7 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

by Alexander Heyne · 25 comments

Grad School

Most of you that are thinking about going to grad school shouldn’t go.

I get emails all the time from graduates that are massively in debt, realized they hated the job they mastered or have a PhD in, and now they’re stuck at square one with a huge amount of debt. Fucked.

One person in particular wrote to me and said this: (paraphrased)

“I’m $180,000 in student loan debt, 25, completely broke, unemployed, living back at home with my mom in my childhood bedroom, and have no friends. But I have a handy dandy law/PhD/masters/MBA degree, but the job prospects are awful. Help?”

And you know, it made me think about a lot of the people I know who go to graduate school.

Many of my friends have dropped out, are currently getting their asses kicked by the debt, or they did their MBA to make mommy and daddy happy.

And that’s when I realized that for many of us, graduate school is a complete waste of time and money. As I see it, here are the top seven reasons.

***

#1 You Have no Fucking Idea What You Want From Life… And Graduate School is the Slowest, Worst and Most Expensive Way to Figure That Out

Let’s start with #1 – quite possibly the truest, most important point I’m going to make.

Many of you are going to graduate school because you don’t know what you want from life. You think that going to graduate school is “just what people do.” Maybe you like school and you find it easy – easier than the “real world.” Maybe you think it’ll give you that extra year (or a few) to figure things out.

The reality is that by going to graduate school, you’re potentially risking spending $180,000 to realize you didn’t like a job. (read: unless you end up making 100K+ a year, there’s a very good chance you’ll die in debt).

Let’s say you’re one of those people who hates your job. You want to go into another industry. Your immediate though is “graduate school!”  WRONG.

Here’s how to break into an industry without 2+ years of classes and debt.

It’s amazing.

And mind-blowing.

Except not really.

You start doing research on the types of industries that interest you.

Find a specific company. Let’s say Zappos. Then you go through the positions in the company – like here.

You’re not looking for jobs – you’re looking for the exact position that aligns with your strengths, and what you want.

And then you do some spywork – either do it yourself, or hire someone on elance – get the contact info of every product manager (if you are interested in product management), or the head of the design team (if that’s what you’re into), and then email that specific person, showing how you can help the company.

None of this “give me 5 minutes of your time” bullshit. Who the fuck wants to GIVE you their time? No one. Especially when they’re busy as hell and more important than you.

Email them like this:

“Hi Sally,

I can help boost your home page conversions by at least 20%, which will increase revenue by 10% on your product. In my previous job at < experience > I did this, and < achieved XYZ result >.

If you’re interested in hearing more, do you have 5 minutes this Thursday at 3pm EST or Monday at 12:30 pm, EST?

Best,

Alex”

Always give a specific time – if you leave it up to the busier person to suggest a time/place to meet, they won’t respond. I guarantee it.

***

So – you figure out what you want from life via constant experimentation. If you want to break into a new industry, start checking out what kinds of skills you need.

If you want to change from Biology to marketing, then BEGIN learning marketing skills.

There’s no point in my repeating an already great article, so check out this article from Michael Ellsberg on Tim Ferris’s blog: 8 Steps to Getting What You Want (Without Formal Credentials).

It will show you how to break into a new industry and get the skills required to excel in a new industry (without grad school).

The reality is that if you want to find out what job you’re meant for, even if it requires credentials, the best way to learn is to start talking to people in the field. Email them. Call them. Ask to shadow them. Do EVERYTHING they would do. Try to see what a day in the life is like before you invest 150k to realize you hate it.

***

#2 Going to Graduate School and Getting Your MBA Because You Don’t Know “What to do Next” is a Shitty Excuse for Figuring out What You DO Want.

Alright. So the first one was mostly work related. You want to change jobs or dunno “what’s next” in terms of challenges.

But let me remind you of something: graduate school is an insanely-fucking-expensive and slow way of figuring out what you do want.

It’s like being in a placeholder relationship because you don’t know what you want. “Ohh well at least I’m getting some booty and have a sleep over buddy until I find someone I really like.”

Seriously?

If it were free, then I could understand people doing it, but it’s not. It’s hella expensive. And it doesn’t even necessarily guarantee it’ll increase your chances of finding a job.

The reality is that you’re probably taking the easy way out – it’s a lot easier to just enroll in grad school and once again be in school and avoid the hard questions in life, rather than face the reality and start making progress in your own life.

What do you actually want?

(If you want to navel gaze and think about life, a year abroad would probably be a better investment. Don’t think it’ll solve your problems though).

***

#3 You’re Chasing Credentials Thinking it’ll Earn You More Money… but That’s not Necessarily true


Unless you know you want a profession that requires degrees – lawyer, doctor, psychologist & other – these credentials won’t necessarily help you that much.

Know this whole phenomenon going on where PhDs are waiting tables? Excuse me, PhDs on food stamps.

… That’s because what you need to get paid more in your job is the ability to deliver more value, and more results. In other words – you need skills. Mad skillz. And graduate school is a MUCH slower, roundabout, more costly way to get those skills than selectively learning them on your own.

Unless you want to be a lawyer, doctor, psychologist, geneticist, or some other profession that truly requires graduate schooling (which probably isn’t most of you), more credentials is not the fastest way to more income.

The fastest way to more income is…. being able to deliver more value at your job. Being more skilled.

And you know what? It’s easier than ever to learn ANYTHING in the world. Anything.

There are sites like Skillshare, Khan Academy, Amazon.com, and, surprise, the library.

So, if you’re at an entry level shitty job at some corporate accounting office, and you realize you want to maybe try marketing (since you can use a bit of creativity), assuming you’ve gone through #1, here’s #2. LEARN.

On skillshare, this is what shows up for marketing:

Skillshare Pic

Some of these classes are taught by world class startup CEOs. And they’re on skillshare for $20!

Or amazon:

Marketing Screenshot

You’ve got plenty of homework. Written by some of the wealthiest, smartest people on the planet.

If you want to earn more money, here’s what you do.

You pick a skill. Then you start practicing it. Shocking right?

So if you have no current marketing juice, go get a client, do a job for free, deliver results (based on the methods you’ve studied) and acquire case studies. You can easily have this all done in 6 months or less.

… And then you present those results to whatever employer or job you’re trying to get in with. That’s how you increase your income quickly. And it’ll cost you less than $100 (you might even make a few thousand if you charge for your freelancing).

***

#4 You Just Want a Better Job (or Want to Not Hate Your Job)

Again, the default mode of thinking is that more credentials = higher pay and better job prospects. Unfortunately this thinking isn’t necessarily true anymore.  The truth is that everyone is struggling – you need to be a lot more creative (or different/remarkable) than just getting another degree.

If you want a better job get better skills and be remarkable. And I’m not talking about bullshit skills you learn at a 12 week excel crash course training for some corporate job.

What does it mean when I say be remarkable?

Look at all your friends – and then do ONE thing in your life that would make you stand out. Even if it’s just a blog.

For example, when I returned from China a few years back, I was looking for a job.

When I applied and got into the interview process, you know what 100% of the job recruiters said? They said they gave me an interview and hired me because I had a blog and had written a book. I got every job I applied for just because I had a blog in addition to the other stuff that everyone else had.

Here’s the thing: NONE of them asked how popular it was. It was just the fact that I had started something that intrigued them. I was different. I stood out.

It’s so easy to be “remarkable” in the eyes of other people. Just do it, and it will account for more success than you could ever wish for.

***

#5 You’re Doing it Because You See Other People Doing it

This is one of the “8 biggest life mistakes you can make in your 20s.

Don’t ever follow other people if you don’t know what you’re doing.

There can be an overwhelming pressure to do this if you don’t know what to do in life. We usually do one of two things:

A. Conform – follow what others are doing, like get married even though we’re not ready or not with the right person.

B. Rebel – just do the exact opposite.

Forget both of those. They’re bullshit. Try things out and figure out what you want.

Otherwise you end up in a life you didn’t choose – it just happened to you.

***

#6 You’re Going Because it’s Easy… Easier Than Hustling and Making Your Current Dream a Reality

I feel like I have half a dozen creative friends that, rather than trying to figure out how to make their own creative business work, ended up just going back to school for something because it was easy.

Guess what – life isn’t easy – ESPECIALLY if you’re doing something important or something big. It’s way harder to live your dream, but way more fulfilling. It’s the most important fight in the world. Maybe the most important fight in your life. No one said it would be easy.

***

#7 You’re Doing an MBA Because You Want to Start a Business (Sorry but an MBA is Useless if you Want to Start a Business)

Having never been to business school here’s my disclaimer: I have a dozen friends that went back to get their MBA just to make themselves seem more qualified and “high quality.” Some are of the “asian persuasion” and they did it to make mommy and daddy proud.

Unfortunately, there’s a smaller group of people that really want to start businesses and become entrepreneurs.

Welllll I hate to say it, but every single one of my friends with an MBA that went on to build a business said it was the most useless thing they’d ever done.

Unless you want to be a banker or a business consultant, an MBA is not what you need. You need to get out there and start building a business. You will fail and you will learn. As long as you keep learning, 2, 3, 4, 5, years later a business will emerge. Without 100k in debt. You don’t need that financial burden in addition to the one you’ll have as a business owner.

The truth is that if you want to build a business, no class or course on earth is more relevant than simply going out there are doing it. You will be forced to learn the marketing, positioning, sales and branding in order to survive.

What about you?

I was honestly inspired to right this after a dozen emails from people saying “I went to graduate school because it was the right thing to do, but now I still can’t find a job, I realize I hated the subject I studied, so I’m back at square one… except I have 100k+ in debt. Am I fucked?”

Yes….. yes, you are.

(Just kidding).

The truth is that grad school or an MBA really is right for some people.

But when I looked around and took stock of some of my friends and their decisions, most of them  did it to make others happy, seem more qualified, or because they didn’t know what to do next.

If you know that this is *truly* what you are meant to do, and you know you really enjoy the profession, consider yourself blessed — full steam ahead!

But if not – and you’re still trying to figure things out – figure them out first, not later, before potentially being in student loan debt until you die.

- Alex

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Mo September 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Great article alex !
However i am curious, what would be your opinion on going to university in places where the scholarship fee’s are low ( Here in canada, it would cost around 4k/year + living expenses). Would some programs be worth acquiring ? Do you believe that some things are easier to learn in school ?

I’m currently on a school break after i graduated from music, which was quite an adventure on it’s on, And i’m still stuck in “Learn web marketing/Do start-ups vs getting a degree” Dilemma.

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Alexander Heyne October 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Hey Mo,

I am 100% for going to university if it’s not going to cost you a lot of money and it’s directly related to improving your life somehow. This is mostly in reference to the ridiculous price of American schools.

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John September 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I am going to college soon, so this post is very relevant to me. I have a question though: my sister is in premed and wants to become a doctor. This involves going through 8-10 additional years of school before becoming a doctor. Is this a bad idea?

On a side note, my mom told me that my sister says she is doing this “because there is nothing else to do”

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Alexander Heyne October 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm

John,

If your sister wants to become a doctor, then she has to go to graduate school. No way around it.

As to your sister doing this because “there’s nothing else to do” – I guess we’ll see how she pans out in the future.

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Andrew September 30, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Hi Alex!

Great article! Really insightful stuff and really applicable to the situation that I’m facing (not that I’m in debt or anything).

I’m thinking if I should take on a Masters in Audiology in Australia that potentially will set me up with a 150k debt. The reason why I’m considering doing an Audiology degree is that I want to be a specialized healthcare professional. I find that I love giving people advice and helping them. But I just hate doing sales. And I have job shadowed an Audiologist and have found the job scope and working environment quite appealing to me.

However, I’m 26 and if I went ahead for this, I will be 28 and carry a 150k debt. Plus, Audiologists don’t earn 100+k a year, they earn much less.

You are spot-on! I pretty much do not know what I want in life, what career I want to build. So I’m pretty much still in a dilemma. I need your advice please!

With thanks!

Andrew

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Alexander Heyne October 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Hey Andrew,

I would spend as much time possible speaking with people in the field. How are the job prospects? You’re sure you enjoy everything about it? You’re 110% sure you enjoy the industry? If so (and it obviously requires a degree) I would go for it. Just my opinion.

Alex

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paul October 2, 2013 at 3:10 am

Hey Alex,

Interesting post, thanks! I have just finished my postgrad course. In hindsight I mainly did it because I have no idea what to do with my life, I just hadn’t quite realised it at that point.

Currently reading your articles on finding purpose in life. It’s good shit man!!

Paul

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Alexander Heyne October 5, 2013 at 10:54 am

Cheers Paul, glad you like it, and I hope it helps you figure out some stuff !

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Dee October 4, 2013 at 11:01 am

Hi Alex,

What an incredibly timely post. I’m currently researching school to perhaps apply to Grad school next fall. I already hold a BSc. with a minor in Philosophy. I went back to college for a post-grad in Quality Assurance but dropped out after one semester, because it was a waste of time and money. I’m currently over 20k in debt (also Canadian!!) and back at university taking some more courses. I’ve discovered my calling is in Public Policy with an eye to food policy initiatives.

The courses I’m doing in university right now will lead me towards a Public Policy certificate next spring but I’m unsure whether to go forth with a MA… Our federal gov’t has a special program for hiring Public Policy graduate students but I’m not too sure what all it entails.
So I guess I’m wondering, can we forgo the educational requirements if we’re looking for at elusive gov’t job?

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Alexander Heyne October 5, 2013 at 10:55 am

Hey Dee,

To be honest, the best way to find out is to pick up the phone and call someone in that job to ask them :)

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Matt Riley October 4, 2013 at 9:12 pm

A couple of years ago I was looking at going to Graduate school. I was lost in my job and hated it, wanted more out of my life and thought to myself, why not go back to school again. Then I looked at all the people that were above me in the company I was working at who had MBAs and said to myself “I don’t want to be them”. I don’t want to put myself in further debt to be stuck in an office all day just trying to pay back my student loans. We are no longer living in an age where a degree means you get ahead. Your mind, your ability to learn, and your skills are what will get you much further than a piece of paper.

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Alexander Heyne October 5, 2013 at 10:56 am

You’re absolutely right Matt.. good job with the foresight and seeing that before it sucked you in.

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Kristine October 7, 2013 at 9:04 am

Hi Alex! It’s funny stumbling upon this post of yours while I’m revising my motivation essay for a scholarship application for a Masters course in Europe. I’ve thought about my plans for graduate school a dozen times and in my country – the Philippines, people here are crazy about certifications and graduate diplomas. I even have some friends who have been able to use their MBAs as a negotiating tool to secure a high salary. But most of them do agree that in the field they’re currently in, their MBA knowledge is of no use. I guess an increase in salary is the primary motivating factor why a lot of people here in the Philippines are into graduate school. Plus, college education is not as expensive as in the US or other countries. We don’t really have the “student loan” set- up here. People graduate and then get to earn more without having any student debts to pay.

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Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Hi Kristine,

My girlfriend is from Cebu and yes it’s different. Especially leaving a third world country to get into a country with a higher standard of living, education is THE way, sometimes the only way, to increased income. I am 100% supportive of that. This was mostly in reference to Americans who aren’t quite sure what next :)

Good luck!

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Matt October 12, 2013 at 9:58 am

I graduated in December 2008, just when the financial crisis was really starting to hit hard. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but I knew I needed to get a Masters at some point as it’s more or less a requirement in my field (international relations).

I ended up going to Switzerland, an option I would suggest for those looking to cut costs and still get a top-notch education. Many Swiss universities offer degrees taught in English and tuition is insanely reasonable. I ended up getting a full-scholarship, but the local university (University of Geneva) charges just over $500 a semester for its Masters programs!! Most Swiss universities (and many in Europe, for that matter) are eligible for US federal loans. You can find a list of overseas universities that participate on the student aid website.

With that said, I wish I had taken more time to think about what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t completely the right fit, but I learned a lot from my studies. I also got the added bonus of living in Europe and learning French. On top of that, I graduated with no debt, something I can’t say for my undergrad.

All in all, I think Europe is a very attractive option for grad school. I would just make sure you know why you’re going and what you hope to achieve. If you’re just looking to travel and learn a new language, there are much cheaper options.

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Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Matt,

Solid points. I had many friends go to France/Switzerland for higher ed.

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J.D. Meier October 13, 2013 at 5:32 pm

That was epic.

Time and again, one of the best teachers in life is the school of hard knocks, and tuition is blood, sweat, and tears … a small price to pay for life-long learning, which is the key to life-long earning.

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Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Amen x 1000 J.D. !

- Alex

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Dave October 22, 2013 at 5:18 am

I’m Australian my degree would have cost around $20k and I wasn’t going to do it but I got a job as a trainee and my company paid for the degree. Now I’m finished and I’m working to get out of my current industry by purely self directed almost free education. In comparison my self directed education I am learning ALOT but my degree was useless taught me nothing. Just glad I dont have a debt.

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Savin88 October 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm

It sounds like your research is skewed. I’m an actual MBA student in an actual business school and can tell you that the doors opening to me at this point far outnumber the ones I had open to me while an undergrad.
Also, your portrayal of Asians is unjust, racist, and wildly stereotypical. My husband is from Osaka and is a principal dancer in a large ballet company- something he does for love of the art- not prestige or approval. University is about much more than education or skill-grabbing. It’s about learning to be a tolerant, open- minded, responsible citizen.

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Alexander Heyne October 23, 2013 at 12:13 am

Hi Savin,

I’m not referring to the doors opening – that is definitely a huge perk of business school. I’m referring to the core skills being developed.

And yes, I referred to Asians because I was deliberately trying to poke at a ridiculous stereotype.

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Kai November 25, 2013 at 6:39 am

Interesting Article. I really enjoyed reading it.

But I also noticed a mistake. Here:

“I was honestly inspired to right this after a dozen emails…”

You want use ‘write’.

Keep up the good work. Take care.

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Kai November 25, 2013 at 6:40 am

You want to use ‘write’.*

Heh, my bad. I made a mistake, too.

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Alexander Heyne December 2, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Woops, thanks Kai! Didn’t catch that. I write thousands of words a day so I don’t always get time to spellcheck. Responding to messages at 4 am tends to lead to those mistakes :D

Jaded April 4, 2014 at 3:36 pm

It makes a lot of difference what you study in graduate school and how long you go. If you spend two years on an M.A., you don’t have to go into fantastic debt and even if it doesn’t help you much you only lost two years. But suppose you decide on a Ph.D. in the Humanities or the Social Sciences. You are now talking nine years or so (check the statistics–I’m not making this up), quite possible lots of debt (even if you have a graduate stipend), and no job prospects at the end that you didn’t have when you got your B.A. (maybe fewer, because now you are “over qualified”). But now you haven’t just lost two years. You didn’t care so much about money or having health insurance or being able to start a family at 22. But at 30 many of you will (I see it over and over). Unless you can get into a really good grad school (top five or ten) with a lot of financial aid, don’t go. You will probably accrue debt and you will have very dim job prospects.

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