Grad school, round two: Q&A with PayScale reporter Kristina Cowan

March 4th, 2008

We had ourselves such a lively conversation about grad school last month, I thought the topic deserved another look. I recently did a Q&A about all things higher ed with Kristina Cowan, aka The Salary Reporter, at Kristina has more than a decade of experience reporting on education and the workforce. Here’s her take on higher ed, community college, trade school, and recession-proof gigs.

Q. I’m a big fan of not using grad school as the “I don’t know what else to do next” default. In the The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, I suggest auditing classes and talking to students in programs you covet before enrolling. Can you offer other tips for weighing a program you’re interested in?

A. It’s a good idea to interview others in the field you’re exploring. Talk to a professor at the school you’re considering, as well as professionals working in the industry. Request informational interviews by phone or, ideally, in person, and prepare a set of questions. A good one to ask is: Will a master’s degree help speed me along the career path and boost my paychecks? I did this when I was exploring a master’s degree in journalism, and found it very helpful.

Ultimately, you should determine the pricetag of graduate school, and whether the advanced degree will truly advance your career and increase your pay enough to justify the expense. Do as much research and talk to as many people as possible so you make a well-informed decision.

Q. When grad school isn’t required for making strides in a particular career path (for example, writing) what are the most compelling reasons to go?

A. I chased a master’s degree in journalism for two reasons I thought were compelling: I knew I could get hands-on experience from the school I picked (Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism). I’d get a chance to write and report for real publications in both the Chicago and Washington, D.C. areas, while getting guidance from professors with plenty of journalism experience. I also knew I’d come away with clips I could use when interviewing for jobs.

The other reason was networking. Medill’s alumni and professors form a strong circle of seasoned journalists at every level and in every medium; they’re individuals on fire for the Fourth Estate. I owe much of the last eight years of my journalism career to that network and my Medill experience.

Q. More and more career paths don’t require a college degree, and more and more students can’t afford a college education at all. If a person is clear on the career path they want to pursue and it doesn’t require a four-year university degree, would you advise them to save themselves the cost and skip the diploma? Go to a more affordable community college instead?

A. I always argue in favor of a bachelor’s degree. I’ve read a slew of studies and talked to countless career and education experts who say a bachelor’s degree these days is what a high-school diploma was years ago: almost essential if you want to make it in this world. I wrote a story for exploring the value of a bachelor’s degree, where I report that earnings tend to rise as education levels increase.

That said, higher ed’s skyrocketing costs are scary and disheartening, but they shouldn’t be a deterrent. Community colleges are an excellent, inexpensive option, and they’re incredibly accessible: according to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,195 in the United States. Students should consider spending their freshman and sophomore years at a two-year school, and then transferring to a four-year school. To help pay the bills, they can do work-study or find off-campus jobs.

At the end of the day, college teaches young people about accountability, responsibility, and organization — essentially, what it means to be an adult. I don’t remember much about the facts I learned or the essays I wrote as an undergrad, but I do remember learning how to fend for myself, pay bills, and take responsibility for my future. It was my first taste of independence, and I’ve never looked back!

Q. I’ve interviewed a number of women over the years who’ve rejected the corporate grind from the get-go — or rejected it after a decade or two — for work in the trades (firefighting, bus driving, construction). Do you think trade school is the new graduate school?

A. Trade school can be invaluable. It provides real-world experience you can’t get in a classroom or through a book. I think it’s especially useful for career-changers who want to gain skills and put them to use relatively quickly.

Q. Any tips for a person with a traditional college education who’s considering embarking on a one-year or two-year trade school program? What might they find different in their new program, and what perceptions do they need to let go of?

A. Depending on the person’s age, re-entering anything associated with the word “school” can be daunting. But the truth is, we all should approach learning as something we do throughout our lives. There is no right or wrong age to attend a trade school, community college, or a four-year institution. Demographics in our country are shifting swiftly, as baby boomers retire or change careers and Generation Y comes of age. We must let go of the dated notion that school is for kids. School is for us all.

Q. Do you think there are there any truly recession-proof jobs?

A. It’s important to remember nothing in life is guaranteed — except death and taxes, as the saying goes — and that includes careers and jobs.

Still, some career paths are more fail-safe than others, such as health care, information technology, education, and jobs with the U.S. government. So-called green jobs are another option. The green arena, which includes energy and environmental industries, is growing quickly and there’s high demand for workers in a variety of positions. You can see my recession stories here and here.

Want more Kristina? Visit The Salary Reporter on

Entry Filed under: Grad school,Money honey,Q&As

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Fernando  |  December 6th, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    great post.. thnx for sharing

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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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