TO GRAD SCHOOL OR NOT TO GRAD SCHOOL: THAT IS THE QUESTION

Saturday, December 05, 2015 Gabrielle Bill 0 Comments



I get asked A LOT if going to Harvard Business School for my MBA was "worth it." First and foremost, this question always makes me smile because it gives me the opportunity to talk about two of the best years of my life, but after a beat, it also gives me pause.

Even without asking, it's almost always clear that people are defining the "worth" of my MBA from a financial perspective. They want to know if spending $150K for a two-year education delivers on the back-end. And, yes certainly, I have an opinion about the cost and the impact loans can have on your post-graduate life, but I also feel that examining my experience from this lens only would be doing it a dramatic disservice.

Going to Harvard was a very intentional decision for me. I went to the University of Florida for my Bachelor's degree in journalism, and while I was working at my dream company (Disney) after graduation, my role in the public relations department was slowly pushing me into a state of exhaustion. Sure, I have awesome stories about hob-knobbing with celebrities and getting paid to go to parties, but I also have stories about the time I had to pick up a reporter at 3am for a behind the scenes tour, or the time I had to interrupt weekend plans and rush to work because a celeb decided to stop by the parks.

I also knew I wanted more from my job from an intellectual perspective. I wanted to apply my critical thinking skills, be strategic and be connected to a function that was directing the work, rather than being the recipient of the plan.

I talked to every person that would meet with me so I could better understand the different roles at the company, and after talking to a colleague (Hi Randi!) about her job on the brand / marketing strategy team, I knew I had found my next step. Only problem was that getting a job on that team was akin to breaking out of Azkaban. Most people had MBAs, many had undergraduate business degrees, and even folks at the lower levels typically had a few (or more) years of marketing experience under their belt.

I was making a decent salary in my PR position, and since I was already feeling the itch for higher levels of responsibility, my ego wouldn't let me take a step back in order to weasel my way in to the department. So I looked for other avenues.

For me, the MBA was the solution I sought. If I was able to get into a top-tier school, I could earn a pedigree that was certain to catch the attention of lots of recruiters, even those outside of Disney. If I learned about ALL aspects of business from the best professors, devoted two years to my studies and spent three months in an awesome internship, I hoped it would be enough to convince employers I was indeed capable of performing in a strategic capacity.

Honestly, the money I'd spend to get my degree had little to no role in my choice. I knew from the start that it was expensive, and when I got $60K in fellowship money, noting I'd owe $90K in student loans after graduation, I still didn't bat an eye. This was Harvard, people: A once in a lifetime experience, and I was going to milk it for every penny.

And I did. I took classes with some of the smartest, most enlightened professors I've ever known. I met people from all over the world. I heard some of the most successful businesspeople share their stories of success and failure. I left with a brain and heart so full that I almost didn't know what to do with the energy that was so eager to burst forth.

I still had to fight for my post-grad job. Unlike some others in the program who had more extensive work experience prior to their degree or who went through official recruiting channels, I didn't have employers lining up to hire me for twice what I was making before. But as I expected, the Harvard name, and my newfound skills, did make people give me a chance.

My first job out of my MBA I made about 40% more than I had before the degree, and after a little over three years in that role, I negotiated another 30% salary increase when I moved to a new company. So all in all, I more than doubled my original salary in five years post-graduation. Of course, that doesn't mean I feel like I'm rolling in dough, because more than $700 a month goes straight to paying off those student loans, and it will continue to do so for another 10 years unless I can find the means to make even larger monthly payments.

I sort of suck at math, so I won't pretend to do the calculations for you, but I think that even with all the interest I'll pay on my loans, the increase in my earning potential puts me on top financially. But again, becoming a millionaire was never my goal for going to grad school. I wanted to use it as a vehicle to move me into a career that sparked my passions. I wanted to expand my personal knowledge and command of the business environment. I wanted to hone my leadership skills, and yes, I wanted to have fun. And I accomplished every one of those goals.

The challenge I find when I talk to a lot of "young" people today is that they don't really know how to think about the grad school decision. Although every career path is different, and for some folks like lawyers and doctors, going to grad school right after your Bachelor's is necessary, I find that many people default to grad school without giving its purpose much thought. In this tough economic climate, confused young professionals think getting a Master's degree is going to provide them with the answers they're looking for about which career path to pursue. Or they go because they think an extra degree is going to make them rich quick, but don't ever do the mental math to discover if that's true.

Much as I can wax on forever about how great my experience was, I don't actually believe that grad school is for everyone. I think it's something you should weigh carefully after (and only after), you've reflected on your personal values, skills, strengths and desires for your career. Build out a map of where you want to go, then determine ALL the possible avenues that could get you to your vision. Grad school might be one of those options, but I can almost guarantee that if you sit and think about it, you'll discover others too, and one of those may get you to your goal faster and with less out-of-pocket spend.

Need some guidance about how to frame up your decision? Take a few moments to think on these reflection questions:

  • What is the goal that you're trying to achieve? Do you want to change into a new functional role? Do you want to earn more money? Do you want to move up faster in your career? 

  • Can your goal be achieved in other ways? Could you switch into a new functional role without an advanced degree? Could you improve your negotiation skills or apply for a promotion to earn more money? 

  • What's the cost and benefit of going to grad school? How much will this education cost (consider the "all in" cost, which includes not only tuition, but the money you'll spend on room/board and living expenses, any money you'll have to pull from savings to cover the costs...don't forget the opportunity cost of any salary you'll lose by not working if you choose to attend a full-time program)?

  • What can you expect after you graduate? How much will your earning power increase after you complete your degree? Will you make enough to maintain the standard of living you desire with the added expense of loan repayment? In 10, 15 or 20 years will your graduate degree still be benefiting you? In what ways? What's the value of this benefit?

I've had a couple people tell me that they didn't like answering these questions, because it took some of the "shiny penny" off the idea of grad school. And to that I said hallelujah! No matter how you slice it, grad school is an expensive investment from a time and money perspective, so you should be thinking about your decision with the same realistic, rational view that you would when making any other decision that'll impact your life.

For those of you that have pursued higher education, tell me: What do you think about grad school? How do you reflect on your decision to pursue another degree? What about those of you that intentionally decided to skip it? What impact, if any, did it have on your career path? I'd love to hear more about your experiences in the comments section below.

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Gabrielle "Gabby" Bill is a career coach and consultant who believes everyone should be working in a job that leaves them feeling fulfilled. She coaches groups and individuals through a reflection process, uncovering often hidden motivations, values, goals and skills as they relate to their career. These reflections are then parlayed into concrete action plans to guide clients through the process of finding, creating and landing their dream jobs. You can learn more about her services by visiting www.gabriellebill.com



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