The post-graduate balancing act

Graduate level studies has become a career death trap for far too many people.

Here’s the problem: competition for positions, coupled with the manipulation of the pay grade system in organizations by upgrading educational requirements (although the job hasn’t changed) has put a premium on having more than an undergraduate degree.

Where forty years ago a high school graduate had their choice of work, and even ten years ago a bachelor’s degree offered the same, today competing for positions often requires a second degree (plus, if changing jobs later in life, evidence of continuing education through added credentials of various types).

It used to be that those going to graduate school — other than the few self-regulated professions — were headed to a career in academia.

Now there are many different kinds of “professional” degrees at the Master’s level. The University of Toronto, for instance, offers more than eighty of them.

Most of these are aimed at very small job pools. A Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) degree, for instance, leads to a museum or gallery. It does not lead to many other roles. A Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree certainly points to a policy analysis job (with the right other credentials for the subject matter) but doesn’t lead to many other places than the civil service.

These “professional” degrees are often two year Master’s programs (rather than the traditional one year MA, MASc and MSc degrees). Doctorates in these specialized fields exist beyond almost all of them, just as they do beyond the one year Master’s of the basic Arts, Science and Engineering fields. There’s no difference in the expected length of either type of doctoral program, nor in the number and type of requirements to achieve that final degree.

Here’s the trap: few organizations want to hire someone with a doctorate unless the work itself requires that level of education. (Typically, these are scientific or mathematical roles.)

While academia was expanding — say from the early 1960s onward — most people who acquired a Ph.D. had the potential for an academic future. This door is now closed.

Around the world, departments in universities are being cut. Former tenured positions are replaced by contract instructors, who have no job security and can be paid a pittance. Today, many of the instructors in those expensive “professional” master’s programs are paid less than $7,000/course to teach “at pleasure” — in other words, much like undergraduate life, where the institution charges for its prestige and name but the classes are taught by graduate students on a contract, or a postdoc on a contract, or a non-tenured professor desperately scrabbling for job security.

Having your résumé tossed on the discard pile without further inspection because it says Ph.D. is as hard to get by as not having the required credentials is.

Now, of course, it’s easy enough to leave that Ph.D. off of a résumé, assuming having to explain where the four to seven years it took you to complete it went isn’t a problem in its own right. (Few institutions want their doctoral [or master’s] students working anywhere other than at the university itself.)

What isn’t easy is to make up the deficit built up if that doctorate was “bought” using student loans.

Graduate studies are expensive (not that undergraduate isn’t). But unlike the BA, BASc or BSc, which have become effectively “the cost of admission” to the workplace in many situations, the various types of “M” degree — from the MBA to all the rest — and the Ph.D. need to be judged harshly on terms of payback.

Will the degree pay back not only its tuition costs, but the lost earnings potential of the years you put into the studies? How long will that payback take — and what are the odds of finding work in the field? Can an alternative career be found using these credentials if it turns out there aren’t the expected opportunities (or, equally bad, you find you hate the work).

Figuring these things out are as much a part of doing your own personal due diligence as is any of the other things we write about here at Personal Due Diligence. Indeed, think of it as part of learning some of the life skills you’ll need to manage your career!


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