It is autumn, the leaves are turning and my inbox fills with emails from past and potential students that want to talk about graduate school.
I’m really glad that they’ve come to me for this chat and/or that they’re interested enough in my research that they are considering working with me.
But I find myself saying the same things over and over, so I felt like writing them out in a blog post would be prudent. My intended audience here are current undergraduates, recent graduates, and those considering going back to school. I am a scholar of Communication and I am most familiar with norms in that field. My goal is to outline the types of graduate programs, with particular emphasis on how people pay for them. I am of the strong belief that how people pay for these programs is both the most important consideration and what is shrouded in the most mystery. I learned some of this along the way, sometimes painfully. In this blog post I’ll focus on 3 types of graduate programs: terminal, research MAs, and PhDs.
First, it is absolutely essential that you (potential graduate student) do a lot of investigating into what you’re considering. You owe it to yourself to read absolutely everything you can about the degree programs that you are considering and to ask a lot of questions to the staff and faculty associated with them. Remember that, for the most part, people are trying to sell the program to you, and you need to take that into consideration in conversations. Talk to as many current and former students as you can in an effort to get a better rounded view.
TYPES OF PROGRAMS
There are 1-2 year masters degree programs, often called terminal or professional masters degrees, which are almost exclusively self-funded – i.e., you are going to pay for it with your own money, or more likely student loans. (Although some students may be reimbursed by an employer.) The cost of these programs vary, but can easily be $75,000. You must calculate how much tuition and living expenses will be for each program you are considering. Google cost of living + that city. The university may have some cost of living estimators on their website. Why do these programs cost so much? Some universities consider these cash cows. They don’t use the same funds as undergraduate education does (for public universities, they aren’t a part of taxpayer-funded support, typically). So the cost is up to the institution, with consideration for the going rate for comparable programs. But the quality of such programs varies widely. Some of these programs are set up to be essentially like undergraduate education but harder. Some of these are very skills-oriented. Some may have classes taught by PhD-holders, while others may be taught by practioners. Depending on the topic, one group might be preferable to the other. For example, someone without a PhD can certainly teach a programming language well, but maybe you do want a PhD holder for other types of classes. One thing that sets these programs apart from the others that I’ll discuss is that they generally do not have a MA thesis written at the end of the program (and that may not matter, but it does mean that a potential future PhD program probably won’t respect it very much). Some programs’ primary value is to get access to the alumni network which may be powerful in a certain geographical region or sector and that is extremely important. Also, different from other types of graduate programs, in general, the student body of such programs are people in their mid-20s who have worked in “the real world” for a bit.
Regardless, it is essential to calculate the return on investment of such programs. Will you get a raise or a better paying job because of this masters degree? And will that salary difference make the tens of thousands of dollars that you paid for the masters degree worth it? This will require you to investigate your dream job(s) and see if they require a degree in that field. You may need to do informational interviews with people and ask them clearly if you need an MA. What if you could get that job without the masters degree? I don’t want to imply that there are no circumstances where it makes sense to self-fund going back to school, especially if you’re focusing on training on a particular skill. But in general, going back unfocused and without a sense of the return on investment is not a good idea.
Similarly, I generally discourage most students coming straight from undergrad from applying to terminal masters degree program because many of these students just don’t know what they want to do with their lives and believe that staying in school is as solution to this. But this is an incredibly expensive solution to the problem of not knowing what you want to do.
If you’re still considering doing one of these terminal MA programs, look into them very closely. Ask everyone you can, including current and past students, what sorts of jobs graduates get. Find out what classes are offered, what size those classes are, and the expertise/credentials of the instructors. Learn about internship programs and other formal and informal ways that the program helps set you up for the job market. There should be regular workshops, opportunities to network, career counseling, etc.
Again, this is possibly life crippling debt we are talking about here. I promise you, as someone in my late 30s, I know so many people with “good jobs” that paid for a masters degree in their 20s that cannot accomplish basic goals – owning a house, splurging on a spa day, going on vacation, having a second child, driving a new car, etc. – because of the hundreds or thousands of dollars that they have to pay on student loan debt every month. I also know some people that have much better careers because of their terminal masters programs. But unless you are independently wealthy, please think about the return on investment.
There are also masters degrees that are research-based and sometimes work to launch someone’s research career or provide the groundwork (more likely demonstrate competence) for a PhD. Such programs are sometimes connected to a PhD program but are occasionally stand-alone. Usually the faculty in these programs are PhD holders themselves. If the MA program is linked to a PhD program, it is possible that the classes will be mixed with MA and PhD students. It is also important to investigate if MA students are assumed to get entrance into the PhD program once their MA is done. Most of these programs have an MA thesis that is completed at the end. These programs will also usually involve a research methods course. After the thesis some students are finished (and can get research jobs or perhaps teach at a community college), but many go onto PhD programs. It is possible that the student didn’t have good enough undergraduate grades to go straight into a PhD program. Or the student studied something entirely different as an undergraduate and needed to learn the material before committing to a PhD. Or perhaps the student had been out of school for so long that they needed to do the MA program to get the appropriate letters of recommendation.
This can be a good option, especially for those unsure if they want to do a PhD. But let’s talk about the money. I have no hard numbers on this, but I’d estimate that half of these programs are self-funded (in the same way that I described above) and the other half are funded.
Which brings us to PhD programs and their funding. I didn’t know enough about this early on, but graduate students in PhD program are nearly entirely funded by assistanceships – either being a TA or a research assistant. Some additional students are funded on fellowships and some do a mix of fellowships and assistanceships. If you find a PhD program that expects you to fund yourself, run. Basically with assistanceships, you agree to work for ~20 hours per week in an assigned teaching or research role. In exchange your tuition and fees are covered, you get health insurance, and you get a small stipend ($1500-2500/month – depending on location and discipline and university). After you are accepted you’ll get an offer letter guaranteeing you 4 or 5 years of funding (this usually depends if you are coming in with an MA already). This also means that you need to finish your PhD in that amount of time or you’ll be self-funding (see above).
It is important to mention that not everyone is capable of living on the stipend. Some universities offer opportunities to make money in the summer, but many don’t. If you have dependents, unusual medical needs, or cannot scale back your lifestyle, it will be difficult to live on the stipend alone. Most graduate students have roommates. Many graduate students do not own cars. Graduate students rarely go on vacation. Also graduate students are expected to go to academic conferences which can cost thousands of dollars a year to attend, even while being frugal. So what do people do? Take out loans. Have a spouse or other family to support them. Some get outside jobs (which is hard to do during the school term on top of teaching and taking classes). I did all three. If you are considering a PhD program, ask as many current students as humanly possible if people are able to live on the stipend. I don’t want to imply that there are not occasions where a program is so fantastic that it wouldn’t be worth struggling or taking on debt, but if you are considering a few programs and in one it seems like no one is capable of living off the stipend, this should be a major consideration for you.
Let us also acknowledge that this will be 5 years of not putting money away for retirement. If you’re younger, you may not be thinking about this yet, but the rule of thumb is to have your salary in your retirement fund by the time you are 35. A 5 year “break” from investing is a huge hit.
It is also tougher for people over age 35, becuase, as the Professor Is In says: [only go to graduate school if] “You are under 35, and ideally, under 30. If you fail to find permanent employment within 3-4 years after completion of the Ph.D., this outcome will be far less disastrous if you are still in your thirties and can reinvent yourself for a different career track. The financial stakes for middle-aged people are exponentially higher, the risks exponentially greater, than for younger people.”
But here’s the rub – all of this financial risk is taken on for a situation with poor odds. Pretty much everyone that gets a PhD becomes a professor. Some of the hard sciences are a little different and there are a handful of people that go into industry, but the system is more or less designed to prepare people to be professors – specifically research professors. (Research professors are mainly focused on research. They teach ~4 classes per year, but they are primarily evaluated on their research productivity. A teaching professor – either at a research university or a teaching oriented college – is more likely to teach 6+ classes a year and have little expectation of research. For some PhD holders, taking a teaching position is viewed as a step down, some would even say a failure.) Thankfully in Communication, my discipline, there are about the same number of jobs each year as there are PhD graduates. However, those ~700 jobs are not all full-time, are not all research-oriented, and are all over the world. The “best” jobs in terms of prestige and location go to the “best” graduates of the “best” advisors of the “best” programs (best programs are not the same as best universities).
So how does one find “the best”? You want the combination of fit, with most prestigious faculty, best financial package, and potential for future success. Talk to your current professors, especially those most engaged in research. Also, when looking into potential programs, ask the program staff and faculty about job placement rates and locations. If they haven’t placed graduates in jobs, that is a bad sign. When looking for potential programs, read widely and when you find articles that you like, take note of the author and then read more by them. Then figure out what program they are in and see if there are other people like them (or appealing to you in terms of topic and methods) at the program. Email the professors and set up Skype meetings with them and find out what they are currently working on and if they are still working on the topic that you’re interested in. Ask if there are other students working on that topic too. Try to talk to those students. When you look at the course listings for the program, do your best to find out how often those courses are taught.
If you’re not at one of the better programs, it is going to be far more difficult for you to get a good job.
How do you get attention from faculty at the “best” programs? Those Skype calls help. But letters of recommendation, especially from people that they know (and trust) or are at least familiar with them are really important. GREs and GPAs are sometimes just a sorting mechanism for graduate programs. Bad GREs and GPAs grab the wrong kind of attention. Demonstrating that you are a good fit for the program is a good idea. I hate reading applications where I write notes in the margin like “Did she even look at our webpage? We don’t do that thing that she is interested in.” or “He seems like a good candidate but not for our program.”
You do want to apply fairly widely though because it is typical for students to pit acceptance packages against each other. For every school that you are accepted to, you need to really understand the funding package, especially vis-a-vis the cost of living. Create a table so you can more fairly compare. For example, a student could say “Look, I’d love to come to your program, but X is offering me 3 fellowship years and only 2 years of teaching. I know that I will get a lot more done there.” in an attempt to get a better offer. There are recruitment incentives at play for the better candidates.
IS THIS RIGHT FOR YOU?
With a PhD, you’re making a major life decision. The perks are great – nearly complete freedom to read and write about things you’re passionate about. You don’t really have a boss or coworkers per se. If I want to take a 10am yoga class, I take that class. However, the expectations for research and publications are severe. Personally I love doing research. I’d rather be reading and writing or collecting data than just about anything else in the world. But it is exhausting and I work far more than 40 hours each week. Teaching is hard and also exhausting and is just as many hours as research. But I also am not paid terribly well, I only get paid 9 months a year, and I have very limited geographic mobility. Graduate school is very difficult. The classes are difficult by design. There is heavy socialization that some may argue verges on hazing. There are norms of overworking. There are few ways to exit a PhD program gracefully. Although many students drop out eventually – I don’t have statistics, but well over half, in my estimation drop out – it is sometimes awkward for them. Also significant others and family need to be on board with all of this. I know many people that got divorced during this process because it can be very difficult for loved ones. So there are a lot of tough things, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. And my colleagues and friends in the field are the best. I love them dearly.
So, yeah, you probably shouldn’t go to graduate school. It is at worst, too expensive and at best, a poor financial decision. The odds of finding employment are not good. It is essential to go in with open eyes.
Some must reads:
The Professor is In’s Should You Go to Graduate School
Graduate School is a Means to a Job
Does Blanket ‘Don’t Go to Graduate School!’ Advice Ignore Race and Reality?
PhD Debt Survey
Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go