If you are thinking about grad school, you should listen to this radio conversation with Penelope Trunk just to be sure. Also read my comments earlier on doing a PhD. It wouldn’t hurt to read this, this, this, and this. It’s not my place to tell people they shouldn’t go to grad school, but I do think most need to hear “the rest of the story.” At minimum you should really know why you are going after that masters, PhD, MBA, law, or medical degree.
“But It Worked for Me”
In the interview, a caller would often say “Well I got this degree and wouldn’t be in the great position I am now otherwise.” This supposedly refutes the argument that grad school is a bad choice in many/most cases. Let me explain why it is poor logic.
First, there are cases where grad school is a requirement to work in a field. Yet, there are plenty of fields where grad school is far from necessary to be successful (e.g. writing, business). In these fields, especially, we must ask “What does the counter-factual look like?”
Considering the counter-factual let’s us compare how successful a given person would have been in the world where 1) they did go to grad school, or 2) they didn’t. Talented writers don’t need to sit in classes that teach them to write creatively. A sharp business mind might be better off getting experience rather than book smarts. It is very likely many people would do just as well without a grad degree and not have to take on debt. Saying “It worked for me” does not prove grad school was necessary. Many might have been just as successful or unsuccessful on their own.
I once had a boss who said “A turkey with a PhD is still a turkey.” If you can’t make it in the business world without an MBA, you won’t make it with one. If you can’t get a publisher for your novel without an expensive creative writing degree, the degree is not going to make a difference.
Grad School as An All-Pay Auction
There is a type of auction where all bidders pay their bid, but only the highest bidder gets the auctioned item. Grad school is perhaps a little like this: only the top of the talent distribution is going to be highly successful. Very few writers will have a bestseller. Less than 1% of MBAs will become CEOs. Think of this as “winning” the auction.
The thing is, everyone that goes to grad school pays – usually by taking on debt and certainly by spending time. All grad students pay yet only a few “win.” But who wins?
Some will say luck determines who gets to the top. In that case, grad school is an all-pay auction in which a winner is randomly chosen among those who bid (i.e. went to grad school). This assumes everyone has an equal, if small, chance of winning. You get this chance by going to grad school
Yet, another possibility is that the talented going into grad school will be the talented leaving grad school (And the untalented will remain untalented). This is the “Turkey hypothesis” stated above. In this case, grad school is costly, but the naturally talented will “win” no matter what.
I think each story has some truth to it. And, the network effects can be large at very elite schools. But, 95% of grad schools don’t fit into that category.
Think carefully through these issues before going to grad school. The marketing lines from many schools don’t tell you that you are first and foremost a revenue stream. Make sure you know what you are getting out of it before signing up.
My Friday morning post on how awful agricultural subsidies are is here in case you missed it.