The Grad School Scam


Is grad school a scam? The cost of education continues to rise while wages and employment opportunities remain stagnant. Many twenty-somethings struggle to get a foothold in their career after completing their bachelors degree, so they go back to school hoping for more opportunities.

I love my generation, I do. I’m amused that I’m hurtling into my late 20’s and basically living like I’m in my early 20’s, but with considerably more money. It’s like being a teenager with a credit card. I don’t have a house, I don’t have a family, and really I don’t have any real obligations except for my career.

There it is, I said the scary word: CAREER

Millenials hate it. Even though I’m mostly debt-free and employed full-time, the word still ignites fear inside my heart. I will be working happily at my desk and then all of a sudden I will wonder (sometimes out loud), “is this my career? Have I arrived?!” and I feel like the are-we-there-yet child in the backseat of a station wagon on a family vacation. Is this it? Do I like it here? Do I want to do something else? Should I go back to school?

Which brings up the word that combats the scariness of career: GRAD SCHOOL

Twenty-somethings love to go to grad school. It’s a great place. It’s like undergrad but you feel really sophisticated and sometimes you even get paid a small stipend which feels totally awesome after forking over tens of thousands of dollars for your bachelors degree. But how many people are actually in graduate studies to forward their career and how many are just hiding out there until this whole “get a career” nonsense blows over?

Is grad school a scam?

Some of you that have been reading my blog for years and years will remember that I began my Master of Science immediately after my Bachelors degree. I had good grades and planned to continue into my PhD, but life got heavy and one year into it I was just like…

grad school scam

Why did I even go to graduate school in the first place? Probably some or all of the same reasons anyone goes to graduate school:

  • I liked what I was studying.
  • It sounded important.
  • I didn’t have a job lined up.
  • I didn’t know what else to do.

Now I just have this awkward transcript where I received a GPA of 3.7 and “voluntarily withdrew from program” — which I guess is better then getting a D-average and being kicked out.

Graduate studies was both a waste and not a waste of my time. I didn’t finish my degree and delayed entering the workforce by a year, but I also had a good life experience, made great friends (including my supervisor, who forgives me for bailing out of his lab) and suffered little financial repercussions because there was enough of my stipend to live off of after tuition was paid. In my opinion, I got out relatively unscathed. I’ve heard plenty of stories about students who go deeply in debt for graduate school and ultimately end up with no better job prospects than they had with their undergraduate education.

The following videos are for your LOL-ing pleasure:

What are your thoughts about the mass subscription to graduate schools? What’s your experience with your graduate degree? Why is it so hard to establish a career? What is a career anyway? Do you think even Channing Tatum looks bad with a haircut like that?

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46 Comments. Leave new

  • I did an m.s. while working, so the only cost was my time. My husband did the whole PhD thing, and is now a post-doc… but is in a good position to get a professor job which should pay well. (strictly financially speaking, i’m sure he could have made more working after his B.S., but a professor lifestyle is also pretty awesome, and he loves research.)

    i don’t know. The job market was/is so horrible that if you can get a stipdent, staying in school and getting an M.S. isn’t a horrible thing. I don’t hold that against job candidates, but it isn’t a huge plus either. If you can get a job, that seems like a better option.

    Going to grad school because you aren’t sure what else to do is a bad idea.

  • I also started grad school and dropped out with a high GPA – the difference being that I was doing my MA only as a way to emigrate to the UK, until they suddenly changed the requirements and I didn’t need it any more! Hence my high student loan debt with not a lot to show for it.

    I have no love lost for the UK Border Agency, for the record. Sigh.

    I totally agree that the best reason to go to grad school is because you know you want to do a job that you need a postgraduate degree for. It’s tempting to look at it as a holding pattern, but it’s just a really expensive way of putting off the inevitable!

  • I tell every undergrad/MS student who asks about pursuing the PhD to not apply unless she is beyond sure that she needs the degree to have the career she wants. (I was sure of that when I started grad school and then changed my mind! So I can’t even imagine going in unsure.) There are major opportunity costs to attending grad school full-time that are way scarier than the prospect of finding a job. Personally I wasn’t sure of exactly what sub-field I wanted to study in grad school when I graduated from undergrad so I worked until I figured that out, then applied.

    I decided by the end of my second year that I didn’t want to be a P.I. after all, but I decided to finish the PhD because it opened up a lot more doors in the private and public sector than an MS would. I imagine I’ll have several careers in my life, probably none of which will directly involve doing scientific research. Even if I don’t end up using my PhD though (I hope I will, but you never know) I’m happy I did it because of how the rest of my life has evolved during the time I’ve been in school.

  • I think grad school helped me, mainly because it is needed in the field that I am in. I wouldn’t change it! Especially since I’m already done 🙂

  • Ha ha, those videos are awesome!

  • I am halfway through grad school and wouldn’t change a thing. But, grad school shouldn’t be a fallback when you have nothing else to do, which is how it is most often portrayed. And, regardless of the field of graduate study, I am a big believer in taking a year off after undergraduate to really evaluate whether you want to continue on with school.

  • Going to grad school didn’t make any sense when I had a six figure job on the table, knew I liked working in my industry, and I wasn’t quite sure which subfield I wanted to study if I were to go to grad school. In my industry, a Master’s degree doesn’t really get you much. It would really just leave you exactly where I started right after undergrad, but 2 years later. Personally, I think I’ve learned far, far more about life working in industry than I would have in grad school, so I think I made the right decision for me.

    I may have established my career early, but that doesn’t make the decisions coming up any easier. There are different tracks to go down and you can also make lateral moves to another group. So many choices and I hate making life decisions, lol.

    • hahaha I agree! My friends and I have conversations all the time about how hard it is to be a grown-up and plan your life =\ it looked so easy when we were kids!

  • While I’m sure that a Master’s would probably look better on my resume, there are two issues for me. One, I simply didn’t get the grades that I would have needed to even be eligible for grad school. Two, I just don’t have the money to pay for it and actually have debt because of my undergrad. So grad school isn’t on the table for me. I think I’m pretty okay with that. I don’t think a graduate degree would help me anyway, since what I want to do (write for a living) doesn’t require extra degrees.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules
    October 22, 2012 8:47 am

    I went to grad school to get an MBA. I think it helped me, but grad school is not for everone. I was sold the idea of getting an MBA would amount to people knocking down my door wanting to hire me. There might be SOME truth in that, but I have not found it to be the case. It takes a lot of work AND a lot of money. If you’re going to grad school just to go, then you’re in for an expensive lesson.

  • “Because if we were good at life, we wouldn’t need more school.” hahahahhaha ROFL

  • I loved the video at the end! Grad school is a GREAT way to take a vacation for folks who don’t know what they want to do or really know what they want to do. Grad schools also make bank of students which is nice for them.

    My main question is, why didn’t you finish grad school? Masters programs are only 1-2 years long. I can understand quitting a PhD program, but grad school goes by quickly!


    ps I have my MBA. Thought I’d never go back to school, but figured why not if the firm paid for it.

  • As someone in her last year, ALL of my friends are talking about grad school and law/med school and I’m just like “nope. I’ve checked OUT!” I’m going to get a nice real job and start earning real money again instead of this part time quasi-existence that I have now

  • I went to grad school for mostly the wrong reasons, but I’m so glad I did. I did an internship during my ugrad, and didn’t really enjoy it, so I could never really imagine myself working at the jobs that most people with my undergrad degree went on to. Sure enough, I got one of those jobs after finishing my MSc and it just wasn’t for me. The connections and that piece of paper I got by going to grad school opened so many more doors for me, and now I’ve got all kinds of really fun opportunities that don’t make me want to cry when I wake up in the morning.

    Plus I was fortunate enough to be in a program with an actual livable stipend, and I only(?) had to add a couple thousand to my student debt (which is now < $1K heck yes). On the other hand, I applied to start a PhD the year after I graduated, and ended up deferring because I didn't think I could commit just yet.

    But I do know a lot of people who go to grad school because ???, and who don't have much of an idea what they would actually do with that degree when they're done. It's probably worthwhile to get out and collect some more data before committing.

    October 22, 2012 10:31 am

    Lucky for me I went to grad school to get further in my career. But I knew countless people who did so only to “hide” from the real world. Its really sad because once you get out there and find your way, its really not all that bad. Plus its like pulling off a bandaid – the sooner you do it, the better you’ll feel!

  • I think more than often grad school is a waste of money. I would only consider getting an MBA if it was required by my employer for advancement and they paid for it.

  • First video is so funny! I have friends still in grad school, most of them looking for excuses not to enter the workforce. At least in France you get next to free tuition and lots of scholarships.

  • I have really mixed feelings about grad school. Had I not done the one year grad school program that I took, I highly doubt I would have gotten my career job – mostly because I didn’t know that what I now do even existed as a job. I don’t regret my grad school experience at all, but I often question the amount of tuition money it took for me to get here. 6.5 years of school left me with massive student loan debts, and a job in the non-profit sector. It would take 2 years salary to pay down my student loan alone. At the rate I’m going, it will take me 22 years to pay it off! Without grad school it would only be 17 years… “Only”.

    (Brand new to your site – just spent a few hours reading your archives!)

  • I have a business degree, and the next step up in education for me would be an MBA, since I don’t want to be a CEO, I don’t think getting my MBA would take me where I want to go in my career. That said, I’m not opposed to law school in a few years.

  • I went straight into graduate school after my undergraduate. I actually received job offers after my undergrad but really wanted to go to grad school. I turned down the job offers, and asked them to consider me for the following year. They actually did. Why did I go to grad school? Tuition + 50% of my living expenses were paid for by my scholarship. Did I lose out on a year’s worth of salary? Yes, but I am going to recoop that last year in two years of my current salary. My salary increased 50% after getting my grad degree.

    Do I regret it? No, I’m glad I finished it so quickly. I did my MS and part of my MBA in 1 year. It was HELLL!!! I finish my MBA in the Spring. I need my graduate degrees to get promoted to a managerial position. My company is paying for the rest of my MBA classes. 🙂

    Will I go back to school after my MBA? Maybe…I think I’m going to take a break though, enjoy my 20s. And only if my company pays for my schooling will I go back. Not coming out of pocket.

    One of my dream careers is to teach at a university. But I want to be an industry professor. A professor with 2 plus decades of experience who goes back to school and teaches college and grad students what’s actually in the real world. Those were the best professors. i may or may not need a PhD for the career track. I have seen professors with and without one teaching in the business school.

  • Great post and hilarious videos.

    Grad school became a safe especially during a “jobless” recovery. But it may be the right path depending on what goals are on the horizon. Before going too far into debt for a degree that may not make sense, do some research and consider job opportunities after graduation.

    I wrote up an article that considers different advice sources about attending Grad School:

  • Yup that was sort of my plan after I got my bachelors since it was when the recession hit and there were absolutely no jobs. I told myself if I didn’t find a job in a year I would go to grad school, maybe even try to go to law school, because I honestly didn’t have anything better to do. Maybe not the best reason to go to grad school but I bet I’m not alone in this.

  • I was fully funded, but still quit with a masters when I figured out that I didn’t want a life in academia (which was where that road was headed)… For most of the people I know – if they went to grad school to avoid the real world, the real world sucked a lot worse when they finally faced it.

  • I didn’t really have a choice BUT to get an M.A. I graduated with a B.A. in history – i.e., I was totally unemployable. So for me, grad school was a really good choice. It didn’t really cost me too much extra money, though, because I did my B.A. in 3 years and the M.A. that I did was one calendar year.

  • I decided to get my M.Sc. right after my undergrad for a couple reasons: I really, really like school and wanted more, I got a big scholarship, and I wasn’t ready to start working for a living. In retrospect, I’m glad I did my Masters. It bumped me into a higher starting salary bracket at work, in addition to giving me a deeper understanding of my field and letting me put off real life for at least a couple more years. I do think that masters are becoming the new undergrad degrees though, lots of people get ’em so it’s harder to market yourself using just those extra letters behind your name.

  • I lost my mind in the second video where he says “how YOU doin?” and it’s so painful to realize that today’s kids really don’t get that reference!

    I wanted to go to grad school after I did my bachelors, but the only option at the end of it would have been to teach, and I hate people and due to my overly emotive face, when I hate people, they know it. Not prime teacher material. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t start it without a clear picture of what I wanted out of it, and I wanted to work a year to save up for it anyway. Then I landed my job, and the opportunity cost of going back to school was just too damn high. So I’ve been in the real world for four years and I’m really enjoying having a steady paycheque!

  • I sort of agree and I sort of don’t agree with your post…

    I agree that graduate school isn’t for everyone. It all comes down to what do you want to do in life – where do YOU want to be? I think many students rush to get their masters and PHD because they don’t know what else to do with their life once school ends. So they stay in school & they instantly think they’ll find something with their higher degree. This is a possibility but not always. It really depends on what field you’re studying and what industry you want to be in.

    It makes sense to get a PHD if you’re aiming to become a professor at a school or a science researcher. It doesn’t really make sense if you just want to be a regular white-collared office worker.

    In real life, experience, education and personality are important. ALL OF THEM. Lacking one can make you lose out on a job. I think most people forget that and just aim for education. While people who have been working for sometime find that their knowledge base is not up-to-date. Many go back to school to update their skills & knowledge so they can be considered for more senior jobs.

    In the end, I think it goes down to knowing what YOU want and doing the research of HOW to get there.

  • I decided not to get a masters in anthropology because I don’t know what to do with it. Hell, if I can’t figure out what to do with my BA (and my career councilor doesn’t know either) what’s the point in getting another useless degree? Every day I regret not going to trade school.

  • I’m studying accounting. Currently, there are two paths to becoming a Chartered Accountant: enrolling in the Chartered Accountant School of Business OR getting a Master of Public Accounting. I’m planning on going the MPAcc route. I just figure that if I’m going to be completing modules and whatnot, I might as well have a degree to show for it.

  • Grad school can be one of the best ways to advance or career or help a person change careers. You just enrolled in a grad school program that did not accomplish either of those objectives.
    Perhaps additional research on the grad school programs that help advance careers (rather than hinder them) should have been done before writing this. Just because you had a bad experience doesn’t mean grad school overall is a bad decision for someone.

    • I was only poking fun at grad school, I don’t actually think it’s a scam. I think many people go for the wrong reasons. I think I had the right intentions when I began my program, but I had a significant life upheaval in the middle of my degree that contributed to my decision to leave it. You have no idea how my MSc. could have advanced my career or changed it — I don’t think I would have been unsuccessful in science, I’m simply pursuing a different career now.

  • For me, grad school was basically required. I wouldn’t have been able to advance my career, get a raise at my current company, or get the licenses I need to one day do private practice. But I completely agree with you. So many people get a masters as a default, or because the economy is really bad and it’s painful to sit around unemployed. I’m not anti-masters degree as long as it pushes people forward. But there are a lot of liberal arts type masters degrees that are crazy expensive and don’t really give you any more “employability” when you graduate.

  • Gorwing up, I never even thought going to grad school full time after undergrad was an option. I thought the only people who did such things were lawyers and doctors. My how times have changed.

    I was browsing the jobs section of the internet and saw a job for “librarian”. I thought to myself, hmmm, that sounds interesting, I wonder if I could apply for that. I was shocked that the job required a masters, was part time, required the applicant be bi-lingual (in spanish), and paid something like $12 on hour. Ouch.

    I know someone out there will think I was crazy to think I could possibly apply for a job as a librarian without the proper education but it seems to me that you used to be able to get away with less education a lot more 15 years ago.

  • I think a lot of people go to grad school to delay entering the real world, definitely. I know several people who did exactly that! In those cases, I feel like it is probably a bad decision and a waste of time, energy, and sometimes money.

    I WANT to do research and be a professor, so I HAVE to get my PhD if I want to do that. Plus… most of the time I like it. And I get paid a semi-decent (definitely livable) stipend.

    When I was applying to grad school, my roommate asked me if I was applying to any “safety schools”… I wasn’t, and my mentor agreed with my rationale – I wanted to get a PhD to advance my career, but going to a lowly ranked school and getting paid a very small stipend wasn’t the best way to do that. If I couldn’t go to a top(ish) school, I’d work for a few years first and re-asses. As it turned out, I got into two “top” programs, so I really didn’t have to worry about it, but it was an interesting thought exercise.

  • Sorry to revive the conversations, it’s just this strike a cord with me. My stereotypical mom was pushing me to go to grad school with reason: “There are so many master graduate out there competing for jobs!”

    I absolutely hated it when she pushed me for it, because I am currently employed full time for 5 years and still going, and I don’t need another master degree to do my current job (nor my career for next 5 years). I need EXPERIENCE to do my current job and my next job. That’s the problem with students going to grad school because they thought it could earn them better chances of getting a job (mind you i said “job” not “career”). I completely agree with the blog post stating the graduate sometimes could sound like a scam.

    People complete go to grad school for the wrong reason, hence the influx of master students competing for undergrad jobs. You ended up with high student loan debt, and lower pay (because it was an undergraduate position), while the rest of undergraduate students suffers.

  • I decided to do grad school while doing my own start-up, and also wanted to have ‘something’ to ‘show’ that didn’t involve me doing work let alone go to a 9-to-5 job in case the start-up failed.

    I’m nearly finished and let me tell you, I barely passed one of the subjects (51 out of 100) and felt like I lost a year because I was too ashamed to talk to my friends and colleagues about what I was going through. My start-up also failed which was OK because at least I know what it was like to have failed. However because I did things by correspondence, there were so many lost days and nights just staying in my bed all day. And panicking about the future.

    The good thing about this is that the experience had made me want to fight for want I want to do with my career because I felt I had sacrificed a lot already. Enough time had passed between my old and my upcoming career so I was getting more comfortable applying for different roles. I was also able to access a couple of large scholarships to attend conferences that would otherwise involve me shelling out several hundred dollars to attend.

    I wish that I was one of those people who are now able to have a high paying job or be paid to do something that they are passionate about even having dropped out of high school. Maybe from the outside it seemed ideal, but they were probably facing a lot of panic themselves in their own lives when a lot of the narrative today is to “go to school, get a job, make money”. On that note, I think it’s time to challenge that narrative, especially from the boring hiring manages and recruiters.

    I am now freelancing for a company in an industry that I am studying for. I am so lucky to have this role after nearly a year of being unemployed (somehow deliberately because I didn’t want to have jobs that wasn’t a good fit for my study). Many of my colleagues have, at least, a Masters under their belt so doing gradschool is part of the ‘culture’ of that company.


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