Don't Go To Grad School

 studying grad school

I try to be as fact-based as possible (making me a standing member of the reality-based community, I guess), so today’s piece may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time, and what the heck. If you disagree with me, so be it.

I don’t think you should go to grad school. I don’t know who you are, or what you want to go to school for, or if you’re even actually considering going, but I really don’t think you should do it. I don’t hate graduate education. In fact, I have an MA and a Ph.D. (awkward). But I really don’t think you should go.

Hear me out.

Yes, there is evidence that, on average, going to grad school boosts people’s incomes. And yes, grad school can actually be an enriching experience. You can meet amazing people. It’s way more fun than working.


1. Grad school is expensive.

Tuition costs generally vary from a low end of around $5,000 a year to a nose-bleedingly high $50,000 a year for a top MBA program. And in addition to paying tuition, you have to pay to stay alive, which means eating food, living somewhere, and for most programs, having some type of health insurance. Plus you have to buy books, and pens, and tampons. A two-year MBA at Harvard will cost you around $150,000. And don’t get me started on law school (let’s just say at least a Harvard MBA will probably land you a job when you graduate).

2. You are also paying opportunity costs.

The return on your investment in grad school isn’t just about tuition. There are also opportunity costs. We all know about opportunity costs. Basically, it’s the cost of pursuing one thing instead of another. If you go to grad school, you are not only spending money on the hope of earning more later. You are also giving up the money that you would have earned during the time that you’re in grad school if you had kept working. You are also giving up a year or two of work experience, potential promotions, and retirement savings. Grad school costs more than the sticker price.

3. You may make more money. You may not.

So, fair warning, I’m going to talk about statistics for a hot second here. Bear with me or skip ahead. I’ll make it as painless as possible. You do you.

People (like me!) love to talk about averages and medians. But these are statistical abstractions that may or may not bear a relationship to what you actually experience.

  • Average: The average age for an American woman to lose her virginity is 17.2 years old. That doesn’t mean YOU lost YOUR virginity at 17.2 years old. What it means is that if you add up all the different ages at which women lose their virginity and divide it by the number of women whose ages you added up, you get 17.2 (assuming we’re doing a straight arithmetic average). If you pick a random woman out of that crowd, the best guess you can make for the age at which she first had sex would be 17.2 years. It probably wouldn’t be right. But it would be your best guess.
  • Median: The median of a distribution is the point at which 50% of the things are higher and 50% are lower. That’s confusing. Here’s an example. The median household income in America was $53,718 in 2014 (there is a more recent number available, but I wanted to compare it to the mean, which I don’t have for more recent periods). That means that half of American households earned more than $54k and half earned less. The average household income was $72,641. It’s higher because the income distribution in America is skewed. There are a few people at the top who earn a huge amount, and lots of people at the bottom who earn very little. That pulls the average upward.

OK, statistics over. Here’s why this is relevant.

This chart comes from the appealingly named The Economic Value of College Majors report. The darker bar at the top shows the earnings of people with a Bachelor’s degree, the lighter bar shows the earnings of those with a graduate degree. The dot in the middle is the median, the bottom end is what the bottom earners make, the top end is what the top earners make.

You can see that the medians for the graduate degree holders are all higher than for the BA holders. BUT. You will also, if you are astute, notice that there is a lot of overlap. There are people with a BA who earn more than the median for people with a graduate degree. And there are people with graduate degrees who earn less than the median for those with a BA. (Disclaimer: this is less true for the sciences, where a graduate degree is basically required for any job.)

In other words, your results may vary. Going to grad school may boost your income. It may not. A lot depends on your field, what school you go to, what your earnings were like before grad school, and what kind of connections you make at grad school. If you go to Harvard for an MBA, you will make way more money after you graduate. If you go to Podunk College for your MBA, your income boost is going to be a lot more modest. In other words, it’s entirely possible that you could spend a lot of money on grad school and not earn it back in improved wages.

4. Student debt is a real thing.

Finally, if you’re borrowing money to pay for grad school, you should keep in mind that debt is a real thing that you really have to pay back. Assuming you do boost your earnings by going to grad school (you probably will, but you may not—that’s what the statistics say), you will likely spend ten years paying a fairly hefty chunk of those boosted earnings to your friendly student loan provider. That will make it harder for you to save for a house, or new boobs, or whatever your particular dream is. Since money has a time value, having less of it when you’re younger can cost you a lot (in foregone compound returns) when you’re older.

OK, so that’s the case against grad school. Now, because I went to grad school and believe in complexity, making things difficult, and long lists, here are some exceptions and addendums. I think it’s ok to go to grad school if:

  • You have to. If you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a clinical therapist, you have to go to grad school. I love doctors, they fix me when I’m broken. I’m not going to stand in the way of your dream, go for it. That said, you really don’t want to be a lawyer. Seriously.
  • Someone else is paying for it. You know how I have an MA and a Ph.D.? I didn’t pay for them. Scholarships and fellowships paid for them, plus paid me a livable stipend while I was in school. If you work at a company that wants to pay for your MBA, go for it. Nothing is better than free, and even if the MBA doesn’t triple your earnings, you’re still going to come out on top.