Don’t Choose a College Based on Graduate School Goals

on February 8, 2017

Plenty of teenagers and their parents look beyond undergraduate studies and think about graduate school. 


I’ve heard from many parents and teenagers who assume that trotting off to medical or law school or obtaining a master’s degree will be a must. They are stressed about how they are going to cover the expense of this additional schooling.


Maybe you are among the teenagers who are focused on picking an undergraduate college or university based on the potential impact on your chances of getting into the right graduate school.


If so, here’s some advice:


Rather than looking ahead, stop worrying about graduate school while you’re in high school. If you’re a teenager, do you really think you know what your career plans are going to be when you’re 23?


If you doubt this, check out this statistic: According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 37 percent of undergraduates change their academic major at least once. And, about 9 percent of college students switch their major two or more times.


Although you might think a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree, it’s not that simple. Here are six facts that you need to know about graduate school:


1. You probably don’t know enough to pick a major


You can be cheating yourself if you set your career path when you’re 17 or 18. High school doesn’t expose you to the vast educational opportunities that colleges offer. Chances are you’re not going to get exposed in high school to such disciplines as philosophy, sociology, anthropology, Asian studies, rhetoric and film studies. And that is no doubt one reason why smart teenagers are more likely to aim for medicine and law careers, because those fields are well-known and high-status.


2. You don’t know how hard some subjects are


High school subjects can have little resemblance to the same subjects in college. You might think you want to major in biology or chemistry and transition smoothly to medical school or graduate school, but the road is an especially rocky one for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors.


The U.S. Department of Education examined the attrition rate for undergrad STEM majors and determined that 48 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the STEM fields never received degrees in those disciplines. About half majored in something else and the rest left college.


3. Becoming a professor can lead to poverty


One common reason to attend graduate school is to become an academic. Being a professor may seem like an intellectually stimulating profession with the added perk of working on an idyllic campus.  The realities of academia, however, aren’t so lovely.


About half of today’s college professors are working part-time, according to the American Association of University Professors, and more than 70 percent of professors are not on the tenure track.


The AAUP has calculated that the average pay for an adjunct professor is between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. In contrast, the average pay of full-time instructors and professors is $84,303.


To survive, adjunct professors, who often work without benefits, might need to find part-time teaching gigs. About 25 percent of part-time college faculty members receive food stamps or some other type of government assistance, according to the Berkeley Labor Center.


4. There are less expensive ways to obtain skills


Teenagers and their parents don’t possess a crystal ball that reveals what jobs and skills will be in demand in the future. Other educational opportunities can be more nimble. Getting a certificate at a university extension department can be more practical for employers than a master’s degree or PhD. And it will be cheaper.


5.  Grad schools can be extremely expensive


The debt burden that new college graduates leave school with ($30,000) pales in comparison to the median graduate school debt of $57,600 in 2012. A 2014 study from the New America Foundation concluded that about 40 percent of college debt is for graduate school.


The debt levels are even more alarming for professional schools. According to the American Bar Association, law students graduated with $84,000 in debt at public universities and more than $122,000 at private institutions in 2012. And this is at a time when job prospects have shrunk.


According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average medical school debt is $189,000 for 2016 graduates. And for would-be physicians it’s a long slog. To become a doctor, you need a minimum of 11 years – four undergraduate years, four years of medical school and three years of residency. Additional years will be required if you specialize. If you decide you can’t or don’t want to continue, the debt could be hard to pay off.


6. Graduate degrees don’t always pay


As a rule, Americans who obtain graduate degrees do earn more than individuals with bachelor’s degrees and their jobless rate is lower. Not all advanced degrees, however, pay off.


Although getting a master’s degree in the STEM and healthcare fields can provide a healthy salary boost, there is significantly less of an increase in income for graduate degrees in such fields as education, criminal justice, interior design, art and journalism.


Bottom Line:


When you are in high school, focus on finding colleges that will provide you with a good education as you pursue a bachelor’s degree. Wait until you are in college before you start worrying about what will come next.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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