Don't Go Back to School for the Wrong Reasons

Graduate Programs Are Great, but Enroll With the Right Expectations

By Published on .

Kelly Eidson Kelly Eidson
Since the recession started, I've heard from friends who've been laid off or hit a wall with their job search. Suddenly, going back to school is an attractive and seemingly safe way out of that mess. Like clockwork, application rates for graduate programs in every industry go up in downturns, and advertising is no exception.

I could talk about how much grad school helped me (it has) or how to get into a good program, but that would be pretty self-indulgent on my part. I think it would be more helpful if I talked about the rude awakenings, because a lot of people have unrealistic expectations going into grad school, and no one likes to learn lessons the hard way.

It's not going to get you a higher salary. I've never seen any data to suggest that having a master's degree or an MBA produces higher salaries in advertising that can't be explained away by organizational or individual differences, but I have seen plenty of data that show a negligible increase at best. (See page 22.)

There are exceptions to every rule, but it's safe to say that the only big money that's guaranteed with grad school is what comes out of your bank account, not into it. Trust me, I'm disappointed about it, too.

It's not a golden ticket to career success. Degrees and slick portfolios are not the equivalent of industry experience. Though these things may increase your chances of cracking into a field and help you land an entry-level job on a long road to your dream job, any recruiter worth his salt will tell you that there's at least one big difference between student work and professional work: clients. Without going through rounds of approval processes, student work is student work, even if it's good.

It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: Graduate degrees don't mean anything on paper; it's what you went through to earn them that makes you valuable and interesting.

It's not the best place to learn the latest set of hot skills. Academia is really good at teaching broad, backbone theories (like the Pareto Principle) that apply to a wide range of disciplines and have been tested and supported over years of research. It's not so good at teaching shiny objects.

Don't get me wrong, you can learn about emerging trends and pick up technical skills in grad school, but your professors won't spoon-feed it to you. If you really want to learn something specific, find courses at a community college or even a freelancer who has these hot skills and pay her to teach you. Better yet, calculate 1% of the cost of a semester's graduate tuition and spend that on books that can help you teach yourself the hot skills. You'll learn them better, and you'll save yourself a couple grand.

It's not a good way to avoid job-searching in a recession. When the economy gets ugly, people retreat to universities because it sounds a lot like a bomb shelter; they can crawl in and hide out while they wait for the war to blow over. After all, recessions are scary, and extra education can't hurt, right?

True, but all too often people forget about the opportunity cost associated with delaying work experience. Yes, in grad school you'll learn a lot and tack on a degree, but how certain are you that two more years will yield a higher rate of return than other options? Grad school is especially tempting if you've been laid off, but even in this economy, it probably won't take two years to find another job.

It's not College 2.0. Remember what a rock star you were in college? How you could read through course material, take an exam, get a good grade and feel validated in your intelligence? I was the same way. I loved college so much that I thought to myself, "Hey, if I'm good at this, think of how great I'll be in grad school!" My first semester in grad school knocked the snot out of me.

Higher education has a way of making people feel lonely and small -- you're surrounded by knowledgeable faculty and other students who are just as bright and competitive and hungry as you are, and you're constantly confronted with the reality that even though you work till your eyes bleed, what you learn is just a drop in the bucket compared to everything there is to know. If anyone tells you that it doesn't shrink them to three inches tall, they're not to be trusted.

The bottom line is that if you go to grad school for quick gain, you're going to be disappointed. Go to school because you want to take a step closer to a long-term goal. Personally, I went to school because I wanted more research experience, more opportunity to study social sciences and more practice in account planning. My goal was to learn as much as possible, so that I can be great at communications strategy, whether that's working in advertising or not. If I had known that I'd be graduating in the midst of the worst economic climate the country has seen in decades, I may have delayed my graduate studies, but I wouldn't have forgone them.

Go to grad school with a purpose. It doesn't matter what you're aiming for; you need to know what it is and why it's important to you. Otherwise, it's hard, and it's a huge investment that doesn't provide much instant gratification. Then again, few things that are worthy ever do.

If you'd like to hear more about grad school, you can find me on Twitter or read through the transcript from the last #advise chat where we covered this very topic. Of course, I can't talk about life in grad school without recommending PHD Comics.

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