Grad School 101: The Truth About the Top Six Grad School Myths

July 31, 2007

If you’ve ever considered grad school, whether just out of college or in the middle of your career, chances are, you’ve had advice coming at you from all directions. It’s a difficult decision to face, and you probably have your own fears, doubts, frustrations and questions to deal with, too. Here are some common myths about grad school and their counterpoint truths that I’ve discovered along my personal journey into higher education.

Myth 1: Grad school is good for anyone. It seems that grad school is becoming a popular stopping point for those with newly minted undergrad degrees, many of whom are having a difficult time finding their first job out of school. They loved college, so why not just get more of it and postpone the inevitable. Plus, grad school is a good choice for anyone who can get in, right? Sorry, but no. The truth is, grad school isn’t good for everyone. People who are in it for any reason other than expanding their knowledge and expertise on a subject will be sorely surprised to find that they aren’t as successful as they’d hoped. On that note, let’s look at some of the reasons many people go to grad school – other than to learn.

Myth 2: Grad school will get me more money. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Sadly, this way of thinking sets many people back in their careers. Grad school doesn’t guarantee anything – besides debt. I have had more than one recently graduated MBA student come to me and ask me why they can’t get a job netting at least 50-80K right out of school. They point to the research, grumble, and waste away for months, looking for a job that will pay what they’ve been promised will be delivered. Now, research does show that professionals with graduate degrees average higher salaries than their non-masters counterparts. But that research looks at professionals – with jobs. Let’s look at the next point for more on this.

Myth 3: Grad school will fix my resume. The job market’s not exactly what emerging workers were promised throughout college – yet. But if you think that getting a graduate degree right after college will help you get a job when you have no work experience, you are dead wrong. In fact, without experience, it will probably hurt your job search. (You have a decent shot with an MBA in certain markets or a master’s in top hiring fields like electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science or computer engineering.) The truth is, many employers require higher salary ranges for candidates with grad degrees. So, if a hiring manager can recruit someone with experience in the field and pay them less than a master’s candidate – they get someone who can hit the ground running and costs less. There’s positive ROI written all over this. Who would you hire? Ask any professional recruiter whether a graduate degree or two years of experience will make someone stand apart from the pack, and experience wins out pretty much every time. (Now, a graduate degree plus experience can be another story altogether.)

Myth 4: A master’s degree is a ticket to the top. Again, wrong. Many grad students think that once they land their first job, having a graduate degree in and of itself will put them first in line for a promotion or management position, no matter what. In most cases, this simply isn’t true. Now, an advanced degree doesn’t put you back where promotions are considered, but your relationship with your boss, your work ethic, and the product you produce is what will determine whether you get to the top. A master’s degree can help put you over the edge when everything else is in your favor, but it’s not enough to stand alone.

Myth 5: It’s all about the degree. Many people think that all they need from their master’s degree is the diploma and a passing grade. If you think this is true, run, quickly, in the opposite direction of your local higher education institution. You’ve bought (literally: think more student loans) into the lie that grad school is about anything but learning and building useful relationships. If you think coasting through a degree program, skimming through classes and sleeping your way though projects and assignments is the best way to approach grad school, then you deserve what you’re getting out of the deal – and that’s a ton of debt and most likely a long career struggle in sight. The university you attend is raking in the cash for your cool, inattentive self sitting in a chair, coasting through the program. Lucky them. The truth is, you can’t fool anyone if you’re not in it to learn – not your professors, not your peers, no one. Without passion and dedication, you won’t reap the true benefits of a graduate degree, and you’re going to have a heck of a time getting a job once you’ve cut and run, degree in hand, with no one to vouch for your work ethic or ideas.

Myth 6: It’s best to take the easy way out. Here’s what you hear about grad school a lot – get in, get out, get on with your life. Many opt for comps and high tail it out of there. Others take the coursework and spend the next few years putting off a thesis or project and finish one hastily to exit the program to meet an arbitrary deadline. That’s not good for anyone. In truth, ultimately, grad school should be all about getting the knowledge and experience you want out of it for the purpose of your own career. So many graduate students I know have taken the easy road out. But with your master’s degree, it’s true that you get out of it what you put in. End your graduate degree with a bang; harness the power of the relationships a university can offer and do research or a project that is well-thought-out and applies practically, and you’ll leave with something to be proud of – and something that can actually benefit your career.

Stay tuned for more on Grad School 101, and feel free to share your favorite grad school myths in the comments below.


37 Responses to “Grad School 101: The Truth About the Top Six Grad School Myths”

  1. Hm. This is well written and informative, but I’m surprised how you don’t encourage grad school that much at all. If grad school is good for expanding my knowledge and expertise- can’t I do that on my own? I’m looking forward to your arguments on why grad school is good and why you’ve done it and found it valuable.

  2. Tiffany Says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for your comments. I am definitely going to address it from both sides, so keep reading!

    I think it’s important to take a serious look at all the pros and cons of grad school, especially since more and more people are enrolling and more and more universities are developing programs for them to enroll in. In my experience, one of the major cons is when people enroll in and approach grad school with the attitudes I touched on above. Many of the people I go to school with seem to have these ideas in their head, and I’ve watched them struggling as they discover the truth, so I wanted to share these myths so people can get past them and look at the pros of grad school as well as the right ways to approach it. Stay tuned!

  3. Chuck Says:

    Very interesting read Tiffany. Your points are sure to ruffle some feathers, but I don’t feel like you are just stirring the pot. You provide well reasoned explanations along the way, and I like that you avoided a sensationalist tone.

    Looking forward to reading more!

  4. Tiffany Says:

    Well, I guess it’s possible that this could ruffle feathers, but that’s definitely not the intent. I truly believe that universities and professors want students with the right motivations in their programs. Their programs, in the end, become as successful as the people they graduate. And classes are more engaging, everyone learns more from people who are there for the right reasons.

    And students need to know these things when they’re considering a graduate degree so they can make their decision based on the right reasons to go to grad school. Which of course, I’m planning to get into.

  5. Tiffany,

    This is a great series. I have people ask me all the time about grad school – I will refer them to this site. Thanks for doing this!


  6. […] 13th, 2007 Now that I’ve uncovered some of the great grad school myths, I have a confession to make. I once bought into many of these myths myself when I applied to grad […]

  7. GG Says:

    I don’t know. I realize grad school is not the only or maybe even best answer all the time, but it sure helped me. In fact, it was one of my best decisions career-wise, ever.

  8. Grad Girl,
    I definitely think it can be a career-maker, sure. Hey, I’m finishing up my master’s right now. But perhaps it’s not the end-all, be-all.

    I just believe people should have more information before jumping in and putting all their eggs in that basket as far as career development goes.

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. Scott Says:

    Good post. I got an MBA at mid-career, but not just to have one. I decided to get it because I’d been a newspaper reporter for years and did not come into the business world with a sound knowledge of how corporations worked at all levels. A business school education gave me the general, cross-functional knowledge I needed to be more confident in dealing with other functions — accountants, finance guys, operations, etc. It’s this, not the degree itself, that helped me take my career to the next level.

  10. BrandonA Says:

    Great posting! I am in accounting and I am working on my Masters in Taxation. However, the more I work on it, the more I realize in my profession it may not be that important. It seems in accounting the value experience much much more over degrees. A masters degree doesn’t get you a promotion or a pay bump. I am getting my masters plainly to fulfill the 150 credit hour requirement for the CPA exam. But I think this is mostly field related and may be different in other professions.

    For example my mother in a different field is working on her MBA. She is amazed when she was passed up for promotion or someone else gets a promotion when they have a masters (and even bachelors) from online universities such as University of Phoenix. Do employers value the in class education provided by traditional universities? What is your opinion on degrees and whatnot from these types of institutions? Do generations find differences? Does my mother see those degrees less impressive because they are newer and relatively GenY? Thanks.

  11. Brandon,
    This is an intersting thing, to be sure. Really, I think the whole conversation boils down to the fact that experience is of primary importance to most employers. Without that, your degree won’t be as valuable. Beyond that, sometimes, a master’s degree is what is needed to get ahead. Whether or not it is depends on your field, industry, location and even company culture. If that’s “the way things are” where you work, then get in line for your master’s if you want a promotion. Other places, it’s not seen as very important. Also, I think it also boils down to personal satisfaction. If you aren’t going to enjoy the coursework at an online institution and will learn more in class, go the traditional route.

    From an employer perspective, the type of instituion you recieve your degree from will also vary a lot based on culture and precedent.

    In the end, I think it really is about you – what matters most to you. I think that advanced degrees are great. Hey, I’m finishing mine up right now. But I think about them a lot differently than I did when I was graduating from college. I saw it as my lifeline in a bad job market. And that just wasn’t the case.

    Best of luck on your degree!

  12. […] much thought, discussion, and reading (mostly in the blogosphere grad school debate), I realized that each professional decision is a personal decision. Professionals, […]

  13. […] much thought, discussion, and reading (mostly in the blogosphere grad school debate), I realized that each professional decision is a personal decision. Professionals, […]

  14. gradschoolsurvival Says:

    Finally someone is saying the things that nobody wants to hear and most people want to ignore. Two things affect the graduate experience. One, the reason you are there and two, “you get out what you put in”. Number one is a strong correlate to number two.

  15. Tyler Says:

    Very informative. I am currently pursuing a BS in Mathematics, minor in Environmental science, with goal of applying it to a mechanical/environmental engineering grad school – I’m probably going to have to take extra engineering classes before my formal admission into one of these schools – based on the fact that my current school does not offer engineering classes, but does require a senior research project applying my learned math. My other choice would be to continue my education in a MS in MAthematics program and apply my research there to mechanical engineering mathematics. I’m wondering, based on my goal to be a M.E. (hopefully specializing in geothermal and other alternative energy)would this route be viable? It seems to me like it would be, and it also seems that “what you put into it is what you get” idea really seems to shine with this approach. Would grad school in Math really allow me to apply my research in this way? and would employers hire me based on my MS certificate, or more based on what I did during the process of acquiring it? To me it seems that the big part of grad school is the experience of gaining knowledge necessary to specialize in a given field, am I wrong? I mean, who goes to grad school just to get the certificate (unlike a 4 year, where students seem like they just want that “piece of paper” so they can get out)? I think that work experience is everything – but after working as a commercial fisherman for 6 years, gaining an enormous amount of knowledge on how things work, how to fix them, general problem solving and a number of other things related to on-the-water experience that can be applied to any job (and most of my employers have recognized this), I was discouraged when I tried to apply to a local refinery as an operator – passed all of their tests with high marks (they test mostly for stress handling, intermediate math, general problem solving, multitasking)- they didn’t end up hiring me, I think mostly because I only had some college experience and no four-year degree. What can you make of this – and do you think that my head is in the right place? thanks so much

  16. PRH Says:

    HR confused a masters degree with being smart, I was a mainframe operator at 18, some college (4.0 GPA), just enough to win the next role in a internship, associate manager at 25 doing applications, deployment, and services (both infrastructure operating system and functional application roles). Never spoke to HR directly until I had already worked for PHILIPS in fifteen roles and Sun Microsystems in two roles that 3 in 30,000 could do.

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  20. Martin Says:

    Grad school is easy, effective and obviously a guarantee for sucess. That’s what most people told me as well. But like all the other things in live: it’s never as easy as that. There’s no button anyone can just push and become a succesful and high skilled maker of his own live. There always things you have to find out about yourself. There are always inevitable facts that can never be postponed. So let’s be honest about ourselves and about grad school. At least it’s much healthier.

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