I went to grad school in the last recession. Here’s my advice to people considering it now

US lawmakers signed a number of meaningful higher education measures.
US lawmakers signed a number of meaningful higher education measures.
Image: Reuters/Chip East
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When I went to graduate school in the fall of 2008, I didn’t know anything about anything. I certainly didn’t know how bad the global financial crisis was going to get, or how devastating it would be to the job market.

But as it turned out, I’d left my media job just as that industry, along with many others, took a swan dive. And so I wound up taking part in the long tradition of seeking shelter in the ivory tower during a recession.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing shutdowns rock the global economy, a new wave of young people are wondering whether they should go back to school rather than attempt to forge their way through a job market riddled with layoffs, furloughs, and general instability.

The real costs of going to grad school

How do we know whether going to graduate school is worthwhile, from at least a financial perspective? Our calculator can help with that, based on your annual income, expenses, and outlook for the future.

For more of a back-of-the-napkin estimate, personal finance coach Ramit Sethi, the author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, told CNBC in 2019 that tuition plus your other expenses in grad school should not be greater than one year’s starting salary in your field of choice.

This seems sensible. I’d add that, based on my experience, it’s wise to stay away from grad school unless you meet one of the following conditions:

  • Your program offers funding that will allow you to graduate with minimal (or ideally zero) debt;
  • You are required to get an advanced degree in order to practice your profession of choice;
  • Getting the advanced degree will lead to a substantial increase in your earning power (this is the case for many degrees, but by no means all of them);
  • You are independently wealthy, footloose, fancy-free, and probably drinking a martini right now.

All this goes double if you’re entering grad school in a recession, since economic recoveries can take a long time—meaning that there’s no guarantee that you’ll be skipping into a sunny job market upon receiving your degree.

Did I take this advice myself? Ha! No. I was extremely impractical at age 25. I’d been out of college a few years, but considerations about money and debt and the future weren’t totally real to me yet. All of my friends seemed to be going to grad school, and it just seemed like a normal thing to do. So I got myself into a master’s program for English literature, then spent a year in a PhD program at the same school before dropping out.

At that point, I’d realized that the biggest thing graduate school had taught me was that I didn’t want a career in academia. I didn’t want to publish in scholarly journals; I wanted to write for popular audiences. I didn’t want to burrow into literary theory for days on end and throw around the word “teleology” at cocktail parties; I wanted to talk to lots of people and write about lots of different things. To be fair, I did like teaching. But mostly, I wanted to go back to a career in media.

Will an advanced degree help you get a job?

In a way, my desire not to become an English professor was fortunate, since it was unlikely that I would have landed a tenure-track faculty position anyway. The academic job market is even worse and, to my mind, more nonsensical, than that of the journalism industry. Ultimately, I wound up with $30,000 of student-loan debt and a degree that was unrelated to the career I did want to pursue.

Academia may have sheltered me from the turmoil of the job market from 2008-2011, but it was a leaky, windy shelter. The recession had technically ended in June 2009, but the labor market remained in rough shape for a long time. And I emerged from grad school doubtful that I’d gained skills that would serve me well in non-academic pursuits.

For better or worse, the majority of hiring managers are looking for candidates with clearly relevant experience, not candidates whose cover letters explain why years spent analyzing modernist poetry can actually really prove useful when it comes to unpacking banks’ earnings reports. And I was worried that the debt I’d taken on would prevent me from taking chances in my career or taking on the low-paying jobs that are often necessary to get a foothold in an industry. I was, to be honest, way more freaked out about the job market after going to grad school than I’d been before I went.

But what about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, you may be thinking. Could it be worth going to law school to become a better thinker, even if you don’t necessarily intend to become a lawyer? Could getting an MFA in fiction and becoming a better writer fulfill you, regardless of whether you wind up in a job you could have landed with only a bachelor’s degree?

Certainly the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a beautiful and worthy thing. Unfortunately, at least in the US, the cost of education means it can wind up narrowing grad students’ options for the future rather than expanding them.

The average student loan balance for Americans who completed research doctorate programs was $108,400 in 2016, according to data from the US National Center for Education Statistics. The average balance for those who completed master’s degrees was a still-hefty $66,000. It’s worth thinking carefully, before enrolling, about how that debt may change the way you live your life once you’re out of school.

Why grad students are so depressed

This brings me to another problem with thinking about grad school as a way to ride out recessions: If you don’t genuinely, passionately want the degree in question, you may well find the experience incredibly demoralizing.

Mental-health problems are very common in academia. A 2015 study of 790 graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 47% of PhD students suffered from depression. A 2018 study of 2,279 graduate students across 234 institutions found that participants were six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population.

Researchers don’t know exactly why depression and anxiety are so prevalent among grad students. There are so many possible contributing factors to choose from! A lot of programs notoriously avoid any notion of work-life balance, creating a lifestyle that’s low on sleep, exercise, and sunlight, and high on stress and booze, which is practically guaranteed to put people in bad mental shape. Working diligently to prepare for a career with dismal hiring prospects can certainly send people spiraling into existential crises.

Grad students also are often submerged in lonely work that requires little human interaction, and if they feel insufficiently supported by their advisers, they can really start spinning out. (In the 2018 study, about half of the students with anxiety and depression said they felt their advisers didn’t offer “real” mentorship.) The list goes on and on.

If you’re someone who really, truly wants to become a professor or otherwise has a clear professional end goal tied to getting that degree, all that stress may very well be worth it, and you can power through.

But if you’re thinking of grad school more as a way to weather a bad economic period—or because you’re not sure what else to do—you may just be swapping out one set of problems for another.

I was definitely in the latter situation. “Is everything in the world horrible,” I once asked my friends mid-grad school, “or is it just the rain?” We were in Oregon, so there was a lot of rain, to be fair. But I was also consumed with fears about my future and the sense that I was wasting a lot of time and emotional energy on the pursuit of a degree that I didn’t want and wouldn’t help me. Everything in the world wasn’t horrible, but my mental state certainly was.

Mistakes happen

Having said all this, I must also add, with the utmost sincerity: What the hell do I know?

It’s fine if you read this article and decide to pay $100,000 for a master’s in art history anyway. Nobody can predict how another person’s experience will turn out. I know plenty of people who say they’re grateful they went to grad school even if it was expensive and not strictly necessary. They point out that they made invaluable connections that led to jobs down the line, or that they got the chance to move to a new country, or that they had opportunities for personal and professional growth that they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.

Personally, I think my decision to go to grad school was a mistake. But people make mistakes all the time, especially when they’re in their early 20s; their brains aren’t even fully formed yet. It doesn’t mean that their lives are doomed forever. Plus, some very good things came out of grad school for me, too. I made some of my best friends there; I can’t imagine my life now without them. And after I dropped out, we started a blog together, which helped me advance my journalism career.

So if you’re going ahead with the grad-school plan, just remember you don’t have to stick with the decisions you make. If you apply to grad school and get in, you don’t have to go. If you go to grad school and realize it’s not right for you, you can ignore the sunk costs (that is, the time and money you’ve already invested in the program) and drop out, thereby potentially saving yourself more time and money down the line. If you spend six years getting a PhD in marine biology and then decide that what you really want to do with your life is to run a dairy farm, that’s perfectly wonderful, too.

A lot of careers are shaped by trial and error, and there’s no shame in experimentation.

But my most important piece of advice, when it comes to grad school, is that you shouldn’t use it as a way to avoid an undesirable situation, whether it’s a recession or the threat of impending adulthood or just something to do while you’re sitting around the house all day during a pandemic. We make progress in life when we go after the things we really want—not when we run away from things that frighten us.