So You Think Grad School Isn’t for You? Deflating 6 Common Excuses for Not Investing in Yourself
If you’ve interacted with me at any point in the last three and a half years, you know that my experience in grad school has not been an easy one. I’ve had at least one major breakdown and many mini breakdowns and have been more or less burned out for three straight years (see here to learn more about my experience with stress and burnout). And in spite of my scholarships, my student debt will end up being the equivalent cost of a small home.
However, when asked whether or not I would do it all over again, I answer affirmatively, enthusiastically, and without hesitation. I even encourage others (pretty much anyone who asks) to go back and get their own advanced degrees. You might say that seems a little oxymoronic, and you would be right. However, I think grad school, or education in general, is one of the most important investments we can ever make in ourselves and our future. So today I am going to deflate 6 common excuses I hear from people about not going back to school.
1) I’m too old
No you’re not. Whoever tells you this (including yourself) clearly thinks you have nothing left to learn or give in this life. Since when did grad school have an age cap? People go back to school all the time to change or enhance their careers. There are so many options nowadays for evening programs, executive programs, one-year programs, online programs. So unless you’ve suddenly lost the capability to read and are lying on your death bed, you’re not too old to go back to school.
2) It’s too expensive/I’ll incur too much debt
We have been repeatedly taught not to go into debt unnecessarily. I wholeheartedly believe in this doctrine. But we’re also taught that education, like home-buying, is one area worth the debt. President Gordon B. Hinckley, former LDS Prophet, declared:
"Education is the key to economic opportunity. The Lord has laid a mandate upon us as a people to acquire learning “by study, and also by faith” (D&C 109:14). It is likely that you will be a better provider if your mind and hands are trained to do something worthwhile in the society of which you will become a part."
Debt for a degree is not the same as debt for a couch or a vacation. We cannot expect to reap long-term rewards if we are unwilling to invest in our future. This is true whether we are married or single. Yes, student debt is a very real thing and will likely be the next financial bubble to burst. However, there are ways of making it work without sacrificing the quality of the education. Cost is important, but degrees are important too.
But, you ask, isn’t a “cheaper” degree just as good as a more expensive degree? In my experience, not necessarily. When I was evaluating where to go to school, I had a choice between Georgetown and a similar, but lower-ranked school. The lower tier school had offered me a financial package that covered most of my law school tuition and almost all of my MBA tuition. Georgetown, on the other hand, had offered me significantly less from both programs. I was torn between Georgetown’s ranking as a Top 14 law school and the financial package of the other program. I went to an admissions lunch for the other school and shared my dilemma with a recently graduated student. His advice surprised me. He told me to go to Georgetown no matter what, even if I had to finance 100% of the cost myself. He said that being part of a Top 14 program would open doors that simply were not available to him because of his school’s rank.
Amazingly, I have found this to be true. When you choose a school, you must consider factors like school ranking, alumni network, and desirability from employers you wish to work for. Going to Harvard won’t always get you in the door if employers prefer to hire from the local schools, but going to those local schools may not get you out of your neighborhood either. Cost is also an important factor, but it shouldn't be the only one.People look at me differently when they find out I’m getting a JD/MBA from Georgetown. Remember – education is an investment. You don’t invest in cheap stocks or cheap houses or cheap lawyers, so why would you invest in cheap education? Ultimately, where you choose to go to school is up to you, but don’t go somewhere just because it’s cheap. Go because it’s right.
3) I have a family and need to provide for them
I’m not married, so the pressures of providing for a family are not yet something I can completely identify with. However, I don’t remember learning that marriage meant educational stagnation. Yes, you have bills to pay and mouths to feed, but so do single people. Your expenses might be a little higher, but because of that the grants and financial aid available to you are also higher (if you’re single, they still annoyingly look to your parents’ income to determine aid). Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put as much effort into your education and growth as a single person. You may have to structure your life out a little more, but thousands of married people go back to school each year. Try telling them it doesn’t work.
And women, just because you’re married with children doesn’t necessarily leave you off the hook for this. I’m talking to you as well as your husbands. President Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in 1978:
"We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out. There is a great need for women who can receive inspiration to guide them personally in their teaching and in their leadership responsibilities. We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that, however popular, are shallow or dangerous. We need women who can discern those positions that may not be popular at all, but are right."
This sentiment was again repeated by President Russell M. Nelson in the October 2015 General Conference. I understand that education is a deeply personal decision based upon the needs of your family, but women, don’t automatically dismiss yourself from this conversation without giving it some real thought and discussion. You need education just as much as the rest of the world.
4) I don’t know what to study or where to go to school
The only thing I can say to this is, start looking! Sit down and think about what you want to do with your life and what kind of degree might best help you get there. If you’re unsure, start talking to people. Spend time Googling grad programs or training programs or certificates. Look for examples of people in your chosen field and see what kind of credentials they have.
It’s ok if this process takes time. I knew in 2006 that I was going to get an MBA. I also knew that I needed at least 3 years of work experience to get into a good program. So when I graduated in 2008 I went to work. In 2011, when I hit my predetermined deadline, I spent months evaluating options and thinking about what I wanted to accomplish. And then one day I was sitting in a presentation with one of our senior VP’s, listening to him talk about his days in law school at Northwestern, and I realized that many of the truly successful business people I knew all had law degrees. And that’s when it clicked – a JD/MBA. But I still didn’t go back right away. It took me another year to take the GMAT and the LSAT (yes, both) and to apply, and then another year to actually start. So even though I knew in 2006 that I was going to get a Master’s degree, I didn’t actually start my program until 2013, 7 years later. The point is, you have time to figure it out.
5) I’m not sure it’s worth the time or the emotional sacrifice
Here’s what I have to say to this one: sacrifice is a necessary part of growth. If you want to get ahead in the world today, you almost have to have an advanced degree. I know this flies in the face of the articles telling young people to drop out of school and start the next Google. And they’re not wrong – not every billionaire needs a master’s degree. There will be more Steve Jobs and Richard Bransons and Mark Zuckerbergs out there in the future, regardless of what the rest of the world does. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship. But the reality is that most of us will not be Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. And that means we have to find other ways of getting ahead.
In today’s society, an MBA is almost the new Bachelor’s in Business – everyone has one, so it’s difficult to compete if you don’t. When I was working as a Manager of Operations between 2008 – 2013, we interviewed dozens of people who had MBA degrees but couldn’t get jobs because of the financial crisis. Granted, many of them had MBA’s from lower ranked schools, but that’s the point – when things go bad and companies downsize, it’s probably not going to be the lawyer or the Master’s in Mechanical Engineering who gets cut first. Society is becoming increasingly educated and pressure for jobs is no longer restricted to those in our own country. We now face competition from highly educated people all around the globe. In order to keep up, we have to be willing to invest in ourselves by investing in our education.
As to the emotional sacrifice, yes, it’s going to take a toll on you. If it doesn’t, you’re probably not doing it right. But growth isn’t easy (insert your preferred sports analogy here). There are things I have learned in grad school that I likely never would have learned anywhere else. There are people I have met who I would never have known if I hadn’t left the comfort of my world and trekked across the country to a completely unknown environment. But working through the pain has made me stronger and more capable because of it.
6) It will be too hard/I’m not smart enough
Stop it. Just stop it right now. I can’t even look at you seriously when you say things like this. Do you know how many dumb people there are in grad school? You may not get into Harvard, but guess what – Harvard isn’t the only school in the country (and there’s new debate on whether or not Harvard is even worth it).
“But my college grades aren’t great”, you say. That may or may not be true. GPA requirements vary based on the school. If your college grades weren’t great, you can also help make up for it with a good resume and good entrance exam scores. It does take effort (see my 9 months of studying for and taking the LSAT and GMAT twice, each), but as long as you’re willing to put in the work, you can make it happen.
However, I want to briefly sympathize with the “I’m not smart enough” sentiment. In my first day of Constitutional Law, as a bright and shiny 1L, my teacher was pontificating on the virtues of the Magna Carta (like any good Con Law professor). We reached a phrase in Latin and she asked the class if anyone knew what it meant. A guy near me shot his hand into the air and translated the Latin phrase. The teacher, obviously impressed, asked him how he knew it. He said he had studied Latin in his undergrad. I looked at him and thought, Who studies Latin?? Who are these people? What have I gotten myself into? It didn’t help that he also already knew the names of all 9 Supreme Court Justices, whereas I was still acknowledging that we had a Supreme Court and that it had 9 Justices. But as time went on and I started getting better at understanding and articulating arguments (and learning the names of the Justices), I gradually stopped being intimidated by the private school pedigrees of my classmates and realized that, although they might be a little more polished, we all had our own experiences and viewpoints that made the learning process richer as we learned from each other.
Let me share one final thought with you, in case you haven’t been convinced yet: God needs people who are educated and who can fight for what is right.
This was the most compelling argument for me to go back to school. Let me pause and say that I didn’t come back to school entirely on my own account. At the end of my 18 months as a Mormon missionary, the president of the mission pulled me aside for my exit interview. In that discussion, he talked to me about the importance of higher education and told me that God needed people who could understand the issues going on in the world today and were capable of responding in a way that protected the values we hold to be sacred and true. He then made me promise that I would get more education than I was originally intending, which for me meant at least a master’s degree. Since a promise to my mission president was like a promise to God (in my innocent missionary mind), I knew that I had to say yes and that I could never break that promise.
In the four years I’ve been at school, I’ve learned that my mission president was right. There are serious moral and ethical issues up for debate on the public forum right now, not the least of which are issues concerning religious liberty and protection of First Amendment rights. When the critical moments come, if we don’t show up to defend those rights, who will?
Have you thought about going back to school but just haven't pulled the trigger yet? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences about your own educational journey in the comments below!