Four reasons to skip grad school

February 2nd, 2008

Yesterday, I was on a panel of working writers/editors/authors/screenwriters, talking to students in the undergrad English department at the University of Washington for the school’s Career Discovery Week. One student asked whether we’d recommend getting a grad degree to those hoping to work full time as a journalist, novelist, or any other type of writer (or editor). I’m happy to report that the answer across the panel of five gainfully employed full-time or freelance wordsmiths was a resounding “Hell, no!”

Here’s why:

1. It’s not a job requirement. Take it from someone who’s applied for a heck of a lot of journalism and publishing gigs. It’s never on the list of job requirements. Also, I have hired many a subcontractor to write and edit for my clients. Experience in the task at hand (technical editing, marketing writing, whatever) is always my number one requirement; I don’t care whether they have letters after their name. And neither do my clients.

2. Everything relevant I learned in my undergrad journalism program you could learn in one class. Yep, I took countless classes on how to write a story about a city council meeting and avoid landing my employer a libel suit. But all those lectures and homework assignments were nothing compared to the (far more educational) real-world experience I got at my internships and first couple of newspaper jobs. In other words, take your undergrad classes, then get your on-the-job experience as an intern, volunteer, and rookie writer or editor. It’s the best training around. And in case you were wondering, all the college credits in the world won’t teach you how to write a book. The first time you do it, you still have to flounder around and figure it out like everyone else.

3. All the great contacts I’ve made over the years I made on the job. I hate the argument that you need to go to grad school to get to know the key players in the publishing industry. No you don’t. Save your money and get paid to learn as an entry-level writer or editor. Much cheaper, and gets you two years ahead of your grad school counterparts in the job market. If you want to network, join a professional association like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. Go to writers conferences, events like Blogher’s annual conference, and the readings/lecture series at your local community arts center (like Richard Hugo House in Seattle). Get out in the real world and meet other working writers, editors, bloggers, and publishing pros in any of the many professional settings they congregate — which, by the way, unless they’re a professor, isn’t at your local university.

4. It’s a dang expensive way to avoid working. As one twentysomething on yesterday’s panel said, don’t be afraid to leave college and enter the workforce. She fearlessly dove into the world of work two years ago, and now she’s the managing editor at a diversity consulting firm. And as the guidance counselor running the panel said, if you don’t know what to do next, get out there and get some work experience. Don’t risk burning out on too many consecutive years of schooling. Instead, sample the various types of writing and editing jobs and industries to see what you do and don’t like. To that I’ll add: You ain’t gonna “find yourself” in law school. Better to flit around Asia, help rebuild New Orleans, or take up any other adventure that gives you the time and space to figure out what’s really important to you.

There is of course one reason to get a graduate degree in a field that doesn’t require it:

You love the topic, can’t wait to learn more about it, and want to do so in a group setting. In How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, Ariel Gore advises getting an advanced degree not in writing, but in a topic that really turns you on, be it medieval lit, comparative religion, or the history of clogging in America. That way, you’ll always have something to write about. I couldn’t agree more.

My boyfriend got a grad degree in medieval literature a decade ago. He didn’t want to go into academia, which is what you have to if you want to work in medieval lit, so now he works in the software industry. As far as I know, he’s still paying off his student loans. But I asked him last night if he’d do the degree all over again, even though I knew what he was going to say. (“Absolutely!”)

That’s when you know you’re making the right decision to go to grad school — when it’s something you want to do as much as that summer roadtrip you’re planning, that craft business you’ve been nursing on the side, or that volunteer gig you do at your local pet shelter.

Entry Filed under: Ask the Cubicle Expat,Grad school

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ain HD  |  February 2nd, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks a ton for this piece. I’d heard about the book, but I haven’t been to the blog. Glad I found you. I’m newly inspired!

  • 2. Michelle Goodman  |  February 2nd, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    You’re welcome! i hope it helps with your mom. ;)

  • 3. Missy128m  |  February 3rd, 2008 at 7:33 am

    This peice was very inspirational and helpful. I am about to graduate college and still don’t know what I want to do. I was wondering if I should just go back until I figure it out, but that would be a total waste of money. This piece helps me to realize I need exp. to help find myself and what I want to do. Thanks.

  • 4. Michelle Goodman  |  February 3rd, 2008 at 10:06 am

    sure! glad i could help.

  • 5. Alexandra Levit  |  February 3rd, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    Michelle, this post is a breath of fresh air. So many people still think that they should get a master’s degree just for the sake of getting a master’s degree, without taking the time to consider what the extra education will actually buy them in terms of employment marketability. Thanks for bringing these issues to the table for us writers in particular.

    Best,
    Alexandra Levit
    Author, How’d You Score That Gig?
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom
    http://alexandralevit.typepad.com

  • 6. Kelsey Shepard  |  February 3rd, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Hey, I was at that panel, in the audience! Haha. It was good to hear about grad school, though I pretty much have adopted the same attitude- not absolutely necessary in the slightest. I’m still in limbo between the idea of being a teacher (which requires more school for me) or editing/writing. It was interesting to hear what you had to say and everyone else. Thanks!

  • 7. Amy T  |  February 4th, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Elizabeth Gilbert said the same thing at a reading recently.

    But what about all that time a grad student gets had to simply write? Cultivating that kind of focus is nearly impossible in “the real world”. I have a pretty devoted writing practice, but imagine that a writing program would allow me to go much deeper into my work.

    Am I delusional? Seriously, tell me. I have 5 grad school apps floating around right now! Love your insight.

  • 8. Michelle Goodman  |  February 5th, 2008 at 5:28 am

    Amy, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. If you want to go to grad school so you can have the structure (and assignments) to write your brains out for a couple years, then you should.

    For what it’s worth, when I went to a writing residency, which you have to apply for, I wrote my brains out daily and communed with other writers.

    And this season (Nov through April), now that all I’m doing for work is reporting/creative non-fiction/how-to writing, all I do is read/write/research/talk shop with other writers. Sometimes I think work should be harder or less fun, but I’ll take the good times while they’re here.

  • 9. Nichelle  |  February 6th, 2008 at 6:36 am

    I totally agree. Graduate degrees are a waste of time/money. I wish there were more apprentice programs out there, since many internships don’t give you much experience if your fetching coffee or running errands.

  • 10. Mir  |  February 7th, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I think you’re right on with the spirit of this, but I can’t resist adding one more thing — depending on what you’re looking to study, there’s no reason to pay for grad school. Waste of time? Maybe. Waste of money? It shouldn’t be. In this country nearly every grad student can get his or her program paid for in full, in just depends on where you go and how you work it.

    As a writer who no longer does anything remotely related to what I studied in grad school, I don’t regret having gone at all. Then again, I didn’t have to pay for it, either.

  • 11. Michelle Goodman  |  February 7th, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Mir, that’s a great point. Thanks for making it.

  • 12. Janna Marlies Santoro  |  February 9th, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Michelle, I’m a relatively new reader hailing from Sacramento, CA. I appreciate the no one-size-fits-all comment here…Maybe it’s because I just finished my M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing that I got a little defensive after reading this. Either way, I wrote a little rebuttal with my own perspective, but the short of it is that 1. it does help in the employment department; 2. grad programs can’t be condensed into one course the way an undergrad program probably can; 3. valuable connections are made in grad school that can only enhance a professional network; and 4. most grad students I know do work while they are in school. In fact, I held down a full time job for the majority of my program.

    At any rate, thanks for writing, I find your site helpful and stimulating (this post included).

  • 13. Michelle Goodman  |  February 9th, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Janna, thanks for writing. I was just reading your post on your blog! (Ah, the wonders of Word Press.) I really enjoyed it. It’s great to hear from someone who DID get so much out of grad school. My main thing is that people shouldn’t be swayed into thinking it’s the only way to go, if they’re on the fence and wondering what to do next.

    Also, for what it’s worth, many of the writers I know who teach (for extra income) do so through professional associations and writing/arts orgs, and/or are asked to guest teach at the university/conference level — all of which I’ve done. So again, the master’s wasn’t required for teaching on the side.

    All that said, I’m so with you on the one-size-does-not-fit-all, to-each-her-own thing. Great to hear all perspectives. Thanks for sharing yours!

  • 14. boohoo  |  February 11th, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Well, I would like to chime in on the “teaching issue”. I have a few friends who have done the “guest lecturer” thing with only a B.A. while relying on their significant work experience. While I agree they are a coveted resource and part-time positions are available, I would also say they end up being paid quite a bit less than those with degrees and equivalent work experience (many times less experience with an advanced degree). For example, someone with work experience and a B.A. are generally invited to cover a specialized topic or course in during a semester, but are considered incapable of teaching general courses in their field (this is an academics opinion of course, but they are the ones doing the hiring for teaching positions). In my case I have an M.A. and on the few part-time teaching gigs I have taken, I have been paid at least $1000 or more than my friends with just B.A.’s doing the same thing. Part-time teaching with a B.A. is totally doable; it just doesn’t pay as well for those with M.A. and PhD degrees. Also, if a person wants to teach part-time in conjunction with a professional “day career”, I would say it’s a minimum requirement to get a graduate degree at night while working part-time. Because without it, you will get paid less and have less offers to teach part-time.

  • 15. Michelle Goodman  |  February 11th, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Thanks for the input, boohoo. I obviously can’t speak to doing a regular teaching gig at the univ or community college level, but the online classes and writing center classes that friends and I have taught at (outside the university setting) have paid very well. And the pay is the same whether you have a higher degree or not. (Though I’m sure the pay leaps if you’re a best-selling author.)

    But again, I’m talking about non-credit courses and people who are not interested in becoming full-time or 50%-time instructors. For most I know, this is a very part-time deal; something that comprises less than 20% of your income, gets you out of the house once in a while, and doesn’t take too, too much time away from your writing week. Just a little way to mix things up financially and get your name out there.

    One travel writer I know, however, makes a majority of her (decent enough) income through online teaching. But I do get that some want to teach at the U level and will want the degree for that, which seem to be what you and Janna are addressing… Thanks again. I learn a lot from you guys!

  • 16. Barbara Saunders  |  February 18th, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    If writing is what one wants to do, it’s worth considering — what proportion of living, working writers have a master’s degree in English or creative writing? What proportion of English or creative writing degree-holders are able to make their living as writers? Makes you go hmmm….

    As for teaching — I would bet that there’s more money to be made and more jobs to be had teaching writing skills outside of the academic market (on or offline.) When I worked at Sybase, a woman was brought in to teach business writing skills to engineers. I’d be surprised if she made less than $1000 for the two-day workshop.

  • 17. Barbara Saunders  |  June 18th, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Graduate school stands out as the only big regret I have in life. It cost me time and money that I will never get back, posing an obstacle to other goals.

  • 18. Rachel  |  September 12th, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Michelle,

    This article was exactly what I needed. I’ve been in turmoil trying to figure out if grad school is right for me. I’ve talked to others who said it was unnecessary, but I fought tooth and nail, claiming that I want to go so that I can make connections and learn more about writing and have a writing community, and you’ve answered my queries on all those things.

    I’m also in the same place as Amy T. in that I feel if I had that kind of a structured lifestyle for awhile, it would propagate some better writing in me. But I have thought about writing residencies, so maybe I’ll try that.

    As far as going to school for something completely different, I never thought seriously of it, but I’d love to go to culinary school!

    I’ll admit I still feel unsure. I am completely sure that I want to write, for the rest of my life. But I use to write poetry and just decided two years ago that I wanted to write fiction. I’m completely new to it, so I feel like I need some strong mentoring. Thoughts?

  • 19. Michelle Goodman  |  September 14th, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Rachel, I would definitely sign up for a fiction writing class at your local college or through a local writing organization or center. Join a listserv like http://www.seattlewritergrrls.org (free; open to writers from all locales) so you can ask questions of your peers. And join a writing group for ongoing peer feedback.

  • 20. Alexandra  |  October 12th, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Hey Michelle, I am a career services director at a college (won’t mention any names) but I find your site refreshingly honest and true.
    In my job, I help grads find jobs. Employers tell me over and over again that the education and skills are NOT The main things they are looking for. So unless a job REQUIRES a grad degree, get out there and get some experience!

    Internships that just have you fetch coffee CAN turn into real jobs if you work hard. A lot of folks out there expect you to “pay your dues”.
    A great resouce for anyone job hunting is Cynthia Shapiro’s book “What does it take to get a job around here? 44 insider secrets that will get you hired” I recommend it to our grads all the time.

    Another thing employers also tell me that is that new grads lack in professional skills BIG TIME.
    showing up ON TIME, getting along with co-workers, dressing professionally and speaking like a business professional (limit slang), these are things that will take you to the next level whether you have an advanced degree or not.

  • 21. recent college grad  |  May 30th, 2009 at 9:57 am

    I realize I am many months late with this comment, but I have been trying to decide if I should attend grad school or not. I never really wanted to, so I didn’t even apply, but my university offered me a full-ride out of the blue to be in the MFA playwriting program. It’s because they don’t have a lot of applications this year and I stood out amongst the drama majors as one who was most interested in playwriting. Which I am, to a degree.

    Of course at first I thought, why not take it? But now I have second thoughts. Because I didn’t want to go enough in the first place to even apply. I don’t really write alot (if anything, school would give me a structured environment to write in). I more or less hated my undergraduate years. I have no clue what I want to do with my life. I worry that grad school is just going to be three years of torture and then at the end I will still have no clue what to do with my life but I’ll be three years older.

    I don’t know if it would be more stupid to pass up a free ride or to go to school for no other reason than its being free.

  • 22. Michelle Goodman  |  May 30th, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Hey recent college grad, if you’re already dreading it, then why do it? Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s a worthy path to follow. Maybe if you speak to a couple professors and past students, look at the syllabus for a coupla courses, and even sit in on a class if any are still in progress, that will help with your decision. You will still have to figure out what to do with your life in terms of earning a living after getting the MFA so if you’re just doing it b/c you don’t know what else to do… well, that’s three years you could have invested in figuring out what you really do like to do for work, and hopefully getting paid in the process.

  • 23. One-Girl Factory | A free&hellip  |  January 5th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    [...] few days ago, Michelle Goodman wrote about the reasons why grad school isn’t a total necessity, and it got me thinking. On and off for the past six years (yes, years), I’ve been [...]

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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