Graduate school: worth it?

It’s more than just tuition to earnings: Why?

Jonathan Morris

College is expensive. We all know it. Jobs in this economy are hard to come by and aren’t paying what they used to. After four — or maybe seven for the Blutos out there — years of studying, undergraduate students intending on attending graduate school are in the midst of application season. It’s frighteningly similar to applying to college as a senior. Sign up and pay for the GRE, LSAT, MCAT or GMAT. Find those letters of recommendation. Write a personal statement. Send transcripts. It’s beginning to feel like a broken record. Never mind the process of evaluating the financial side of it.

Some graduate programs, namely, doctoral programs, offer support through teaching assistantships, research fellowships or other outside funding. However, the professional programs in medicine, law and business tend to cost even more than an undergraduate degree. With the average student graduating from the University of Minnesota carrying $19,000 in debt and tuition for advanced degree programs running higher than that per year, it makes the fees to take the tests and apply look like nothing. It’s not — I’ve paid about a month in rent for the GRE, the LSAT and the LSAC’s credential assembly service that many law schools require before even getting to the application fees. Add those in and the total fees for applying to graduate school will run more than two months of rent.

Besides the money, there’s the time factor. Students thinking about a doctorate are signing up for a serious time commitment.

And again, after that, for those who want to enter academia, the prospects are nearly as uncertain as the larger economy as colleges strive to cut costs, which make me want to laugh at continued tuition hikes. Notably, non-tenure track positions make up 58 percent of all faculty appointments. These are either positions supported by grants for specific projects or part-time teaching positions. When the grant is over, or enrollment changes, it’s time to begin the job search again. Often this means moving. Once the time has come to raise a family, this becomes more problematic. I doubt that many academics desire tenure for academic freedom but more so for stability. With a family, the job search process adds another complication: ensuring partners can find opportunities close enough together.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue additional education relies on many factors: cost-benefit analysis of tuition and earnings potentials, lifestyle, career aspirations and more. For me, the driving factor is not about the money. It’s not about stability. It’s about doing something that interests me. The thought of collecting a paycheck to do something that doesn’t impassion me scares me — both from a career standpoint and a short-term standpoint. I’m hoping to earn a doctorate and am in the process of submitting applications to several schools. When choosing these schools, I looked at the research groups for topics that really piqued my interest. I found that it was surprisingly few and at surprisingly competitive schools. Convention is to apply to safety schools as well. But the thing is, unless I’m working on research that really interests me, I can’t justify doing that doctoral program. The opportunity cost is just too great. For others at this transition point, consider not just “what” to do after undergraduate but also the “why.” As much as you need to sell yourself to the admissions committee, make sure you aren’t just selling graduate school to yourself. Why are you making the plans you are?