Grad School May Not Be the Best Way to Spend $100,000

Over the past decade, I’ve taught hundreds of executive education, MBA, and undergraduate students at half a dozen top universities. To put it mildly, I’m a believer in the importance of higher education and graduate studies. But I’m also concerned that some executives view grad school as a panacea — a universally applicable fallback and a sure-fire ticket to promotion, the way teachers still get a union-mandated pay raise if they get their master’s degree.

In a world where the value of even a college education is coming under increased scrutiny (see Andrew McAfee‘s recent HBR post, Michael Ellsberg’s book The Education of Millionaires, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s controversial fellowship that pays a cadre of teenage overachievers to skip college), it’s worth asking: what about grad school?

There are obvious cases where a graduate degree is mandatory; you’re not going to get very far as a doctor or lawyer if you haven’t done the requisite schooling. But what about everyone else? I often get inquiries from executives looking for advice about whether they should go back. Would an MBA, a JD, a doctorate in organizational psychology, or a journalism degree give them that extra edge? Often, the answer is no. There are a lot of things you could do with $100,000, and going to school because you aren’t sure what to do with yourself, or because of received wisdom that an extra degree is always helpful, could be a colossally misguided move.

If you’re taking the plunge, it’s essential to think through how the graduate experience will benefit you, and know in advance what you hope to get out of it. Joel Gagne, an executive I profile in my book, Reinventing You, completed all the courses for a master of arts in government. But in the midst of running a company, a couple of cross-country moves, and a new baby, completing his master’s thesis just didn’t make the priority list. “I don’t want to say those classes were worthless, because they weren’t,” he says. “There were one or two nuggets. But as far as directly affecting my professional life, graduate work has not had the type of impact necessary or given me the business skill set I need.” Instead, he’s found more success taking targeted classes, on subjects like business writing and goal-setting, that speak directly to his needs.

If you’re doing a graduate program just to get the degree on your wall, or if only a handful of classes excite you, it’s far better (and cheaper) to take adult ed or extension school classes. Here are a few other reasons why you shouldn’t go back:

Because you aren’t sure what you want to do with your life. Yes, it’s a better alternative than moping around if you’re unemployed. But it’s also expensive — and that means you need to treat it like an investment, which means you’ve done your research and really thought about how you can extract the most learning and value from it. If you’re not even sure what your ultimate goal is, you’re wasting your time and money. Go travel instead, or start a blog, or keep doing informational interviews until you get clarity.

Because your career is stalled. It’s the script we’ve all heard from our parents: education is the answer! But let’s be clear: you won’t be promoted because you have a graduate degree. You may get promoted because of what you learned in graduate school and how you apply it at work, which is very different — and unfortunately requires a lot more insight and effort.

Because you got in somewhere. There are great professors at many universities, and you can undoubtedly learn a tremendous amount from them. But the reality is that if you’re going to make a six-figure investment, you should demand even more value — and that comes in the form of a powerful alumni network. A while back, an ambitious young man named Scott contacted me for advice; he had been a junior staffer at an organization where I consulted. He’d applied to business school and now had a choice between a small state school where he could easily afford the tuition, or a “name brand” MBA program with a storied history, but an expensive price tag. What should he do? I’m no fan of debt, but the answer was obvious. If he was going purely for personal edification, he could probably get a wonderful education at the cheaper school. But if he was going so he could take his career to the next level, it was worth investing: a marquee name on your degree and connections to the nation’s powerbrokers are worth it.

The truth is, graduate school isn’t for everyone. It’s simply too expensive, and requires too much time and effort, to take a “why not?” attitude. It can be exactly the leverage you need if you’re an ambitious, thoughtful learner who knows what you want out of the experience. But if you’re thinking about going because you aren’t sure about your direction, or because your career isn’t advancing the way you’d like, it’s important to realize: a master’s degree isn’t a magic pill that will solve all problems. It’s more like a targeted therapy: it works hard (and gets results) when you do.

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on April 15, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.