signaling devaluation -- not increasing importance -- of the degree.

  • No graduate degree guarantees job opportunities (one of the largest groups I coach is grad-school grads struggling to find career clarity and opportunities).

So before you check this box, run the numbers. Calculate the total cost of your graduate school experience, review your degree’s employment statistics, and get real with yourself on how the costs compare to the benefits.   

Box #4: “I have validated that grad school is a required or highly important step to achieve my desired career.”

The happiest graduates I’ve spoken with also knew going into grad school that it was a required step towards achieving their desired career.

For some paths, like becoming a lawyer, grad school is clearly required (unless you want to go all Suits).

But don’t assume that “preferred” means “required”; job descriptions and Executives with multiple letters after their names can make you feel like a graduate degree is required to reach higher levels in your field. And it may be true.

Yet if you look at the data and the backgrounds of people in your desired position, you may find it isn’t.

For instance, only a third of the world’s CEOs have MBAs. Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn and Marc Benioff of Salesforce both don’t, and they still topped Glassdoor’s 2018 top CEOs list.

So do your research before moving forward. Schedule a few conversations with people in the role you want (or familiar with hiring practices for your desired role), and get the skinny on whether grad school really is a required or highly important credential to obtain, or which specific skills and experiences you need to land the role.

Box #5: “I have attempted or considered alternative paths for achieving my desired career.”

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the hardest box to check, because it requires you to think creatively and consider trusting yourself -- not graduate school -- to make your career dreams come true.

For Box #4, you had conversations with people in the role you want, and you learned whether graduate school is required for achieving your desired career path, or which skills and experiences you would need to become qualified.

Most likely, these skills and experiences could be obtained through creative means -- such as a volunteer experience, an online course or certification, a consulting or part-time gig, side hustle, or perhaps an actual paying job that feeds into the path you want.

Take 10 minutes to sketch 1-2 alternative plans for achieving your goal.

Then compare the relative costs, benefits, and timelines to those of grad school. Finally, you'll have a real apples-to-apples comparison to consider.

Still prefer to “just take the leap”?

It may sound a whole lot easier to push the box-checking process aside and celebrate your decision to start applying.

Of course many people do this and go on to have happy and prosperous graduate school and career experiences.

But I promise, if you engage with this process -- which for many people takes just a few hours, days, or weeks -- you’ll come away with clarity in what you want and what you need to do to achieve it.

You’ll be more focused and confident taking that next step.

And you’ll be well on your way to achieving your dreams, whether they include graduate school or not.

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