Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More on Grad School

Penelope Trunk demolishes the "grad school as response to a recession" strategy. In a more succinct version of a previous post here, she says, the "military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids." She walks through the specifics of the various flavors of grad school, with specifics on each. It's an accurate and useful description. Grad school has three major flaws in general:

  1. It has high costs, partially in money, but also in time. It requires a vast time commitment, with low payout for bailouts partway through, and high switching costs. PhD's in particular require uncapped time frames (as high as 7-9 years).
  2. Most grad school options have highly limited exit options. A PhD outside of academia is a weird thing in the US, and makes it harder, not easier to get a real job. The academic hierarchy is jammed full of Boomers who got their positions in the 70's during the last boom era.
  3. Quality of life is low. I don't even want to talk about it.

The best advice I have for grad school is: if you do it, get it over with quickly. There is not a degree on earth, outside of medicine, that should require you to be there for more than three years.

Two years for an MBA. Four for an MD, as at present, but the third and fourth year (ducklings/pre-interns) ought to be cash flow neutral. Law degrees should be compressed down to two in the future; the third year is filler. An MFA should be do-able in one high intensity year. PhD's should be good to go after three, as in some European models. Anything longer, and you're just shining your advisor's shoes.

Honestly, you're better off with a nice one year MA, as commonly offered in Economics or International Relations programs. Looks good on the resume, doesn't take you out of the workforce too long, and gives you some polish.

In any case, you need to make your pick based on the quality of your classmates. The ability to talk to a group of highly ambitious, really smart people with similar interests is the only real benefit of grad school outside of certification.

As for the military option, the upside is that every ex-military person I've interviewed (mostly captains coming off an ROTC pay-off, interviewing to get into an MBA program or consulting job) has two big assets:

  1. a candid, can-do attitude toward problem analysis and problem solving

  2. a broad emotional perspective. When a bad day is one where someone shoots you, there are no bad days in business
The downside to military life are much like the ones in grad school (long duration post-choice, poor quality of life, difficulty of switching, exit plans) plus the risk of injury or death.

The problem with a recession is that these other alternatives start looking better in comparison, but the decision is likely to outlast the economic crisis.

No comments: