Buyer Beware

There’s a person I know who’s in the final stages of completing a graduate degree. If you talk to this person about this degree, they only have bad things to say about the experience. “The school is definitely not A-list and not even B-list, in fact it’s probably C- or D-list.” “I can’t believe how terrible they are at _____.” Every time this happens, I want to shake this person and say “Did you not research where you were going?” or “You better hope companies aren’t thinking that or hear you say that. It’s not going to help you get a job.” This is one of those people who thought that getting this degree was more important then where it comes from (* see note at bottom). And the degree this person is getting? It’s one of those degrees that now “everybody has”, which makes the reputation of where it’s coming from more important when looking for jobs (but not so important if you already have a job). I always wonder what this person says when asked in an interview about the degree and the person’s schooling experience. Does it come across convincingly that this was a great experience and they learned so much? Or does this person’s disdain for the experience shine through?

If there’s one thing I rarely hear talked about, it’s what your program is worth. And I don’t mean how much your tuition costs. But more in terms of how is getting your _____ (fill in the blank) degree going to help you out? I don’t think we always think that far ahead. Instead, we often approach getting a degree with the mindset of either “ooh, I could get a ____ degree” or “I like school and am going to get a ____” or “degree ____ will guarantee me a high paying job.” Nothing technically wrong with any of those, except that by the time you finish your degree, a large number of years may have gone by, and at the same time you may have racked up quite a bit of debt. There’s no guarantee that at the end of your degree that you’re going to end up a) with a job that’ll help you tackle that debt or b) even still want to be in the field you studied in.

When it comes to researching your program before accepting, the most common advice I hear and read is to make sure the program is accredited. Which is sound advice. The last thing you want is to get your shiny new degree and find out no one accepts it. But I rarely hear people spend nearly as much time talking about checking out how potential employers view a) the degree you want to get and/or b) the school you’re considering getting it from. Instead we say things like “Oh, a MBA will get you any job” or “with a PhD you can become a prof.” Neither of those are completely true. Sure, you may need a MBA or PhD to pursue a given career, but that doesn’t guarantee you will end up in that career. And, in some cases, it’s likely that your degree could actually, to some degree, hurt your chances more than having spent those same years working your way up the corporate ladder.

I think the experience I mention at the start highlights something we all like to forget and skip out on. It’s your responsibility to check out where you’re going before you go there. And it’s up to you, as the “buyer” to be aware of the potential benefits and pitfalls of each opportunity and make wise decisions about what risks you want to take. These decisions may not be easy, and circumstances and life and time can change them as you move forward. But that doesn’t remove a large chunk of the responsibility from resting on your shoulders. And, whining about it to others? It just makes you look pathetic.

*Note – This is not true for everybody and all degrees. If you are working while getting your degree, most likely your employeer knows where you are getting the degree from and is fine with that and willing to acknowledge it afterwards. If you’re going to run your own business this can be the similar case – you won’t be using your degree to get people to hire you by handing out a resume the same way a potential employee searches for a new job.

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