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Graduate Degrees Are Outdated

Penelope Trunk recently posted seven reasons why graduate degrees are outdated [3] that I think every young professional needs to read.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 [4], 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 [5] and BusinessWeek Small Biz [6].

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 [7] to his professor after a bad grade: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” 🙂