The Five Worst Reasons to Go to Grad School

"I'm really on the fence," said the lady on the phone. "It's a terrible time to go more into debt than I already am, but I think grad school might be my next best career move." "How so?" I asked her. "A graduate degree could give me a big advantage in my job search," she said. "I just don't have any job search mojo, and the degree could give me some."

"Yikes," I said. The lady's thought process illustrates what for me is the very worst reason to get a graduate degree. Here's our full list of five awful reasons to go to grad school:

The Five Worst Reasons to Go to Grad School

Reason Number One: To Fix Something Broken in You

The worst reason to pursue a master's degree is this: to fix yourself. If you don't think you're okay now, you're going to be no more okay, but more expensive as an employee and more insecure about your value in the talent marketplace, after you graduate (and likely to have grad-school loans to pay off, too).

People who are already okay and who are passionate about grad-school topics -- anthropology or computer science or anything at all - should get a master's degree if they want one, by all means. Getting a grad-school degree to burnish a resume --- without looking in the mirror, understanding one's own talents and passions, and understanding how more education will enrich a person, beyond adding a few initials to that resume -- is worse than pointless. It's expensive, energy-sapping and the worst possible reinforcement for the unfortunate view: "My degrees and other credentials make me worthwhile."

Reason Number Two: To Impress People

Forget this lame rationale for another sheepskin. If employers need someone with a master's degree, they'll have plenty of contenders for the role, and which candidates do you think they'll pick? They'll choose someone who knows him or herself, and who's on a path -- not someone who invests time and money in a grad-school education in order to impress employers who care about those things.

When I hear from employers who proudly proclaim "We only hire people from Ivy League schools!", I immediately check my mutual funds to make sure I'm not invested in those places. Talk about fear-based leadership! People who believe that impressive schools make people impressive aren't to be trusted with any investor's money or any customer's business, much less with the emotional and mental investment that organizations ask of their teams.

The people around us, people who could hire us as freelancers or recommend us to their hiring-manager friends, aren't any different from the old lady down the block or the guy selling newspapers on the corner. They look at the substance of a person, not his or her academic credentials, when they're deciding whether someone is a solid citizen or not. The person who gets an advanced degree to impress other people is always the least impressive person at any gathering -- and why would that surprise us?

Reason Number Three: To Buy a Professional Network

Grad school was a blast when I was pursuing my MS between 1990 and 1992. I loved the sharp thinkers I went to classes with, but no more strongly than the smart people I knew from my office and from my other communities, social and professional. I would no more have expected my grad-school alma mater to equip me with a professional network than I would have expected my Chicago alderman to paint my front porch. That isn't the alderman's (or the schoolmate/alumni community's) job.

Grad school (along with undergrad programs, book groups, running clubs, and tons of other work-related and just-for-fun crowds and associations) does provide a scholar with sharp minds to brainstorm with, and that's a wonderful thing. If that sort of thing nourishes you, go for it! If you're thinking that a grad school program will fast-track you into the club called People Who Know the People One Needs to Know To Be Successful, please refer back to our Reason Number One.

Reason Number Four: Because Employers Want It

Employers have talent needs all over the map, and it's tempting to go after advanced degrees that our research suggests employers are looking for. Here's the problem: Once you get the degree, you still have to get the job, and employers don't want people who simply possess the sorts of sheepskins most badly required for the 2012 business environment. They need people who are charged up about what they're doing and who are already in their power. If you were an employer getting ready to spend a chunk of change on a well-educated new hire, wouldn't you look for a standup guy or woman, someone who knows who he or she is, and makes his or her own path?

That's what employers tell me they're looking for. As they say, the lighthouse doesn't run up and down the beach waving to the boats. It sits wherever it sits and shines its beacon. People who sit in their own brand and power, with or without advanced degrees, find the best employers and vice versa. For them, a master's degree is something to get because you're geeky excited about the subject matter, not because we read a report that says jobs in the field are growing at X percent.

Here's the other problem: People who follow a career path because the employment forecast for the field looks good, call me ten years later to say "I hate my life." That may be the biggest problem of all.

Reason Number Five: Because I Don't Know What Else to Do

I know a guy who has six master's degrees, and he's working on his seventh right now. God bless this guy, an awesome brass player and one of the smartest people I know. He teaches college, so his tuition is always really cheap or free. I hope he gets another dozen advanced degrees. He goes to school because he loves it and because he's curious. He isn't trying to fix himself, to impress an employer, to avoid real life or do anything other than indulge his curiosity and creativity.

This guy I'm talking about cannot help his alma mater(s) in any US News and World Report ranking. He's the kind of grad-school student professors love, because he's avid to learn. He doesn't want to get hired by Merrill Lynch when he earns his seventh degree, or his twenty-seventh. Grad school isn't a transaction for him (spend X dollars and invest Y time and get a job with Z salary and awesome benefits!) but it's the way he exercises his creative muscles.

Grad school is an exhilarating ride, or a hedge. It's a hedge, a dodge and a tragedy when it's viewed as a way to patch over something less-than and defective that we perceive in ourselves. I wish every graduate school admissions process began with the simple question, posed to all candidates of the incoming class:

"Are you fine right now, without this degree?"