Should you go to graduate school in a recession?

Penelope Trunk says no:

Applications to the military increase in a bad economy
in a disturbingly similar way that applications to graduate school do.
For the most part, both alternatives are bad. They limit your future in
ways you can’t even imagine, and they are not likely to open the kind
of doors you really want. Military is the terrible escape hatch for
poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids.


7. Most jobs are better than they seem: You can learn from any job.
When I worked on a French chicken farm,
I thought I’d learn French, but I didn’t, because I was so foreign to
the French farm family that they couldn’t talk to me. However I did
learn a lot of other things, like how to bargain to get the best job in
the chicken coop, and how to get out of killing the bunnies. You don’t
need to be learning the perfect thing in your job. You just need to be learning. Don’t tell yourself you need a job that gives your life meaning. Jobs don’t do that; doesn’t that make you feel better? Suddenly being in the workplace doesn’t seem so bad.

8. Graduate school forces you to overinvest: It’s too high risk.
In a world where people did not change careers, grad school made sense. Today, grad school is antiquated.
You invest three to six extra years in school in order to get your
dream career. But the problem is that not only are the old dream
careers deteriorating, but even if you have a dream career, it won’t
last. You’ll want to change because you can. Because that’s normal for
today’s workplace. People who are in their twenties today will change
careers about four times in their life. Which means that grad school is
a steep investment for such a short period of time. The grad school
model needs to change to adapt to the new workplace. Until then. Stay away.

I don't completely agree, but this is a refreshing tonic.


Grad school is not necessary in some fields but is inherently necessary in others. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, - i would hope these people who get paid the big bucks are qualified and graduated from grad school.

Why do you think the military is a bad option? The military offers a lot of opportunities and skills. The structure and discipline are important for young adults and the in a lot of fields training can translate directly into a civilian job. The GI bill benifit combine with the discipline and maturity prepares people for success. I made a career of the military, 21 years after enlisting I'm leaving with an inflation adjusted retirement check for the rest of my life and I have quite a few really good job prospects even in this economy.

The argument seems to be that you shouldn't go to grad school at all, and it may well be a good idea to not go. But if you /are/ going to go (or were on the indifference curve) a recession is probably the best time to go as your opportunity costs are lower and if you're lucky by the time you're finished the business cycle will have restored demand for skilled labor.
btw, the blog orgtheory has a series of posts on going to (letters and science) grad school, including the question of should you go at all.

Are we really supposed to take Penelope Trunk seriously?

Must we?

NRP had a bit on labor shortages on French farms yesterday ...

File this under "Topics that Appear Interesting But are Underspecified"

Who are you? What are you trying to do? What programs are you looking that?

If you don't answer these questions, the title question of this post can't be answered.

The closest I can come to a generic answer is this:

Hard Sciences/Engineering
: Green light
Social Sciences: Blinking Orange light
Humanities: Giant Red Light + Air Raid Siren + Double-fortified flaming barricade + Huge Sign Reading "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here"
Law/Accounting: Green Light
Medicine: Yield (to other passions) Sign
Education: You're probably too dumb to read this blog or any sort of sign

So, we have a person whose interests would be best served by convincing people to remain in the job market, and that person advises people to remain in the job market rather than train.

Seems to be a lot of self-serving rhetoric labelled as insight around here these days.

Anecdotal, I know, but I have a Masters in Computer Science, and it has served me quite well, all things considered. While I've changed jobs several times since college, I've never changed careers. Spending the time to get the Masters gave me opportunities right out of college that were much better than average, and I've been able to maintain that "better than average" trend for some time now.

I suspect that in an applied technical field, such as chemistry, engineering or computer science, graduate degrees can help a lot. Humanities, not so much :)

It always amazes me how few people go to graduate school, who actually enjoy studying.

i have never been kicked in the butt intellectually as hard as i was in graduate school. (i have a math phd.) since then i have not used it directly but i have used it indirectly, both in terms of the credential (i used to run govt SBIR grants) and the what-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger experience. i am sure there are other ways of getting that sort of thing, but not in a random job.

also, there's really no problem with being out of the money for a while and acting as such. america should encourage it.

A problem few are probably thinking about right now is that with a surge in people going to school accompanied by a probable decline in job availability at graduation means the job market will be in oversupply. Therefore it will be much less likely that you will get the job you want at the salary you expect. Longer-term that means you may wind up sacrificing the career path you wanted to take for the immediate need of paying back student loans. For example, if you have your heart set on getting into a white shoe law firm the acceptance rate at the prerequisite Ivy League school will be lower and at graduation you will be competing with more applicants for fewer jobs. And if you do not get into a white shoe law firm right at graduation your chances of doing so in the future are very slim to none.

If you have very specific career goals in mind I think it would be a much better strategy to wait 2 to 3 years until the surge in graduates is digested by the market. Then you will be in a less competitive job market when you graduate and the probability of getting the job you want and setting yourself up on the career path you want to take will be higher.

"Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids..."

Written by someone who doesn't understand the military and doesn't have the first clue about the causes of poverty--what made those kids poor in the first place.

2 millions from Japan and China go to american grad school , they must know something she doesnt know

I would agree the most of grad school is useless...but many many jobs require it.

@Robbie: As for utility of philosophy degrees...I think philosophy is incredibly useful but that doesn't mean I need a degree in it. There is no reason you can't read philosophy or other areas casually. I do. The reason businesses are not looking for people with philosophy degrees is that for their immediate requirements it is useless.

The only one I know in detail is the CS Ph.D. And it's pretty good. You're kind of encouraged to want to be a professor at a top research school, and if you go that route, it is a pyramid scheme with long hours. Some people do like it, but most people in the world wouldn't. But you can also just pick up a cushy job in research and/or development in industry. And you will have skills and knowledge that almost no non-grad-degreed people have.

Assman wrote,

"The reason businesses are not looking for people with philosophy degrees is that for their immediate requirements it is useless."

I don't know about you, but I don't see any method to this immediate requirement situation. When bright people are turned down for job because of a difference in few selected classes, then this should be troublesome. Most companies are not looking at humanities people for any job, and this is certain to weaken any company and the nations economy. What does a Business admin. graduate have over a Philosophy major, and how is one more usefull to the company than the other? I would love to hear the reasoning for this.

Oh, I forgot to specifically address the idea that post-paying science jobs are incredibly low-paying. Trunk pulled that out of a polemic by Philip Greenspun on women in science. Greenspun didn't refer to peer-reviewed studies or government statistics; he pulled numbers out of his ass. Example 1 (trajectory of a scientist):

>age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
>age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year

This might actually apply for a physicist. I don't know. For a CS Ph.D. at my program, the average starting salary is about $90k for an academic job, or $140k (including bonuses) for an industry job. A master's degree is probably a better option for most Americans, but it's not *bad* in the sense that Greenspun and Trunk imply.

Example 2 (why you should a professional instead):

>Consider someone taking the kind of high IQ and drive that would be required to obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley...A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work.

I'm highly skeptical that "high IQ and drive" are all you need to be a top professor or a top lawyer, and that there's that much overlap between who has a shot at either.

Anyway, most 44-year-old lawyers don't make $500k. Greenspun is obviously looking at the right tail of the distribution. Why doesn't he recommend young people become rock stars or found a $1B company while he's at it? Greenspun seems to think he's writing for some audience that is destined by IQ and motivation to be the next elite; I think he's wrong, but for sure his comparisons are irrelevant to almost everyone in the world, including me.

When I want to know the returns to education, I go not to random bloggers and entrepreneurs talking outside their fields, but to government statistics. According to the Census Bureau (see, the expected lifetime labor income (summing the income in present dollars in each year from ages 25-64, I think; i.e., not discounting future earnings) from a high school diploma is $1.2M, bachelor's degree $2.1M, master's $2.5M, law or medicine $4.4M, doctorate $3.4M.

You can take out loans while in grad school to smooth your consumption. Using the values in their table, you invest $150k-$250k opportunity cost to gain back $1.3M-2.3M over 40 years. That's about a 12-40% ROI. I don't think I had any investment opportunity better than that.

Why does everyone assume grad school is an investment rather than consumption? Many student get at least some of it paid for and enjoy 2 to 6 more years with a flexible schedule and without a conventional boss. When done, job prospects are unlikely diminished but the fond memories remain, if the right subject is chosen. Also, consider that free time for many is worth more when younger. Pay the debt incurred during grad school later, when recreational opportunity costs are lower.

difference is the military provides a steady job, regular and predictable promotion, healthcare, and will pay for gradschool (as they have for me). so the military is actually an excellent escape hatch when compared to grad school. As an Army Captain working in a city I get paid $86,000 a year (after adding in housing and subsistence pay etc). Thats more than most of my compadres of similar age in the civilian world are getting paid now. Even the iBankers. Especially the iBankers.

@ Brian

"Written by someone who doesn't understand the military and doesn't have the first clue about the causes of poverty--what made those kids poor in the first place."

Poor parents.

This is a tough one. I have a Ph.D. so I don't want competition from future Ph.D. Now If people stop going to school demand for current Ph.D. falls since a lot of it is related to teaching so from this side I do want you to get a Ph.D... what a dilema.

BT: "the leadership responsibilities even at the NCO level far surpass what the average 22 yr old is being entrusted with in the corporate world. ... In short, she has it completely wrong vis a vis the military."

I agree completely. Penelope Trunk's argument that military service would

"limit your future in ways you can’t even imagine"

is silly. If her business "Brazen Careerist, a web service to help companies find candidates" is giving this advice to employers, she's certainly harming their human resource process in ways she can't even imagine.

Bob Montgomery: "once you adjust for IQ, education, and working hours, post-PhD science jobs are among the most low-paying jobs you could get."

Hmm. I wonder how many PhD scientists either you or Penelope Trunk know. The happiest ones I've known:

- really aren't motivated as much by salaries as they are by intellectual challenge;
- often do not want the responsibility of managing other workers;
- don't really care how many hours they work.

I also doubt that Penelope Trunk has included in her base of "post-PhD science jobs" the PhD scientists who used their technical expertise as a springboard to entrepreneurship.

When Penelope Trunk argues that graduate school and the military:

"are not likely to open the kind of doors you really want."

how can she possibly know what those millions of graduate students and soldiers are seeking?

The easiest answer for graduate school is:
If you are in love with the subject and it "works in your life plan", it is a *great choice*. No matter what field or future prospects.

Graduate school as a career-enhancement approach? Depends on situation.

And thanks to the comment from "Ph.D." above. I actually printed this and posted it in my lab.


I was an engineer who went to get a doctorate in econ in my mid-30s. Getting a PhD was a great thing for me. I got my butt kicked and my brain stretched in school, and it served me well. I find the work I'm doing now more intereswting, and it has the side benefit of paying better.

Some might grad school as being only signalling or credentialing, but those thuings are not without value, either.

she has no clue about the military. if you have initiative it is a great escape from poverty. just being in the reserves can help lots with college.

an officer's career is even better. during your 20yrs you'll need to go to grad school to advance and uncle sam will pay you to do it. you will be paid to go to school full time for two years to get your grad degree.

either way after 20 yrs you have 50% pay for life and more leadership skills than you could really hope to get in any randomly picked job.

I'm going to spend about $7000 (after tuition reimbursement) to get complete my MBA in May 2010 from a large state school. This degree will probably increase my earning potential by 50%, right out of the gate. I'll go ahead and finish up, regardless of what Ms. Trunk postulates.

Hmm. I wonder how many PhD scientists either you or Penelope Trunk know. The happiest ones I've known:

My only point was that few of you are dealing with her arguments, and that your various anecdotes and ad hominem attacks were unpersuasive.

Dave's response above (at 12:44) is not like that; it deals with her argument and with the article she cited specifically and, consequently, it is a persuasive response. Unlike yours, which mostly deals in anecdotes and speculation on Trunk's thinking.

And back to Dave's response:

high school diploma is $1.2M, bachelor's degree $2.1M, master's $2.5M, law or medicine $4.4M, doctorate $3.4M.

Color me unimpressed with the incremental returns to a master's degree. $400K over a bachelor's? For minimum 2 years' opportunity cost plus the cost of tuition, say $50k. Seems like a wash to me.

There is a difference between a pyramid and a ponzi scheme. In a lot of areas of life, there is a pyramid where one needs to be a winner at several levels before reaching a desirable goal. In academia, it is obviously difficult to make it to a desirable tenure position in a desirable location. And then, you still have to do the work, grade papers, serve on committees, etc.
I would try to approach any life level roughly the same way that you would approach competition at any age. Very few individuals make a living at sports, but it can be of great value to those that are engaged at a much lower level, as long as they take what is available and move on.
Since Law and Accounting were lumped together, I am not terribly knowledgeable either, but with accounting, landing a position with a major firm (there once were 8), had a very steep partner track, but was designed so that the worst were weeded out early, at a couple of intermediate levels, people were either encouraged or decided on their own to go to work for firms they audited, and a few continued on to partner. The advantages of partnership moves through cycles and I believe most people that moved into corporate finance jobs tended to view the entire experience the most favorably.
I suppose I am trying to make multiple points. One is that people can derive great benefits from an experience without being deemed an official, statistical success. The second is that in a number of areas, early post college career experience is similar to the intensity of a professional program, and this includes learning experience. A huge amount of quasi formal learning takes place in well compensated private employment. Learn while you earn.
As far as grad school in a traditional field, I think anyone that is at the very top of their undergraduate peers, is recruited into a top school, and provided funding is in a pretty good position to succeed. Or if you have some huge passion in an area that is aligned with academia, then desire with less innate talent can work. If you have to ask, you don't probably don't have either. Especially someone that is fueled by passion -- they aren't looking for validation from Penelope.
One other variable is growth. A field or industry that is growing is going to be much, much better for a career then one that is on the decline. If someone had joined US Steel in 1955 in an entry level professional job and been the absolute star, they would have lived through 40 years of decline. I feel bad for people that reached senior level positions in print news journalism recently. Fortunately, people do tend to get hired into growing areas in spite of what they think they want.
The way I think about it, one purpose of formal academic fields is to conserve knowledge and act as a barrier to junk science, etc. As such, they are gatekeepers and inherently conservative places. Anything new and growing is likely to not have a formal training structure. Somehow, things tend to work out pretty well in the US, in spite of these mismatches. I suspect that it is the overall flexibility of our culture that allows people second, third, fourth (etc) chances and in the process, people end up aligned with areas where they are productive and suited.

Bob Montgomery: "Unlike yours, which mostly deals in anecdotes and speculation on Trunk's thinking."

What anecdotes, Mongomery? Quoting the executives in charge of hiring at several large corporations about corporate attitudes toward military experience may be, in your mind, "anecdotal evidence". But it's still strong evidence that Penelope Trunk doesn't know what she is talking about.

If you, or Penelope Trunk, have any evidence to counter the claim of many who post here that military experience is desirable to employers, please provide it. As I see it, Bob, you haven't contributed much at all to this discussion - other than to argue that the contributions of others haven't convinced you of anything. No one gives a damn about what will persuade you. Provide some arguments and evidence - anecdotal or otherwise - or move on.

Trunk does a good job of documenting some of the costs of grad school, but provides no accounting of the benefits, of which there are many:

-Between a job and grad school, the latter allows much more flexibility in terms of when you work, vacation time, wardrobe requirements, etc.

-In an economy where more and more people have bachelor's degrees, an advanced degree makes you more competitive for jobs (particularly sought-after jobs where over half the applicant pool is made up of 22-year-old ivy league grads)

-While there is a substantial opportunity cost involved, attending grad school doesn't necessarily mean you will incur massive debt. Most social and hard science grad school programs provide tuition waivers and monthly stipends

-There are many non-market benefits to attending grad school. Classes in many programs tend to be far more diverse--at least in terms of cultural/ethnic diversity--than most workplaces. Friendships tend to be very strong from the need to work together on problem sets, studying for tests, etc.

-If a career in academia appeals to you, then grad school is a necessity. If, at age 35, you decide what you really want to do is teach at a university, it is very unlikely you will go back to school for the required 4-7 years. So if you're about to graduate from undergrad and are attracted to an academic career, it makes sense to pursue that while your opportunity cost is minimal (and while you likely have no kids, no house, no wife, few obligations)

-Trunk discusses the benefits of "getting lost" and figuring out what you want to do. But this also has opportunity costs and can be quite expensive. While it's not advisable to go to grad school to "get lost," it can serve that purpose. And if you have funding, it won't result in debt the way a post-graduation gap year travelling around the world will (though that is certainly an excellent way to spend a year or two)

I have to disagree with this article. I got my MA in Economics and Statistics from a state school, and my assistantship basically paid for grad school. My MA degree is like pure gold on a resume and has opened so many doors for me. Also, my MA took less than two years, PHD work is a whole different story. Just make sure that your advanced degree is diserable by employers before you get it. Or in other words, don't get an MA in English/Theology (which is almost useless to employers), get an MA in something quantitative that is highly desirable for employers, like mathmatics.

Bill Hocter: "Putting up with antimilitary prejudice is an annoying, but acceptable lunch tab."

As I'm sure you know, most of the nation is grateful for its military service units that defend our nation and, by their existence, continue to ensure our way of life. Academics, students, and journalists author and contribute more to blogs than does the population at large. Many of the former apparently do not understand that freedoms they take for granted have come with a steep price tag, paid for by our soldiers and their families. Antimilitary prejudice, though not the majority view in the U.S., is one of the many views the military guarantees will be heard.

Late to the party, but I've never regretted my choice of going into the military straight from high school, despite not being poor. What an adventure. I've always felt a degree of pity for my peers who couldn't see how dull it was to follow the crowd to college.

My husband's still in the service, 20+ years later. Guess how many languages he speaks, how many countries we've been to, how many states, how many different kinds of jobs, the first-hand experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Saudi, etc. Gives one a rather unique perspective not found in your average classroom. But most people aren't out for unique.

what about going to the mil to get money for graduate study? is that a 1 mistake +1 mistake=2 or is the mistake modifier overdetermined?

Just a word on the military being the "terrible escape hatch for poor kids". I was an officer in the Navy for several years, and now I'm a medical student on floor rotations, and a father. The soldiers and the gang-bangers are from the same neighborhood. Which set do you think turns out better, on average?

What about the pure joy of just learning? I would love to get another masters just for that.

I feel you... I am well versed in philosophy but knew I did not want the life of an academic which was offered... i.e. teaching in some college town somewhere. I did professional school instead, have had a few careers, have traveled abroad widely (30 countries), have been able to follow love, have been able to relocate several times, have a fantastic million dollar house in San Francisco...
I am 28 and believe I could have done a PhD with the best of them and still dabble in philosophy... I was just advised otherwise of the situation out there for most. Yes my job isn't fulfilling as it would be if I would have pursued pursued philosophy... but my life is.

In the end... it isn't grad school that is bad... it is particular fields (within) grad school... Be advised of the other posters warning lights... that is pretty good.

Good point, I didn't see it that way before.

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