The costs and benefits of grad school

By Felix Salmon
January 7, 2010
great believer in the benefits of an undergraduate education when it's done right (which is rarely). But grad school is a different matter entirely: the opportunity costs are much higher, the amount of debt involved rises substantially, and the range of jobs you can do at the end of it in many ways goes down rather than up.

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I’m a great believer in the benefits of an undergraduate education when it’s done right (which is rarely). But grad school is a different matter entirely: the opportunity costs are much higher, the amount of debt involved rises substantially, and the range of jobs you can do at the end of it in many ways goes down rather than up.

Thomas Benton has a great column about grad school in the humanities: no one should do it, he says, unless they’re independently wealthy or otherwise being paid for somehow.

But what about more vocational graduate degrees, like law school? Anybody thinking about it should read not only Elie Mystal’s post at Above the Law but also the long comment stream attached, filled with people like Elie who graduated from law school with six-figure debts and found themselves either stuck in Biglaw jobs they hated, or else just simply overwhelmed by impossible finances.

It’s also worth noting the bimodal distribution of law-graduate salaries:

salaries.gif

In order to make law school work (assuming you’re not paying cash for your tuition and living expenses), you basically need to end up in that second hump, over to the right: Biglaw, as it’s known. But a glance at the chart shows that most law students won’t make it there.

Here’s Benton, talking about humanities students, but with a lot of applicability to other fields too:

The letters I receive from prospective Ph.D.’s are often quite angry and incoherent; they’ve been praised their whole lives, and no one has ever told them that they may not become what they want to be, that higher education is a business that does not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Sometimes they accuse me of being threatened by their obvious talent. I assume they go on to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear.

Right now, a lot of people are thinking of going back to school, just because unemployment is high and well-paying jobs are hard to find. But anybody doing that should be very careful indeed about the debts they’re racking up. They could end up hurting much more than any degree will help.

(HT: O’Dell)

Update: Just found this astonishing chart, from Mike Mandel. It speaks for itself, I think:

educationalattainment.png

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