Whether you’re just out of college, or facing an impasse at your current job, you’ve likely considered going back to grad school. If you’re going to be a doctor, scientist, or professor, it’s not really a “consideration,” rather than just “the next step.”
But for those of us who are more general in our education, and even less specific on our career aspirations (like I was), going to grad school is an easy answer to “what are you doing when you graduate?” Especially if there’s no job waiting for you when you do graduate. But is it the right answer?
Before you sell your car and take out a loan, here are some questions to ask yourself about grad school. The goal is for you to challenge yourself into honestly assessing what your next step should be. These questions, presented to and discussed with a trusted, objective mentor (who knows you and is not afraid to say things you might not want to hear), should get you to a solid decision point for your next move.
1. “Am I just delaying getting a job?”
Be honest—are you just delaying “the world of all 8 AM classes and no cuts?” (Thanks to my favorite economics professor for that description of “the real world.”) If you’re just not emotionally ready to enter the workforce and firmly believe that staying in school for a couple more years will give you the maturity and focus that you need to be a success, well, you’re wrong.
I’m sure that’s not what most fresh-faced college grads want to hear, but delaying the inevitable—getting a job—is not a valid real reason to spend 2-3 years and thousands of dollars getting an advanced degree (in this writer’s opinion).
So cross this one off the list first if you can. Be honest with yourself. What is your primary motivation for considering graduate school? If it looks, sounds, or feels anything like “I just don’t think I’m ready,” then stop reading right here and go hit the pavement looking for a job. If that’s not the reason, then keep going on to question number two.
2. “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
You may have known that you wanted to be a financial analyst since you were 8 years old. My brother-in-law never had any doubts that he would be an accountant. That fit his personality—he was good with numbers, and he has a certain attention to detail. It’s a no-brainer that his degree was in Accounting, and he earned his CPA and got a master’s degree in Taxation.
But what about you? Do you know exactly what you want to be when you’re 30, 35, 45? If you do, great. That makes it easier. What are the educational requirements for being exactly that? Do they include a master’s degree? If yes, go. If not, don’t. Perhaps I am over simplifying, but it really could be that easy. You don’t need an MBA to be a sales rainmaker or a digital marketer or a graphic designer. These types of “hybrid” positions are growing rapidly to the tune of 2X – 3X each year, and the training and education for such positions takes weeks, not years, and costs about a tenth of a college degree.
If you’re not sure what you want to be, it’s not quite as clear whether or not you should eventually go to grad school; however, it is a much easier decision today—DON’T. Instead, get a job. Any job. Get two or three jobs— part-time, contract, hourly, whatever—and figure out what you’re good at, what you love, what you do not like at all, how you like to work, and what kind of people and environment you enjoy.
Doing so will help you in two ways. First, you’ll be making money while you’re learning some new skills. Second, you’ll be learning about you, and what you like and don’t like to do. If you don’t like what you do, you’ll never be happy doing it, even with a master’s degree and a really big paycheck.
3. “Am I a big company person or a small business / startup person?”
There’s a huge difference between working for a large company like Coca-Cola or HP or Accenture and working for a startup or small business. Some people are strictly cut out for the structure of corporate America. Others are tailor made for the flexibility and wearing of many hats that come with working for a small company. Which are you?
There are dozens of ways to determine what type of position you are more suited for, the most accurate of which is to actually work for a small company and a big company. That’s obviously easier said than done; however, knowing the answer to this question will also make the answer to “grad school or not?” much clearer. Large corporations reward or even pay for their employees to go back to school, whereas, for obvious reasons, small businesses and startups are much more inclined to hire people who get it done, regardless of their pedigree.
If you think—or know—that you are more suited for large company corporate life, then an MBA or master’s may be very appropriate. But you still have to pay for it, so I highly recommend getting a job at said large company first, and then agreeing to stay with the company for a few years (usually a requirement) after they pay for your education.
If you’re a small company or startup type, just put the term “MBA” out of your vocabulary. Working for a startup for two years will give you far wider and more applicable and practical experience in that world than an MBA ever would. Want to be an entrepreneur right now? Put grad school on the way back burner, and go work for a startup, or consider specific training in areas such as product management, digital marketing, UX Design, or even web development! This skills will help you excel in a startup position where you’ll need to do a lot of jobs quickly.
4. “How much money do I have?”
As I mentioned earlier, unless you already work for a company that is willing to pay for your advanced degree, you have to ask this question. In this day and age of massive student loan debt and a very tough job market, it is not a good idea to borrow money for a graduate degree. If you have the cash, or have a job that will allow you the flexibility to get your MBA part-time (nights and/or weekends), and the answers to #1 and #2 above are in line with grad school, then do it.
However, if you are like most new college graduates, and your checking account balance has three or maybe 4 digits at any given time, you should reconsider laying out thousands of dollars for an MBA. As a point of reference, Stanford University is the #1 ranked MBA program in 2015. Annual tuition for their two-year MBA program is $61k. It’s a big decision. Contrast that mortgage-sized commitment to an alternative learning option, and it becomes an even bigger decision.
So do yourself a six-figure favor, and walk slowly and honestly through these four questions before you fill out the first application. You’ll thank yourself later.
Kevin Sandlin is a serial entrepreneur and 7-time startup veteran, including one IPO and two acquisitions. He spent 13 years in the IT training and certification space after founding CWNP, the industry standard for vendor neutral WiFi certification & training.