Sorry, Penelope Trunk, We Disagree

Let me preface this post by saying that I think Penelope Trunk is pretty cool. She’s the founder of Brazen Careerist and two other startups, and her career advice is always fresh and fun – if not a bit irreverent. But in one of her recent posts, she basically says that graduate degrees in the humanities are useless. Here’s why she’s wrong:

>> Employers still look for graduate degrees when hiring.
Even if a graduate degree is not required for entry into a particular field, many employers still say that, given the choice between a candidate with a master’s degree and one without, they’ll hire the one with the degree. A recent New York Times article confirms this notion, calling the master’s degree a “sorting mechanism.” Plus, plenty of non-science professions (e.g., teaching, clergy, psychology) do require graduate degrees just to get in the door, and that trend will continue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers that require first professional or master’s degrees are expected to grow by about 18 percent each; those that only require on-the-job training are expected to grow by 8 percent each.

>> Graduate degrees can get you promoted.
Trunk’s post seems to be directed at students who have never worked a day in the real world, but one doesn’t need to get a graduate degree in a vacuum. Many students go to grad school while they’re working – with the blessing (and even the tuition assistance) of their employer. When grad school is directly applicable to your field and can help you do better on the job, everyone benefits. Workers who are committed to self-improvement will always be in greater demand than those who are resting on the laurels of old accomplishments.

>> You can make more money with a graduate degree.
In a conversation about making a living with graduate education, it would be shortsighted not to mention the salary potential of advanced degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2008, the median annual earnings of young adults with a master’s degree or higher was $55,000. That’s 20 percent more than bachelor’s degree holders earned ($46,000). And for those who say you have to take grad school debt into account, remember that there are lots of ways to do grad school on the cheap (fellowships, scholarships, teacher assistantships, etc.).

>> You do need a graduate degree in order to teach.
Teaching jobs may not be easy to come by these days – especially at the college level – but they are out there. And you can’t get in without an advanced degree. Maximize your employability by choosing your school and program wisely, and making good connections once you’re there. Given a choice between two grad schools, go with the one that has the best reputation in your field, one with a high employment rate for graduates of your program.

>> Education is never a waste of time.
Even if none of the above points were true, and grad school didn’t enhance career prospects, I’d still make the case that education is valuable for its own sake. Grad school gives you an opportunity to focus your attention and delve deeply into a topic, to do research and consider new possibilities, and to gain philosophical understanding. Not only are these kinds of activities helpful in your career, they make a difference in your life as a whole. And we are whole people, not career robots. Anything you can do to challenge yourself and broaden your perspective – including grad school – is inherently worthwhile.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to grad school. While there are certainly “wrong” reasons to go to grad school, there are plenty of “right” reasons, too. Be selective in your search, and you’ll be amazed at the doors that a graduate degree can open.

-Robyn Tellefsen

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