Which Grad School Degrees Aren't a Complete Waste of Money?
Like a lot of people who are young and broke, I've fantasized about going to law school. But does an advanced degree really offer a path to riches?
Illustration by Wren McDonald
Last weekend I went to a party in the kind of loft that has a 'zine library in the living room where a TV might have been. I was there with a friend-of-a-friend who had recently graduated from an Ivy League law school and was about to start a job working for a giant corporate firm and defending CEOs from sexual harassment claims, or something. Needless to say, he was a pariah at the party, and people kept politely excusing themselves as soon as they reached the "what do you do?" point in their conversations with him.
Eventually we were exiled to the roof, where I ran into someone I hadn't seen since college and who, incidentally, had graduated from the same law school as my friend-of-a-friend and taken a similarly soul-deadening job to pay off his massive student debt. As I listened to the two of them talk shop, I imagined I was looking through a blurry pane of glass at some alternate future version of myself—like many of the young, broke, and verbally inclined, I've often had a fantasy where I say "fuck it," pack myself off to law school, and eventually land a six-figure job that, whatever its flaws, will at least put me on solid financial ground. Would that be selling out? Probably, but at least you'd be getting a pretty good price.
Is law school actually a ticket to upper-middle-class respectability, or a get-out-of-jail-free card if you've wasted four years studying something useless? When you're stuck in a rut and dreaming of riches—or at least being able to afford to live alone—is going back to school a good plan?
Andrew Hanson, a senior analyst at Georgetown's Center for Education and the Workforce, told me that the number of people with grad degrees has always been increasing, and it exploded in the 90s. Now almost 10 percent of the workforce has an education beyond four-year college. "If you look at the average case [going back to school is] almost always worth it," he said. "But there's always some risk involved. That's the thing. There are no guarantees anymore."
Every educational path has its pitfalls, even if you're going to a bona fide school and not something like Donald Trump's fake "university." As the lawyer-to-be who came to the party with me once said, "The thing about going to law school for big law is it completely desensitizes you to humanity." Is there a better way? I surveyed a few popular postgrad plans in search of an answer.
My old friend was offered a financial package at his PhD program that required him to work as an adjunct. He got his master's degree and dropped out of the program to see what work was available. Turns out, not very much.
"It was shortly after the 2008 recession, and the only work I could find outside of teaching was temp work," he told me. One of those temping assignments involved showing up to a mud run and spraying people in the face with a hose. "And the following day I had to show up and teach analytical reading and writing skills. It just seemed like there was a disconnect there."
He never taught more than three classes, while also grading essays online and tutoring, in addition to his temp work. "It was easily over 50 hours of work between everything in order to survive," he said. "And I was still barely making it. I distinctly remember having $7 in my bank account even though I was working all the time." Eventually, he couldn't take it anymore, and got back into a PhD program—this time for a slightly more practical version of an English degree, scaling back on his ambitions because he doesn't ever want to face unemployment again.
"Right now the job market in my field is good, but that could easily change," he said. "I know a lot of people who are stuck in a sort of adjunct hell."
But Hanson, the Georgetown analyst, said this isn't the experience for all PhD students—it just depends on what your degree is.
"If you get a PhD in economics, the unemployment rate is basically zero," Hanson explained. "You're basically guaranteed a job, and you're guaranteed high pay. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be working in academia, but you could be in the government sector or a think tank. There are just so many jobs out there."
The idea that econ majors are so valuable made me think. I'm definitely not good enough at math to get a PhD in that area, but could I manage to pull off an MBA? Business school has the reputation of being a giant kegger with some math thrown in, which sounds pretty fun. But there are 13,000 of these institutions, which means that there are an unbelievable amount of wannabe sharks earning those degrees. Does a relatively normal person have a shot when competing against people who think Wall Street is a motivational movie?
The answer, remarkably, is "maybe." Or at least, that's what I heard from Stacy Blackman, founder and president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, which coaches students who want to get into top MBA programs. She told me a story she's heard a million times about a teacher with a liberal arts background who wants to head to the famed Wharton Business School but doesn't have any heavy-hitting math classes under her belt or any real experience to speak of. So long as she has smart essays, good recommendations, and a solid score on the GMAT (like the GRE for business folks), she'll be let in to Wharton and allowed to attend as long as she takes one calculus class and earns a score of A- or higher. Blackman added it's enough for an applicant to take an online calc class and get an A to prove themselves competent.
"Details change, but that's the idea," Blackman said. "They do not want a class full of math brains. There are plenty of people who do not have that background but have other things to contribute—100 percent you do not need business or math to get in, and they take and truly want all types."
The data suggests that, unlike humanities programs, business school is pretty much always a good idea (at least financially). According to Forbes, the median salary for an MBA holder is $100,000—though that number varies from school to school; graduates of Jerry Falwell's religious business school tend to be less sought-after than Columbia alums.
"I think the evidence is good that there's a ton of jobs out there and a high demand for those leadership skills and whatnot," Hanson added. "The wages are really high, the employment opportunities are really high. But again, it depends on the program. If you get into one of the most elite programs, you're going to be making six figures for sure, but other MBA programs—middle tier or lower tier—you probably won't be."
Law school is a really miserable experience, and you absolutely should not do it unless you actually want to be a lawyer.
This all kind of sounded too good to be true. If all I had to do in order to get admitted to Wharton and make bank was take an online calc class, I would definitely study hard enough to get an A. So why wasn't everyone doing this? Well, there's the fact that not everyone wants to work in business. The money sounds good, but I can't imagine being happy at that sort of job any more than I can imagine a profitable career in Biblical Hebrew. There's a reason so many people would rather chase after the fantasy of tenure as a liberal arts prof than transform into a young executive.
Which brings me back to my lawyer friend with the soul-crushing, high-paying job he was discussing on that rooftop.
As in academia and business school, it's extremely important to go to a good school if you want to be a lawyer. Hanson said that only two-thirds of JD graduates today are even working in the field.
"If you're in a very low-tier law school, it's probably not worth it to go, because you're probably going to have a hard time getting a job," he told me. "But if you're in a middle or high tier, you should be fine."
It's also important to note that showing up for classes by no means guarantees you can pass the bar. For instance, between 2010 and 2014, the New York state passage rate among first-time test-takers hovered right around 75 percent. So while almost anyone could find a law school that would accept them, not everyone is going to come out prepared to make a bunch of money.
That fact is compounded by a trend that began in the 80s. According to Hanson, a lot of companies have found it more efficient to just hire an in-house lawyer rather than get billed by a firm whenever they need legal work. They can pay those in-house lawyers less and get away with it because the field is so saturated with lawyers looking for any work they can get. And between 2003 and 2013, 12 major firms have collapsed entirely, causing one New Republic writer to claim we had entered "the last days of big law."
And while the annual salary for attorneys was just over $130,000 in 2013, a slew of recent graduates told me that they'd estimate only 10 percent of people from top-tier schools can make anything approaching that right out of the gate.
"It's a bit antiquated to say that like all these dopes are getting handed 200k a year," one told me.
"I'd just add that law school is a really miserable experience, and that you absolutely should not do it unless you actually want to be a lawyer," said another.
"And as to whether anyone can do it, absolutely," a third friend added. "Anyone can, and some real idiots are good at it, too."
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