As Graduation Nears, Millennial Ponders Benefits of Grad School – From the Students’ Perspective (Part 2)

Author: Britni Chon

Britni Chon, a senior at Santa Clara University and one of my amazing research assistants, is helping me think about the future of education. She and her classmates are having to make plans in one of the most tumultuous times I can imagine for higher ed. We haven't yet built out the full "mosaic of education" that I like to think about, and yet students are having to make plans now. The good news is that their critical thinking and resilience will carry them through! Britni's bio is below - TG.

Pomp and Circumstance

I have toyed with the idea of attending grad school in the future, but a lot of questions come to mind.  Would this be a financially-wise move? What are the various benefits and costs? What is the ROI? I debate whether entering grad school would contribute to my overall goals, or if working in the industry would push me to grow more as a person and young professional.  

This led to flashbacks of applying to undergrad -- late nights stressing over my college essays, wondering if my extra-curricular activities and GPA were “good enough.”  (Four years later, I laugh at how stressed high school senior Britni was.)  Would this stress be worth it for grad school? If the outcomes are anything like the growth I’ve experienced during my time in undergrad, I think it is. After researching and consulting current seniors and recent grads about their thoughts on graduate school, I’ve compiled some thoughts on the attitudes towards pursuing grad school.

Changes In Attitude

PEW Research Center data shows that attitudes toward education have changed over the last few decades.  Thirty years ago, only half of the population believed college was an essential tool in overall life success.  Nowadays, the majority endorses the necessity of attaining a college degree, which is mirrored by how a third of 25 - 29 year olds in the US had completed an undergraduate degree by 2012.  With this rise in degree attainment (though I believe should and could be higher), I’m curious as to what the trends will be for pursuing higher education, especially as new technologies emerge and employers seek different qualifications.

Within the last few months, the unemployment rate rose from 4.7% in December 2016 to 4.8% in January 2017 (Bureau of Labor Statistics), though there were approximately 227,000 new jobs created.  Though the number of job opportunities increased, the employment rate did not. Statistics such as this add to the potential draw of attending graduate school, due to the increased probability of employment that comes with attaining a higher degree.

Fulfilling Needs

A primary -- and perhaps obvious -- reason for people wanting to attend grad school is because their desired profession requires it.  “You have to have a master’s degree or five years of experience [to enter the field I’m interested in],” said Priscilla Chiao, a senior at Santa Clara University.  Pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health would allow her to enter into her desired field.

On the other hand, some seniors would prefer entering the industry first.  Serena Chew, a senior at UC Davis, said, “I feel that grad school is an amazing opportunity to deepen my understanding in a specific topic, however, I don’t feel prepared to decide what I would want my area of focus to be.”  With a few years of industry experience, Chew could make a more educated decision on what she would want to specialize in.

Seniors generally felt that one should have a goal in mind in terms of attending grad school.  Emily Wong, a consultant at Deloitte and a recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, mentioned how she’d pursue a graduate degree if she were considering a pivot in her career.  Grad school would allow her to seek a different path she perhaps couln't with her current qualifications.

Grad school is definitely necessary for some fields, and can serve as a tool for changing one’s career.

(Not) About the Money

In Richard Fry’s research on average degree earnings, he mentions that the monthly median earnings of those with master’s degrees have grown more than those of graduates with bachelor’s degrees.  As salary is a consideration for many, the idea of grad school may seem appealing.

Wong said, “I think [grad school] is worth it if you're trying to pursue a long-term career and climb the ranks because you get paid more. Also, it depends if a company sponsors you or not.”

She recognizes that with a graduate degree, one would be able to “climb the ranks.”  At the same time, an individual could excel in his or her company and might prefer investing his or her time into providing good work for their company.  She reported how a partner at Deloitte had reached his position early on because he had turned down a sponsorship for grad school as he was doing well in the firm and wanted to keep his connections.

Chew, among other seniors, notes that grad school is a large financial investment, and the pay-off may or may not be worth it.  However, there are many considerations to take in, including the current life stage, individual values, and intangible benefits. [TG: This richer assessment, beyond financial ROI, is something on the table as we think about evaluating our programs' success; part of a conversation I had with advisor, Chip Adams, just yesterday. I'll looking forward to digging into this article by Dumford and Miller: Assessing alumni success: income is NOT the only outcome! Stand by for a follow-up.]

Family, Friends, and the Intangibles

In addition to climbing the ranks, the intangible benefits of grad school also include networking with those you meet and receiving the “prestige” associated with a higher degree.

The role of family and relationships comes to play in deciding as well.  Wong noted how if someone wanted to start a family and also not pursue “a long-term career that places a high value on MBA, then [she] wouldn't.”

My fellow seniors and I have differing opinions on grad school, and we’ll see which of us pursue an advanced degree.  However, I recognize that continued learning – whether in the form of taking classes, reading articles, or entering a graduate program, is always beneficial.

Britni Chon is a senior at Santa Clara University studying Economics and Communication.  She serves as Terri's Social Media Research Associate, where she has worked on improving the social media and marketing presence of the academic journal, Organization Science. Britni enjoys analyzing and using social media, traveling, hiking, and modern calligraphy.