Don’t Go to Grad School

It’s that time of year again: sending in the last of the grad-school reference letters. Over time, my answers to students who request grad school reference letters, particularly for PhD programs, have become more and more emphatic: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how good your grades have been.

The job market for political science PhD’s is abysmal. It has long been pretty poor, though nowhere near as bad as that for historians and philosophers. But following the 2008 recession, the market has simply collapsed. At this point, there is such a backlog of underplaced and unemployed political science PhD’s that even a strong economic recovery, with its concomitant benefits for state budgets, can never clear it. Speaking from personal experience, you now need to have a better record (in an “annual average productivity” sense) to get an entry-level assistant professor job in political science at a directional state college than to get tenure at a Carnegie Very High Research institution.

If you get a political science PhD, you should be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket. If your number manages to come up — but it probably won’t — you can get a tenure-track job — eventually. Otherwise, you should see your five, six, or seven years of postgraduate education as a consumption good, and prepare your resume for entry-level private industry jobs. Then, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to get a tenure-track job, you might not get tenure. That used to mean that you dropped down to a lower-ranked institution and started over. Now it means that you have to change careers.

It’s not just PhD programs that aren’t worth it any more. Law school applications have plummeted. Full-time MBA’s in the United States are of doubtful value at best, especially when opportunity cost is considered. Even medical degrees are now a huge financial risk.

Instead of going to graduate school, students would be better advised to do more with their undergraduate degrees. The value of studying math is difficult to overstate. From engineering to biomedicine to insurance and finance, understanding calculus and advanced statistics opens doors. This is true regardless of whether a BA is useful mostly for human capital development or for signaling (math is hard for most people). I recommend a minor in math to most undergraduates. Alternatively, computer programming and web development can be self-taught — you don’t even need to go to college.

In the end, I break down and write the reference letters and wish my students the best. I want them to succeed. I just know that most of them won’t. If you’re early enough in your education to avoid making the mistake that all too many of us have made, take my advice: don’t go to grad school.

28 thoughts on “Don’t Go to Grad School

  1. Two masters degrees here. The first one yielded nothing. The second one finally got me a job. But it stole my twenties and I owe nearly six figures.

    It is a disaster.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Russell. You’re certainly not alone. I’ve been getting lots of similar comments on my Facebook post on this.

  2. Well, sitting here with a philosophy degree from a state school, in the middle of a year of service, I honestly have no idea what to do next besides grad school or law school. Should I go back to undergrad, or what?

    1. Philosophy can be good training because of the analytical and written communication skills you learn. Not all employers realize that. I recommend figuring out what you want to do first. Then get an internship. Work alumni and family connections if necessary.

      1. Hm. I actually would like to either practice law or teach at the college level, however I certainly don’t have the resume to get into a top school. I’d also be interested in journalism, but that seems even more suicidal than the other two nowadays. I also have limited or non-existent family and alumni connections to those professions.

  3. I dropped out of a very good — but not top-10– Ph.D. program in political theory. While the experience has done bad damage to my career and my net worth, I think that the thing I regret most is what it has all done to my life-trajectory and self-conception.

    On the up-side, my professors were some of the most interesting classical liberal philosophers in the world.

    (I bet professor Sorens would be able to guess the school within, at maximum, 3 tries. 🙂 )

    1. Do you regret dropping out or doing it in the first place?

      Hm… If it wasn’t top-10, then it wouldn’t be Arizona. Bowling Green, UVA, and Georgetown are the only other places I know of with a real concentration of liberal philosophers and graduate programs, and that’s a recent development with the latter two (& at Georgetown it’s in business ethics, not political theory proper). So assuming this was a few years ago, I’m going to guess Bowling Green.

      1. I vacillate but I mostly regret dropping out. I count it as a personal failure stemming from a deficit of persistence and toughness.

        Of course it’s one of the programs that Prof. Sorens mentioned but since I don’t love revealing my personal information even on slightly obscure websites (sorry), I’ll send the information to you personally, Professor, from my non-pseudonymous account.

        Here is my non-traditional advice to students who are still considering grad school:

        (1) I think I originally heard this advice regarding entering the ministry as a profession but it also applies for the academy: Only attempt the professoriate if you think that there is NOTHING else that you can do. There’s nothing quite like being a professor with tenure; but you have to recognize that the odds are very VERY against you.

        (2) Following on (1), I would say that if you should attempt this you should have almost everything else in your life should be perfect. It would be good if you had already made some money at a job; you are in relatively good physical and mental health; and, this is going to sound like a joke, but you are already in a serious & committed relationship. It can be hard to date in grad school as you are poor and geeky and will likely remain this way for years.

        (3) This is going to sound like a joke but I’m deadly serious. If you need some psychological help–and given the extreme/obsessive nature of grad school there’s a greater-than-average likelihood you do–please get it forthwith. I’m talking about psycho-pharmacology: stimulants; anti-depressants; mood stabilizers. I know I sound like I’m pathologizing everyday life but I know from the experience of many, many colleagues that taking/neglecting this advice can be the road to salvation/ruin. Not every graduate student needs prescription medication but, for god’s sake, don’t let (internalized) stigma prevent you from seeking and finding help. It’s self-defeating.

  4. One area that people might consider is canon law. For those who don’t know that is ecclesiastical law in the Catholic Church. There is a shortage of canon lawyers. not a huge shortage but at least a shortage. You will need some background in Catholic theology and philosophy. The pay is reasonable, but you won’t get rich. However, before you dash off an application talk to your local diocesan tribunal and maybe intern there for a few months to see if you enjoy it. Don’t do canon law if you don’t like it or it will drive you nuts. Be prepared for lots of marriage cases and be able to move to where ever the jobs are available. Some diocese’s will help defray the cost of the education if you agree to indentured servitude for a number of years. Look up the code of canon law online and if it doesn’t appeal to you then keep looking for something else.

  5. I dropped out of a top 20 PhD program back in 2008 for largely personal reasons. Then the market tanked and I am now watching friends struggle in the job market, which is terrible. I am grateful I left when I did (though I miss my cohort a lot). I would tell students that they should avoid PhD programs and instead focus of graduate degrees with marketable skills (like statistics and/or programming). There are still interesting puzzles to solve and research to be done in both the public and private sectors–you don’t need to get a PhD or be a tenure track professor to get involved in interesting work.

  6. It’s interesting to read your post. Yes, it’s worthwhile thinking bout why one might want to do a PhD. The job opportunities are awful and this combined with the attitude towards those who don’t succeed in obtaining a TT job is important to consider. I have a PhD and I wasn’t able to find work as an academic especially given the fallout of 2008. That’s ok with me. I’m in the private sector, I have more control over what I say in print and I still do cutting edge research. But I’m considered and I’m told to my face that I’m a failure by my ex-colleagues from grad school. I’m a ‘loser’ as I’m apparently a person who’s not valid, not worthy to even been talked to as I didn’t manage to get an elusive TT job. They’re nasty, calculating, vicious and so determined to tell me that I am a failure since I don’t have a TT job. Ouch don’t they realize that they’re just given academia a bad name by their appalling behavior? Don’t they realize that this behavior makes those of who left academia just even more delighted that they left?? YES! I do wonder whether they’re ghastly towards their students.

  7. I didn’t realize until I was halfway done with my M.A. in Philosophy (from a well-renowned Catholic University) that most of the other students were rich. They had participated in study abroad, they’d back-packed through Europe, they didn’t have to work during their undergraduate, let alone graduate schooling. They could travel with the professors to their conference presentations around the world, they could afford to eat out and go to the bars with the professors.

    I finished my M.A. degree, but didn’t even bother applying to Ph.D. programs. It is impossible to compete with rich kids.

  8. The advice here is awful and I hate these over generalized concepts of what’s worthless and what’s not. Let’s put things into perspective. A BS in Math, Engineering, Accounting, Programming, and the like usually guarantees a job after college because these are specialized programs, however, what good is getting a job in a field that you have no desire for and/or worst case scenario hate? Eventually these fields will become oversaturated. Some people just do not have the analytical skills that is required to excel in these types of fields – in school and the job force. Degrees in social sciences requires footwork. To think you will graduate college and land a high paying job probably wont happen for most graduates. The power of internships cannot be stressed enough and it should begin as early as freshman year. Can’t land an internship, volunteer. You have to build your resume and stand out from the crowd, or else you will look like the rest of the million college graduates that season with a BA in History, English, etc. If I saw one million resumes of recent colleges graduates with no extra curricular activities, no internships, volunteer, I would toss your application to the side as well. But perhaps that one student with the BA in History, who worked at the hospital volunteering helping the disadvantage, helped build a school in Panana, or simply volunteered to feed the homeless will look a lot more desirable in my eyes.

    1. You are basically advocating insincerity. You are telling people to volunteer not because they have a desire to, but because it will help their careers. Sorry, but I’d rather be homeless than sell my soul.

  9. I would like to add, that I am also speaking from life experience. I decided to work in a field that pays relatively well, but there’s not much room for growth. I feel stifled and I hate my job everyday because it is not what I desire, despite my lucrative paycheck. As each day passes, I resent my job more and more to the point that I am numb. Going to work is routine and I gain no enjoyment from it. I am very unhappy. Luckily enough I am still young enough to switch gears.

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