Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Should I go to Graduate School?

Should I go to Graduate School?

Every few weeks someone asks me if they should go to Graduate School - & apply for a Master’s or a Ph.D. program.  I give the same framework of an answer each time – so let me share it here.

Instead of asking, “Should I go to graduate school?”  A better question might be:  

  • “Can I afford Graduate School, given all the costs involved?”  


  • “In light of the costs involved in attending Graduate School, are the life-long benefits & pay-off measurable & commensurate with the investment?”

While I am aware that a Graduate Degree can open up new doors for persons – and while I know that a Ph.D. allows for “access” & “privilege” to some opportunities & while I have pursued & paid for them myself . . . I generally discourage persons from applying for a Graduate Program.

Let me explain:
  • University work costs a lot of money. [See Footnote] 
  • University work takes a lot of time. 
  • University work is stressful & draining  - daily & weekly - personally & relationally.

University work has the possibility (but it is just that) for paying back great personal dividend & possible increased salaries into the future . . . but the short term costs, demands, & burdens are high.  My discouragement, therefore, is not telling people no - but insuring in the ways outlined below, they count the costs!

People should really, really, really think a second, third, fourth & fifth time (and get lots of counsel from many persons) before going to Graduate School.  Careful review of “why” a person wants the degree is important – including a serious willingness to “look oneself in the mirror” and consider one’s motives and relationships! 
  • If a person must – absolutely must – have a certain degree to earn a certain license to pursue the work they *know* they must engage – then – perhaps they should go to graduate school.  But, even then – do so wisely.  The fact is that there are lots of persons pursuing degrees and licensure – and positions are harder to get now, than ever before. 
  •  If a person has a “call” (Christian or clear “Drive” that persists) – to pursue a Graduate Degree – they should pursue Graduate Work – but wisely!

Having noted these major costs to consider – if a person pursues a Graduate Degree – my counsel is atypical from some of my colleagues that I know.  Many persons refer a person to X Degree Program from X University for the “reputation” of the University.  While there is merit in this idea (!) and pedigree from Universities does matter (!) – my general counsel is that people should decide first where in the world (climate, culture, urban/rural life, transportation, etcetera) they want to live – and then find a degree program that matches their life-style with the Degree programs in that region of the World. [Supplemental note on Online Programs will be noted below.]

The logic for me in offering this counsel is quite simple –

(1)    Most persons do not complete Graduate Degrees as quickly as they plan (and they all take some years of commitment) – or they don’t complete their Degree.

(2)    And, “Life happens.”  During the years of Graduate Degree work – people get married, have kids, get sick, get pregnant, experience grief, gain or lose jobs, move from one apartment/house situation to another, break up in relationships, and the list goes on!  If a person moves to a region of the world they don’t like, “just to go to a certain school” – they might find themselves miserable there and not complete their program of study.  Or, they might find that they get “stuck” there because during their program, they start a job there – that becomes the job they can still maintain when they graduate.  Or, they might have kids there (or have kids start in school programs) – and they might settle-down in certain ways (social and civic issues) and then not want to move later.  The point is – Graduate Degree work takes a long time – is multi-faceted – and if you’re going to invest years of life in it – you may as well also live life well while engaged in it.  So, find a place you want to live – where you alone – or you with family – can be happy – and then find a program that matches your lifestyle with the Degree hopes you have.

Once you decide where you want to live – and before you apply and get accepted, take lots of personal time to explore not just the school programs – but what graduates of the programs are learning and doing – in real life.  And, while it is the case that every Graduate Program will tell you about how their star learners got some World-Class job here-or-there – a closer examination of their entire graduate pool is a better rank of the program’s success.  (What percentage of graduates get degrees *within their field* & within how many years?  Use venues like blogs & social media to find graduates & ask them direct questions.)
  • After careful consideration of the costs, knowing where you want to live, and pursuing a program that meets your vocational passions and employment hopes – and getting accepted (a hurdle unto itself!) then -
  • As you pursue your degree – don’t go in debt if you can.  And if you go in debt – use wise fiscal accountability to plan your possible futures – including how you’ll pay off your debt if you don’t get the job you hope to get. As you pursue your degree – live your life.  This should be obvious from the lifestyle notes I’ve listed.  Spend time with family.  Hike.  Surf.  Snow ski.  Whatever is part of your identity.  
  • As you pursue your degree – get invested in the program beyond the classroom.  Show up to colloquia.  Go to the open forums when other graduates defend their dissertation.  Get involved in the Guild(s) associated with your professional pursuit.  Start presenting papers.  Start networking (not in a cheesy way – but authentically) with persons in collaborative ways to build the professional networks you’ll need for a lifetime (in both long & short term hopes.)  
  • As you pursue your degree – watch market and job trends – including talking to persons looking for jobs in the fields you’re looking for.  Find out what is “making a difference” in who is and who is not getting hired while you’re in school – so you can tailor your program and work to help make you the best candidate for the future.

And, be sure  (from counting the costs early on!) – to remember that many, many persons with credible degrees from great Universities – do not get jobs that require their degree!  I’ve been graced (thus far) to be able to use my degrees from the times I earned them – but I know many persons personally – and know of thousands of persons via news & other credible reports in fields of education – who earn their degree and take years or decades to get “the job” they wanted using their degree.  And, persons who may never get the job they hope for.

And – of course – while many get jobs using their degree – even then they may have other professional “ladders” to climb for other venues of “pedigree” that matter.

I’ve been fortunate – even with a few hiccups – to be able to encumber very little or no debt in pursuing each of the degrees I hold.  I’ve been blessed to find employment with my degrees!  I have opportunities now, I wouldn’t have had without the degrees – so I’m *very* thankful.  And yet, as I consider the costs involved – I cannot adamantly & categorically recommend the pursuit of the Graduate Degree to most persons – and I try to wisely dissuade some!

I know quite a few persons with Bachelor’s Degrees  in other fields who make more money – and a few, significantly more money -  than I make.  I earned my B.A. some 2 decades ago  (egad!) – and I know 23 years olds who  graduated last year who make two – or – three times my salary!  (That’s a bit humbling – but I know what my calling involves!)

Consider all the costs – think about lifestyle – and plan for the future & hopes & complexities that you can best foresee for meaningful, life-long-engagement in a field of study that you’re passionate about – and make your own best decision!

May the LORD bless your thoughtful decision.


Footnote on “University work costs a lot of money.”  

I hope to have outlined the various costs involved in academic work – but let me address here the issue of cash investment.  It is a rare student who “has the cash” to pay for a Graduate Degree.  If you are so lucky – you are blessed more than you know.  It is also a rare student who “gets paid” to go to Graduate School – with stipends.  This student is also blessed – but stipends do not generally pay “ a living wage” so even while incredibly blessed – this student still is not “saving” for life beyond Graduate School and the stipend probably won’t keep up with realistic family expenses.  Apart from these exceptions to the norm - most students fall into two categories as they pay for school.  (A) The student who will pay for school (while working or while a spouse works) while also receiving scholarships.  And (B)  The student who will pay for school (while working or while a spouse works) while also receiving scholarships and loans/grants.  Since most students pay for school in some way – keep in mind that as you pay the costs for school – you are not just paying for school – you are also losing money that could elsewhere be invested.  You won’t get the cash back from your school program – you will get a degree.  If you had taken the same money and invested it in any number of investments – you would have had your money “plus interest.”  In this way, a Graduate Degree program costs the upfront cash – plus the losses on how the investment could have paid other dividends.  These issues must be weighed for both Students (A) and (B).  For student (B) though – and I would venture to guess this is fully 80% (if not more) of all students -  these students pay cash, lose money to other invested opportunities, & lose future cash beyond the completion of the Degree program, when they pay back loans plus debt service in interest payments for what has been borrowed.  I certainly do not know how much this amounts to for any individual learner – but a wise appraisal of costs of a program – even at the cash level – should include a cost assessment of future losses that might extend for decades beyond the completion of the Degree itself.  Even with higher salaries derived from successful completion of a Graduate Degree program – the benefit of the higher salary may be “lost” to future debt service on whatever monies were borrowed!  That “higher salary” may not be that much higher than what a person is making now – with a percentage of it “taken” by debt service!

Other Factors to Consider:

Can you put off Graduate School?

Do you really “have” to go to Graduate School, “now?”  Why?  There are certainly benefits to going to Graduate School early in life!  Completing Graduate work close to the completion of a Bachelor’s Degree allows for learning to be proximate.  But, do not fall under the false notion that a person “must” go “straight to Graduate school.”  

I started my Ph.D. work when I was 23.  I certainly had some knowledge & learning . . . but! I was not as smart as the 36 year old who started the same program with me.  He had not been lazy or a dullard in his 20s or 30s.  When we started in our program, he clearly & easily distinguished himself as the most learned in many ways.  And, he finished in 3 years – with great success, and went on to become a Chair at one University – and a few years later, a Chair at another where he still works.  He had costs involved in his 30s that were different from my own– missing out on his teenage children’s ball games and events at school – but he came to Graduate School with focus, clarity, learning and wisdom to get his work done – and it did not cut off his professional opportunities.  I, on the other hand, simply had less wisdom and insight – even if I had done well in school and received high-marks – I simply had not read as much nor thought as long on issues!  And, the complexities of my life (I worked full-time to pay for my schooling – and parented nearly full-time, too!) – meant my program was less focused, was harder for me, and since I was enrolled for more years as I remained unfinished - , it cost me a lot more money.  (I had to pay tuition each and every semester, even when I was not making significant progress.)  

My friend started at 36, and finished at 39.  I started at 23, but did not finish until I was 34!  I think one could make the argument that I “went straight to Graduate School” but my friend went “straight through Graduate School”.  Were his costs better than mine?  You’ll have to decide, but I would suggest his life was no “worse” nor “better” than mine in many ways when you compare all the variables involved – even though he waited more than a decade to pursue the Ph.D. 

And! - Consider this - (1) While you're not in Graduate School - you can be reading & studying!  Get the syllabi of the classes you might eventually take - and read the books in advance - and then scour the bibliographies and keep reading!  Learn the languages you need to learn - and develop your competence in them over years!  When you get to Graduate School, you'll be the smartest, brightest & most focused.  And, (2)  While you're not in Graduate School, develop the practices of a good Graduate Student.  Practice reading and writing in other venues within other forums.  You can still go to scholarly meetings, show up to conference, and demonstrate your diligence in other ways.  And, (3) perhaps in the years that you're not in Graduate School, while you're living life and developing competence, you'll discover a particular niche' that will help you genuinely carve out a special place for yourself in Graduate School - that you don't know have the wisdom or knowledge to discern - simply because you haven't read enough yet.  Maybe you'll discover that you thought you wanted to be a psychologist, but with a few extra years of reading, you realize the study of the brain in neuroscience is really your thing.  Or, you will have thought you wanted to be a Bible Scholar - but you realize that you really just like old books - and you'd be just as happy running a used bookstore in some unique city!  You get the idea!

In other words, not going to Graduate School does not at all mean you can't act, read, write, breathe and live like an educated, intelligent, thoughtful "student' in life - coming to discern who you really are and what really matters for you!

Must a Minister/Theologian earn a Graduate Degree to minister effectively?

In some fields, and working for certain corporations, you need a Graduate Degree – a major petro-chemical company is not going to hire a chemist who trained only as far as the Bachelor’s Degree to run the division that does field research! – Some fields require specialization and technical certification!  But, in theology and Bible – a person can train, read, study, invest and learn for a lifetime – without a degree – and know more than others who have earned degrees!  I certainly want pastors to be thoughtful, articulate, clear and correct in their understanding of the Bible and Theology!  And a Graduate Degree program can help with this!  But, no person (especially in ministry) should feel that a Graduate Degree alone equips them for ministry.  Careful discipleship and study - of many things from the Bible, and derived in Church History and the like – (including sociological and psychological and art & music and science) equip someone for being a skilled minister!  And these things can be learned by reading good books, writing thoughtfully, and by engaging with other persons willing to be invested in the same ways.  A Graduate Degree may cost you more than it gives you – and for successful ministry – the labels and titles of Ph.D. and “Doctor” and M.A. should not matter in the service of Christ!  Great ministers for the Kingdom of God do not need a Graduate Degree.

On Licensure  - post Graduate Degree costs and factors to consider!

Keep in mind that the kind of work you may want to do – may involve a required licensure process – separate from and supplementary to your Graduate Degree program.  And, some licenses apply and have value in some States – and not in other States.  Some licenses may be invalid entirely overseas.  Most licenses require Continuing Education Units (CEUs).  And, the process and time and money involved in licensure can be as significant to “costs” as the Graduate Degree alone!  Generally, during required internships toward licensure, you do get paid and the cash costs are not as high as the Degree, but the process is not free!  And the exams for certification have their own stresses.  And, that assumes you only need one license for the one state you live in.  But what if you move?  Or, what if you get one license that only allows you to practice in a few States – but not the State where your spouse gets his job in the future?  Then what?  Did you plan for this when you considered the costs involved?

Should I pursue a Graduate Degree Online?

I teach in online programs and believe they have value!  Online work in the online classroom can be as effective as the traditional classroom!  People should be aware, of course, that the experiences are  different .   For training in social sciences and ministry, though, it is not academic knowledge that usually leads to people being fired or "let go" – it is failures of social skills with real persons (parishioners or clients!) that lead to job loss.  

An online degree can be credible, for sure - from many (but not all) online University programs.   An online degree can overcome the issue of "where to live" when pursuing a Graduate Degree that I've outlined - and an online program has many strengths!  Just keep in mind - at a traditional program in the classroom, or online - getting  "only classroom experience" is not a perfect gauge for success professionally, working with persons.  When pursuing work online (as already indicated even in traditional programs) be sure to couple the Graduate Degree program with lived experience in professional engagement & active internships in a broad variety of practical life-settings.  [With new and developing online programs, and hybrid pedagogies, many of the online programs I work with are developing assessment tools for internship - as part of their online coursework!  This is great!]

Are you married or seriously dating as you consider Graduate School?

If you’ve read this far - and are still reading - let me encourage you to let your significant other read what I’ve posted here.  And, then, spend time talking through the real issues involved in these matters - as it will shape & redirect both of your lives in profound ways for years immediately - and professionally for the life of your marriage & commitment to one another!  Try to think through what your expectations are, what they might be, and plan for them wisely.  Relationships are hard enough - and Graduate Degree work does next to nothing to enhance relationships - and the costs are high for what they take from relationships!  Oh, and try to plan for what happens if your expectations should change - which is even more difficult to predict!  Expectations - met and unmet are at the heart of every relational problem!

If you go to Graduate School – by all means . . .
If you’ve counted these costs and been accepted into a program  - and are heading to a Graduate Degree program you can be invested in - you will have great experiences, I am sure!

God bless you!  
You've counted the costs and have a great future ahead of you!  
Go for it!

Related Links from others:

James K.A. Smith posted his reflections on the same question –his ideas are nuanced for Theological Degree work – and vary from my own – but there is much that is similar in his opinion if you’d like to read what he’s written.  Jamie’s a great person, a kind friend, and he’s infinitely smarter than I am  (really!!)  – and he, too – urges careful consideration in counting the cost before applying to pursue a Graduate Degree program.)  

I don’t know this NT scholar, but he’s posted his experiences with starting work as a Ph.D. student, reflections on presenting his first academic paper, and insight gleaned from Conferences, Academic writing, & conversations with Ph.D. Advisors (and more).  I have not read all of his content – but what I have skimmed – looks solid.  These two links have some of the same content:    Nijay Gupta’s Guide to Research – and his Ph.D. Survival Guide.

Here are John Frame’s ideas for theological students.  John Frame’s Advice: 30 Suggestions for Theological Students and Young Theologians

This person has collected numerous great pages on "Should I pursue the Ph.D." and in Biblical Studies.

A post from Dr. Marc Cortez who shares similar ideas with what I have shared here on the pursuing the Ph.D.

Here's a reflection on going to Seminary - encouraging on-campus work instead of online engagement.   The link uses resources from 1808 to inform historic ideas!  Intriguing.

The ideas posted at the link I'm sharing are not perfectly in line with some ideas that I have (or ways I go about expressing things - a note about tweeting during sex, for example!)  The core ideas about thinking imaginatively, creatively, and intentionally in a Ph.D. program are good though, and I'll leave credit to the author of the page for his own way of expressing his ideas.  Note - the link is advice for a new Ph.D. student - and I think many of the ideas apply to any Graduate Student.  The link to the Seven Deadly Sins of Academia itself is a great link - and the page has a few other re-directing links to other ideas about PhD work.)  From Sound & Fury Blog:  Advice to a new PhD student 3.0

For some genuine humor - but also genuine perspective(s) on the realities of Graduate Work - let me recommend Ph.D. Comics - with this single link to their 200 most popular comics.  Here’s a link to the “about us” character page.

I posted this entry in 2012.  Here is a 2017 update on similar points of view from Peter Enns. His "thoughts about getting a Ph.D." I agree.

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Studies has posted an active (updated yearly) review of the job market for University jobs in the field.  Here is a link to the 2014-2015 data though a new update might be accessible when any person views this blog entry.  

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