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Careers Café

Fighting grad school backlash


Ah, it had to happen sooner or later. Brazen Careerist founder, Penelope Trunk, was eventually going to take grad school down a peg. Given her typically provocative style, she was unlikely to say that it’s a wise investment.

She’s challenged the wisdom of pursuing grad school in the past on her blog, but using more measured arguments. That blog post (written in 2005) posed good questions about testing career options before signing up for more education, exploring whether a grad degree is necessary for your anticipated career, and evaluating whether you were sufficiently keen on your research topic. That blog post might not be sexy reading, but it warned against going into grad school just because it’s there, and it assumed that, for some people, grad school is a good option.

More recently, Trunk has suggested that, if you’re in grad school, you haven’t thought out your reasons for being there, whether you’re aiming for non-existent teaching jobs or shiftwork behind a cash register. Humanities graduates are especially doomed.

So, do you need to worry about her claims?  By now, you’ve probably read through the endless parade of media claims that your degrees are useless (and hopefully Léo Charbonneau’s excellent rebuttals in Margin Notes). You can find information from Statistics Canada that does point to discrepancies in employment rates between PhD graduates from different faculties. Although such discrepancies exist, the situation is nowhere near as dire as Trunk claims.

Beyond the stats, there also simply isn’t a degree out there that can absolutely cement your success or your failure. There just isn’t. And, with any degree, at least part of what you get out of it will be the “extra” – perhaps even seemingly superfluous – stuff that you do. Heck, MBA programs typically haven’t hidden the fact that some of the degree’s value comes through the networking opportunities it creates.

There’s no need to choose between Trunk’s cheerful scorn for grad degrees or the head-in-the-sand thinking she says emerges in response to her arguments.

  • Assess the costs and whether you need grad work for your career plans. Then, if graduate work still feels important for your development, do it. (And if it doesn’t, do something else.)
  • Deliberately choose how you’ll get the most out of it – which seems a relevant approach regardless of your educational path. Choose to think about what parts you like most and least. Choose to develop a plan B and a plan C.
  • Choose to do some things that are appealing but feel superfluous.
  • Choose to stay in contact with people who are doing things that seem interesting.

While you’re at it, choose to use your university’s career office to learn more about presenting your abilities to employers. Then, you can better disabuse any employers who might share in misconceptions about grad school.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. SC / September 26, 2013 at 12:29

    A good article and a fitting rebuttal to the biased Trunk website and its contents. However, the author should have mentioned the discrepancies among different disciplines with best outcomes in Engineering/Computers, middling in Biomedical/Life Sciences and somewhat worse in Humanities.

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