Opinion: The right and wrong reasons to go to grad school

A clear vision of how the degree will help you achieve your career potential is essential. Photo by: Redd Angelo

When should you go to graduate school? Or perhaps more importantly, what are the wrong reasons to go to graduate school? Each person considering graduate education has unique reasons for seeking an advanced degree. However, here are some reasons why you should — or shouldn’t — consider a postgraduate degree.

The wrong reasons

First, let’s look at some of the wrong reasons to go to grad school.

1. It’s easier than getting a job straight out of undergrad.

For many students, four years of undergrad fly by a little too quickly and the idea of prolonging the student life sounds more appealing than attending yet another on campus recruiting networking event. Before you start cramming GRE vocab and crafting your personal statement, take a step back and think about your hesitance to look for work.

Yes, finding a job can be stressful, but if you go to grad school as an escape you will find yourself in the same position again as soon as you graduate. Employers value experience as much as education, so even completing an internship or volunteer position can be beneficial for landing a first job. Admissions officers at the most competitive programs also look for applicants who have work experience so they can bring insight into real world applications of the subject to the classroom.

If the economy is bad and you’re planning to wait it out, there’s still no guarantee that there will be more jobs when you graduate. You shouldn’t hide from your problems in school. Even though most people don’t land their dream job out of college, first jobs often provide valuable learning and growth opportunities.

2. You don’t like your current job.

If you’re dissatisfied with your current job, grad school shouldn’t be viewed as an easy button to happiness. Try to think critically about why you are fatigued at work and see if you can improve the situation either by making changes in your current role or by finding a new job.

Perhaps you’re just feeling the itch to learn something new. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars on tuition, you might want to consider taking a professional development workshop, individual classes or a certificate course.

Unless you already feel like you’ve reached a point where an advanced degree is necessary to get promoted, grad school is an expensive solution.

3. You don’t know what to do with your life.

Most people struggle to find their purpose or an entirely fulfilling career path in their early 20s. If you are asking yourself, “What should I do with my life?” going to grad school is not always the answer.

From an admissions perspective, graduate schools are looking for applicants who have a clear idea of how the degree will help them meet a future professional or personal goal. While not every applicant knows exactly what job they want to do, the strongest candidates display passion for the subject and well-defined reasons for why the school they are applying to is right for them.

Rather than applying to grad school as a means to spark a passion, you should first do some self-exploration to narrow down your fields of interest. Many schools offer career counseling services, and there are tons of resources online such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator or career aptitude tests.

Ask yourself questions such as, “What would you do even if nobody paid you to do it” and “What types of activities energize you?” Once you have a notion of what you might want to try out, do your best to get some experience in that field. Volunteering, interning or completing term-of-service programs such as the Peace Corps or an AmeriCorps fellowship will both boost your resume and give you time for self-assessment while doing good for the world.

4. You’ve always wanted to learn about X or you are interested in living in X.

Curiosity about a particular subject is great, but there are far more less costly ways to explore an interest without investing in a full graduate degree. Depending on the level of commitment you are looking for, you could take a continuing education class nearby, join a membership group to meet others who share your common interest, or even seek out books and media pertaining to the subject.

Likewise, if you feel stuck in your city and have always dreamed of moving to England or California, grad school shouldn’t be the excuse you use to move away. Relocating is one of the most stressful and exciting moments of life, so to add the responsibilities of higher education to that shouldn’t be hastily decided. Try to find work in the area first, or simply take a vacation to the area and try to picture yourself living there. If there are grad programs in that area that are a perfect match, go for it. Otherwise, grad school shouldn’t be an excuse to relocate.

The right reasons

Now, let’s examine some better reasons for pursuing a graduate degree.

1. It’s required to work in your industry or you want to change fields.

For those pursuing work in a new industry, a specific degree and credential may be necessary to work in the field. Typically these degree programs include both academic training as well as placement in an internship to gain practical experience to get you started in a career.

If you happened to study journalism in undergrad but are now fantasizing about a career as a software engineer, a reliable way to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for this transition would be to pursue a degree. A master’s in computer science would set you down the path for your new career.

In some fields, such as international development, knowing when a grad degree is necessary might be less straightforward. One way to gauge the value of a grad degree is to research the jobs you’d like to have in the future and figure out what skills they require. Then, find a grad program that provides training and opportunities that align with your career goals. For example, take a close look at the required and elective courses offered. One or two years go by quickly, so you want to take advantage of every moment.

2. A degree is necessary for career advancement.

A terrific reason to go back to school is if you have already worked for a number of years and realized that the only way to move into a higher position would be to get a new credential. For example, to get to a managerial position or climb the corporate ladder an MBA will distinguish a candidate far more than a bachelor’s degree in business. Similarly, advanced degrees raise the career prospects in any industry. Thus, if you are looking for increased professional networks and options a grad degree is a wise choice.

3. You’ve found a perfect fit.

Finding a good fit is extremely important for grad school. A good fit encompasses more than the courses and training a program provides, but includes networking and opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. In addition to considering a program’s curriculum and faculty, think about who your classmates would be. Most program websites offer information about what types of students enroll in terms of work background, citizenship, and other characteristics to give you a sense of what you can gain from and contribute to the group. If you find a program that meets your academic, professional, and personal goals then grad school is an excellent next step.

Regardless of your motivations for applying to grad school, a clear vision of how the degree will help you achieve your career potential is essential. If you aren’t sure why you want to go to grad school, the admissions professional reading your personal statement will also be unsure about accepting you. In any situation, self-assessment about your reasons to go to grad school are critical before embarking on the process.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Ramie Jacobson

    Ramie Jacobson works with the Master in Public Administration/International Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. The MPA/ID Program is designed to prepare leaders in international development. It is an economics-centered, multi-disciplinary program, combining rigorous training in analytical and quantitative methods with emphasis on policy and practice.