Going to graduate school is a giant gamble that’s worth the risk

The best kind of risk.
The best kind of risk.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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In many ways, millennials have been dealt a tough hand. They’re more in debt (for many reasons) than their parents were, and are finding it harder and harder to make the full leap into financial independence. At the same time, many young people with great undergraduate degrees struggle to get jobs out of school (among other things) and finding jobs that pay well is even more challenging. In this context, pursuing a graduate degree can feel like a terrible decision that will only lead to over-qualification and debt. In fact, many have argued that pursuing graduate degrees, and particularly master’s degrees, is a waste of time and money.

While I understand this argument, I also think it’s narrow-minded. Now more than ever, we should be encouraging millennials to invest in intellectual capital. Indeed, education is still one of the best investments a person can make in their future, as those with advanced degrees generally earn more and have less trouble finding work. And, the future of our country will increasingly depend on having smart, educated people around to fix the problems created by the generations before them.

Staying visible in a tight job market

Entry-level positions are changing; you need to be more qualified than ever to land one. We live in a competitive job market; until that changes, any extra edge is invaluable. Having a higher level of expertise than other job applicants is a great way to distinguish yourself and prove you have critical thinking skills and therefore workplace versatility.

Even if you aren’t entry- level anymore, a master’s degree can have a huge payoff. There are a bevy of careers that require a master’s degree, or strongly prefer one. This becomes even more relevant if you hope to rise to a managerial position.

Reinvention is difficult, but sometimes necessary

It’s undeniable that the career model has changed. From the swift advent and ever-evolving role of technology to the fact that more women are working now than ever, it’s clear that the workforce and job market just isn’t the same as it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Today, switching jobs, companies, and career trajectories has become much more common. In a continuously changing and evolving world, reinvention hasn’t just become the norm, it’s become necessary for survival.

That being said, reinventing yourself mid-career is not simple, especially in a competitive job market. Switching industries can be nearly impossible, because although skill sets definitely translate, industry knowledge doesn’t, at least, not in an obvious way. If you want to move into a new industry, a master’s degree can give you credibility. In addition, graduate school is a great way of taking time to focus on pursuing your passions and interests, instead of simply chasing a pay check. In “5 Reasons to Consider Changing Jobs,” Michael Peggs reminds us that:

…these days, career paths are rarely linear. And no matter what your reason for looking, the right career is out there for you. Research your options, evaluate your strengths, learn new skills, and fortify your resolve to make change, and you’ll find the path that’s right for you.

Sometimes, we need to take a step back from the daily grind to rediscover what it is that truly makes us happy. When the answer is chasing a new career, graduate school can be a great tool to build a career and explore your interests along the way.

Paying for school is getting (slightly) easier

Master’s programs know that education is expensive and that not all new jobs come with a six-figure starting salary, even post-master’s degree. More and more young people also want to be able to work through school to help manage the financial burden of higher education. Thus, schools that offer master’s degrees have dramatically increased their offerings of non-traditional degree programs. Other programs offer flexible timelines for master’s degrees and other certificate programs for professional development. In addition, a growing number of remote jobs and online degree programs are attempting to make balancing work and school more manageable.

Employers may also be willing to sponsor your education. For people who know they want an advanced degree and like where they work, this is a win-win. For example, if you know that you want to be in field like finance or consulting, two competing industries that require or strongly encourage MBAs, research firm or banks that have a sponsorship programs.

At the same time, some employers are beginning to offer to help employees pay back student loans. A few large companies including Fidelity and PricewaterhouseCoopers have begun offering loan credits to employees as a workplace incentive. Other employers may allow you to take a sabbatical or leave of absence to complete graduate studies. While this isn’t as cushy an option as sponsorship, there are some great benefits. If you can stay an official employee while in school, you may be eligible to keep your health insurance, contribute to your 401(k), and take advantage of other employee benefits. It’s not the same as a paycheck, but holding onto good health insurance and employee benefits can be a huge help when you’re in school—especially for those no longer covered by a parents’ insurance plan.

Sometimes the clichés are true

Millennials have been gifted an economy in recovery and often misleading financial advice. We know that making more than a certain amount of money (which fluctuates depending on where you live) is unlikely to make us happier. And I’ve seen too many young people make life decisions based purely on financial risk instead of accounting for intellectual or emotional wellbeing. Everyone’s risk-reward calculus is different, but it’s important to remember that despite what some people may tell you, there is really no easy way to calculate an intangible like education.

Personal dreams have to count for something. Ultimately, this means we shouldn’t be discouraging millennials from taking risks—as long as they’re smart about it. Because when it comes to intellectual capital, the reward may be worth it.