Graduate School: Education, Not Job Training

We’re noticing a significant uptick lately of rendering of the garb over the diminishing value of a graduate education. The negative view, beginning here, pivots largely around the argument that grad school has become something of a career dead-end, with some fields (eg, academic positions) in dire straits. And then there is the additional argument, not one I necessarily agree with, that the rising cost of higher education reflects a growing economic bubble that is bound to burst.

I attribute much of this negativity to our current state of economic stagnation. In past cycles, one could bivouac in graduate school to wait out the downturns, emerging with freshly minted credentials just as the economic storm was clearing. I think the wide-spread carnage of the current mess has deepened the uncertainty compared to prior cycles. This one looks like it will transcend the typical time it takes to earn a doctorate. We aren’t confident the storm will clear when we are through.  But other than that, not much else has changed.

Because the best reason to attend graduate school is, was and will always be because you are deeply interested in continuing your education and/or performing new research in subject matter XYZ. In all likelihood, irrespective of the field you enter, you will emerge with better writing, public speaking, and analytical skills along with specialized knowledge. The marketplace has always placed a high value on these attributes (pdf) and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. I strongly agree with what Roger Whitson has to say about this. Things are not as bad as they appear, but can also be improved.

I would add one caution to his superb advice to grad students that they acquire additional transferable skills while in grad school: Don’t get so thin in your effort that it compromises your ability to fully excel in your primary mission. At the end of grad school, excellence in effort and performance will always open more doors and more career possibilities than something less well achieved.

I’d also like to mention something rarely discussed about the skill set of the typical graduate school professor. When they excel, it is in teaching and research, not in career training. Prospective students should understand that most professors are ultra-specialists with little experience outside of the academy. That fact has far-reaching implications about what they can reasonably be expected to deliver in terms of job advice for their students.

Still, one way to recognize a good graduate program is the level of energy placed into exposing their students to the world of career possibilities. For example, the programs I’ve been involved with sponsor a parade of outside speakers and visitors from non-academic fields for their students throughout the year. Their students acquire a broader career perspectives. Sometimes I worry that we do this too well, that we aren’t doing enough to nudge our outstanding students toward academic careers.