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Bad reasons to go to grad school: Consider these red flags in your decision

Before we get to the bad reasons, it's important to note that people decide to apply to graduate school for many reasons. Among the best are when a graduate education:

  • is necessary for your desired professional field such as healthcare, law, teaching, and social work to name a few
  • can improve your career by increasing your responsibility and/or income earning potential
  • can enhance your professional prospects, whether you are switching careers or simply want greater flexibility and options
  • serves to satisfy your intellectual curiosity and passion

Whatever your rationale, you should not make the decision lightly. Graduate education requires a significant investment of your financial and personal resources; you want to be able to dedicate as much of your attention, energy, and time as possible towards earning your degree and enjoying and making the most of your grad school experience. We want to help you make the most informed decision about graduate education that you can.

Even if your degree is entirely funded, you will probably not work full-time during school, meaning you will lose your salary during your years in school. It's a classic case of what economists call "opportunity cost." For example, if your salary is $30,000 per year, two years of full-ride, tuition-paid grad school is still costing you at least $60,000 (in lost wages). That's steep! And possibly worth it, if your degree eventually helps you increase your salary or attain a more fulfilling career. But you should consider this hidden price tag if you have financial goals such as reducing undergraduate loans or other debt, paying for a car, saving for a house, or planning for retirement. For a deeper discussion of financial readiness for grad school, click here.

You may want to reevaluate your readiness for graduate education if any of the following are a significant or the most significant factor in your interest in applying to grad school:

You are avoiding personal/family/financial obligations

As if graduate education weren't already stressful enough! Rather than providing a solution to other issues going on in your life, going to grad school will most likely aggravate them. Who needs the extra stress? And a costly one at that. There are healthier and more affordable ways to resolve difficult personal challenges.

If you are trying to resolve some personal problem, seeking advice from a counselor, a financial advisor, or another professional is far more likely to help you than taking on the additional rigors of grad school.

You are avoiding or having difficulty in the job hunt

If you are avoiding the job hunt—especially if this is your first job out of college—realize that when you complete grad school, you will find yourself in the same position again. Employers place a great deal of weight on your experience, not just your education.

Also, most graduate admissions staff prefer to see some work experience. Your experiences will enrich your own education and that of your peers. As a grad student with some or substantial work experience in your field of study, you bring valuable real-world perspective to the theory you and your classmates learn in grad school. Additionally, if you continue to work while you earn your graduate degree , you can bring invaluable networking opportunities to your classmates as the connection between your current employer and program. By mutually sharing your knowledge, first-hand experiences, and connections in your field with your peers, the value of your graduate education increases.

Working, even in a less than ideal position, within or outside of your field of interest, will provide its own learning and growth opportunities and help define your career interests, potentially changing your graduate education considerations down the road.

Finally, working first will help you decide if this field is really a good fit, and if grad school is necessary after all. You may find that your job or career provides enough personal and professional development that you will not feel the need to obtain a graduate degree to advance in the field.

If you are having difficulty with your job hunt, keep the faith! Hopefully you've already checked out the job opportunities on Idealist.org in your search. If not, we suggest you start there if you are interested in nonprofit work. Also be sure to consider volunteer and intern positions.

You are dissatisfied with your current employment

Grad school is a very expensive solution unless you:

were already considering graduate education prior to your current situation, and feel that you've reached a point in your career where further education is necessary for advancement.

If you don't like your current job, consider finding a new job. If that's not possible, try to make your job more satisfying by addressing the problems directly.

An alternative to enrolling in a graduate program for a degree is to take professional development workshops, individual college classes, or certificate courses. Depending on your goals, a course or two may be all that you need.


Resources to help you explore new opportunities

For more information about nonprofit careers, internships and volunteering, and how to get started, check out the following resources Idealist provides:


You don't know what to do with your life

If this is the case, going to grad school is among the last things you should do. A graduate education can be an invaluable tool to help you accomplish what you want to do with your life, but it will not resolve any confusion or uncertainty about your career or life's purpose.

The first and most important thing to do is to figure out what you do want to do. Luckily, you're in a good place to start that exploration for nonprofit and public service careers. Idealist.org offers many resources to help you determine what it is that you enjoy, are passionate about, and do well. Some great ways to begin the process of self-discovery include:

Self-assessment and research

Figuring out what you want to do with your life can be daunting. You may find that you prefer assistance from a career counselor to help guide you through the process. If you are in school or have access to a local community college or state university, professional assistance may be available for free or very affordably. Some career counselors and organizations that provide career counseling services have posted profiles on idealist.org.

If you are unable to afford professional career guidance, there are many things you can do by yourself. Most career counselors will start you off with self-assessment tests, of which the two most common are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory. You can pay a fee to take either of these online.

The Idealist Careers resource page contains a variety of exercises and activities that can help you focus in on positions and fields that you're passionate about. Another highly recommended resource is the book, "What Color is Your Parachute?".

Once you have taken these tests or read some books or worked with a career counselor to narrow down your possible fields of interest, you'll be better prepared to take advantage of our own resource, the Idealist Nonprofit Career Center.

Volunteering and interning

Giving your time and energy as a volunteer or intern not only helps the organization you are with but can also help build your skills, resume, and networks in the organization, field, or community that interests you. Moreover, these positions offer you a chance—with minimal commitment—to "test-drive" (determine what you enjoy about) a particular position and organization and can help you clarify your own job search and career path. Although volunteer positions and some internships are unpaid, the self-knowledge, hands-on-learning, and connections you gain can be invaluable.

Working

Much like volunteering and interning, working can provide you the valuable opportunity to learn more about yourself—plus you'll be earning money! (If you haven't read it already, see the discussion above about difficulties in the job hunt.)

Even in a less than ideal position, working will provide its own learning and growth opportunities and help shape your career interests, potentially changing your graduate education considerations down the road.

Term-of-service programs

Additionally, there are options between volunteering and working in terms of pay and time commitment. A few include Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Fulbright fellowship. Their program structure, application requirements, and objectives vary widely but they all provide an opportunity to further explore your personal and professional interests with some financial and institutional support.

For example, AmeriCorps is a one-year term of service with a modest living stipend and great hands-on learning in the nonprofit and public service sectors. Peace Corps is a two-year program spent assisting communities outside of the United States. The Fulbright allows you to teach or research a topic of interest for a year in another country.

  • Learn more about year of service programs and public service fellowships

You think that a graduate degree is necessary for your next steps

Definitely do your research first. Talk to people. Talk to people who are doing what you want to do. Ask them if a degree is necessary or matters for that job or field. If so, ask which degree they recommend and seek their advice on when you should go to grad school. If not, ask them what the steps are to get to where they are and do what they are doing.

You may not need a graduate degree to transition from a career as a marketing assistant to a development officer, an account executive to a program coordinator, or an engineer to a teacher. A continuing education course may provide the necessary skills without the expense and time commitment of a degree-granting program. Some preliminary "field experience" through volunteering, interning, or getting an entry-level job in the area of interest can also help you gain more insight into what skills and background you would need. It can also help you get a foot in the door and through a combination of networking and experience, potentially assist you in getting the job you want.

You have always been curious about X

If you are curious about a particular subject or field, exploring that interest can take many forms, without having to commit the resources (time, money) required for grad school. Depending on how you like to learn, here are a few ideas:

  • Buy or borrow books to read about your interest
  • Join a membership organization that allows you to learn more about a topic through organized events such as discussions, lectures, and trainings. For example, if you are curious about international affairs and you live in the United States, you can join the World Affairs Council. These organizations are a great way to meet other people interested in your same subject and become active in a learning community.
  • Take a continuing education class at your local community college. This is a good way to get a taste of what it would be like to study the subject more seriously in a more structured setting.
  • Volunteer with an organization that focuses on issues related to a particular topic such as the American Red Cross for public health and safety. You can use Idealist to find a local organization to volunteer with.

If after exploring your interest area through one or more of these avenues, you find that you are still left wanting for more, then a graduate degree may be an option for you.

You have always wanted to live in X

Moving to another location can be one of the most stressful and exciting experiences you can undergo, and a move should be a consequence of your decision to go to grad school—not the other way around. Unless you are very sure that getting a graduate education is the right choice for you, using grad school as the main reason to move is probably not a wise decision.

Having a larger goal or purpose for a move can help provide stability while you settle into your new environs and give you a long-term perspective during daily ups and downs. If that purpose or goal is not grad school, there are other options such as transferring for work or starting a new job. You can also take some time off and explore an area while on vacation to see if you'd really like to move and live there.

Conclusion and further resources

Whatever your motivations for applying for grad school may be, having a clear vision of how your graduate degree will help you achieve your goals is essential because it will make the going worthwhile and temper the more challenging moments. A good litmus test for the clarity of your vision is the personal statement on the grad school's application form. If you are having a difficult time articulating the reasons for applying to a particular graduate program to yourself, then it will be that much harder to convince the graduate admissions professionals who will eventually read your application and interview you. If you find yourself in this situation, you should reconsider applying for grad school now and look into alternatives that can help you figure out your next steps.

  • Here is an article with attitude about the wrong reasons to go to grad school, by blogger Penelope Trunk. It's a good thought provoker and argues against graduate education—read with a grain of salt.