Education, Personal Finance 

Graduate Degrees Are Outdated

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Penelope Trunk recently posted seven reasons why graduate degrees are outdated that I think every young professional needs to read. Each of the seven reasons are spot on but I wanted to discuss my own experiences with two of them specifically.

2. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to play. “It used to be that you couldn’t go into business without an MBA. But recently, the only reason you need an MBA is to climb a corporate ladder.” I have two graduate degrees – a technical one in software engineering and a vaunted MBA. In the case of the software engineering degree, I pursued it because job prospects for software developers following the dot-com burst were bleak and because it never hurts to get another technical degree. The MBA? I pursued it strictly because my employer paid for it and because it was seen as another item on your resume, a “requirement” to climb that corporate ladder.

I didn’t pursue an MBA because it would teach me the skills required to fulfill a job function, because it wouldn’t, I pursued it because I knew that at some level it would be required to even be considered for some management position (even if that management position would require none of the skills taught in an MBA course… how does marketing or analyzing internal rate of return help in management?).

What’s my point about MBAs? While some companies may require them for management, you don’t actually need one to succeed at your job. Results matter and companies should promote based on results, not degrees on a wall. If you are at a place that refuses to recognize results, go somewhere that does.

4. Graduate degrees shut doors rather than open them. Penelope focuses on the financial aspects of this – the loans you are saddled with preclude you from working at certain places because you can’t afford it. I believe graduate degrees have a pigeonholing effect. When I applied to become a software developer at my last company, I had been doing embedded software development for about six months. In the interviews, the interviewers focused on the fact that I had been working in the embedded development world for “so long” and how I might not want to or even be able to do application development. Luckily they called me in so I could resolve their concerns because, based on six months of work (it appeared longer than six months because I used the same language, C, for various applications, the last of which was truly embedded development), they had pigeonholed me as an embedded software developer who was disinterested in, or incapable of, application development.

Imagine if you spent a year or two pursuing a degree in a very specific area within your field? Employers would naturally assume you have a singular focus and would only consider you for positions directly related to that field. You might have only gone after that degree because you thought it could broaden your horizons, not make it more narrow.

Lastly, I submit another reason, the eighth reason, graduate school can be outdated.
8. In many graduate programs, the bulk of the teaching is done by textbook. While in some fields this is acceptable, I found that the textbooks used in our business classes were woefully inadequate. We had marketing textbooks that appeared to have last been refreshed in the early nineties, discussing case studies of companies that no longer existing, and really teaching us little that could be applied in the real world anymore. You can learn more reading the nuggets from Seth Godin’s blog, for free, than you can get out of most marketing textbooks.

Finally, and this is unrelated to graduate degrees being outdated, is the fact that there are two things of value when it comes to graduate school and neither involves the knowledge. First, you will, hopefully, increase your network and, second, you’ll get a piece of paper. If graduate school was about the knowledge, you wouldn’t be able to take classes for free from resources like MIT OpenCourseWare and BusinessWeek Small Biz.

I hope you don’t leave here thinking I’m cynical about graduate school or an MBA, I’m not (that cynical), but it’s like what Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) said in Cocktail to his professor after a bad grade: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” 🙂

{ 9 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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9 Responses to “Graduate Degrees Are Outdated”

  1. Money Maus says:

    Hey Jim – I read Penelope’s “Brazen Careerist” blog and as a fresh college graduate, the prospect of graduate school is on my mind. I thought both your follow-up and her ideas had good ideas – which I why I am looking into pursuing a professional designation or a Master’s degree that is NOT an MBA – but who knows what the future really holds! 🙂 Thanks!

  2. jim says:

    I like Penelope’s blog (and her book too) because it gives a different perspective on how you should approach your career. I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says but I think everyone needs to be aware of the points she makes and then make a conscious decision.

  3. tom says:

    I think she had some good arguements, however… I think this whole thing should have the caveat of being a full time graduate degree. If your employer will pay for your part time graduate degree, and you are not taking advantage, you are missing out on a great benefit and opportunity. I am currently pursuing my graduate degree part time, one class a semester. If, for whatever reason, I don’t use my degree (1% chance of that), I will have only wasted a few hours a week, but I will have more than made up for that time with my companies offering of 100 shares of stock for completing a degree when employed, and the fact that the degree was 100% free!

  4. Posco says:

    Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.
    Those who can’t teach, administrate!

    Actually, I highly resent that quote. It takes skill to teach well.

    I agree that the decision to pursue graduate studies should be made consciously and deliberately. But some of these points cannot be universally applied. In fact, this post seems heavily tilted against MBA’s. But there are many other things to study in “graduate school.” Disclosure: I’m a Ph.D. student in computer science.

    “Graduate school is an extreme investment for a fluid workplace.” True. However, graduate school trains the student for research and critical thinking. These skills are ever more important in a fluid workplace and a fast-changing industry. But the right person to get a graduate degree is one who cares about learning MORE than salary. Show me a Ph.D. student motivated by salary, and I’ll show you someone who is delusional.

    “Graduate degrees shut doors rather than open them.” But if they shut doors that you didn’t want to go through anyway, what’s the harm? My obtaining a Ph.D. in computer science will close nearly all doors leading to website development. I will also never take a job where I will be code monkey. Thank God! This point seems to be more about: make sure you’re clear about the career paths your degree opens to you.

    “Graduate school is an extension of childhood.” That’s ridiculous. I don’t get constant praise from my adviser or professors. My adviser does not assign me homework. I do have to create my own “assignments” and solutions and analyses and reports.

    “In many graduate programs, the bulk of the teaching is done by textbook.” It’s true that textbooks don’t represent the state-of-the-art. But participating in the creation of state-of-the-art depends on a solid foundation of fundamentals, and that’s what textbooks are good for building. Once you’ve learned the fundamentals, you go on to reading journals and peer-reviewed proceedings of current conferences to learn the state-of-the-art. You’ll never be able to understand researchers’ current findings if you don’t have the textbook fundamentals.

  5. jim says:

    Just so you know Posco, I threw in that quote in jest (my sister is a teacher) and my reaction is heavily skewed towards MBAs because that was the last graduate degree I attained. I don’t have similar indignation towards my software engineer masters. 🙂

  6. saladdin says:

    My MBA is from a small private school in the Great State of Tennessee. It is not a “special” school or for that fact a difficult MBA program. But my GI Bill paid for it all. No debt and actually made a little money.

    I think that MBA’s fall into two tiers: Ivy and all others. Mine, of course, falls into that “all other” category. The fact is that anyone can get a MBA now online with little time and small amount of money. The name of the school is the only thing that gives you a leg up.

    I am an average intelligent guy so I have to keep learning new things or new ways to look at things to keep pace. I have close to 250 semester hours of college and plan on never stopping.


  7. aa says:

    $ is certainly nice but no one should expect a higher salary with a graduate degree. If we want big $, why not go for a JD or MD???

    After all, graduate degree is a personal/lifetime accomplishment. It may not give us a bigger paycheck but it certainly helps if all job candidates seem to be equal.

  8. Double Cross says:

    I paid $3500 for my masters and $16,000 for my PhD thanks to a bit of good luck and timing. I made up the cost of the masters in one year and the PhD in two by securing better jobs. Maybe I didn’t need those degrees to get the jobs, but it didn’t hurt.

    The problem with most graduate degrees is that they are so costly that it will take far too long to make back that money, especially if you borrowed it and must pay it back over the long term with lots of interest. I paid cash.

    Graduate school has become a hiding place for young people not ready to face the real world. Borrowing more and hiding in education for as many years as possible has become the standard. What a huge mistake. You can ruin any hope of a quality retirement by this decision.

    And most of the degrees earned are pure fluff. A masters in leadership? Please. You’d be better off with practical experience.

    As one who went to “the top of the mountain” in academia, I don’t recommend it for many. Tenured professorships are getting rarer by the day, especially in the humanities. A PhD in sociology will qualify you to do nothing in the real world.

    You’d be smarter to get a solid business degree at the bachelor’s level and start your own business. If I had it to do again, I’d choose this path.

  9. I have a JD and work as an attorney. I would like, at some point, to get an MBA on the side just for fun. I agree with almost all of what is in this post – but I would actually say that I feel like an MBA is a pretty practical degree. Much of what you learn is useful. I felt the same way about the JD. I mostly practice Administrative Law, but I use other areas all the time – products liability, real estate, business planning and formation – in my day to day life. Even criminal comes in handy (b/c that’s all people want to talk to you about). I think of an MBA the same way – maybe I’m wrong.

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