Going Back to School is a Bad Idea!

You’ve been looking for a job for half a year now, but still no luck.

People more experienced than you are getting laid off and your prospects are not looking good in this economy.

You promised yourself (and probably your parents) that if you couldn’t find a job within six months, you would go back to school.

I’m here to tell you that you’re about to make a big mistake.

Before you invest your precious time and money to research and prepare for the GREs, GMATs, LSATs or any other standardized exams, take a moment to challenge all the assumptions that are going into that decision.

Years ago, when you couldn’t get a job or simply didn’t know what you wanted to do, going back to school was a good option.

These days it’s still a popular (though not necessarily smart) alternative for two main reasons:

  • It’s the default option that society accepts; not many people will tell you going back to school is a bad idea.
  • You get an education while waiting out the bad economy, so by the time you graduate, getting a job with your advanced degree will be much easier (in theory, at least).

But if you’re going back to school for any of these reasons, you may be doing more damage than good.

Let me explain.

There was a time when an advanced degree was special and having one set you apart from other candidates. Now, not only do more people have advanced degrees, but the cost of higher education is rising much faster than the salary boost it can bring. Plus, an advanced degree no longer guarantees you employment.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when going back for more education is appropriate, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But if you’re returning to student status because you can’t find a job, you will probably regret your decision. Why? Because you’ll have more debt and you’ll feel compelled to do work you might not be interested in.

Imagine yourself as an employer in this economy – any company or industry works.

Picture yourself with two candidates:

  1. John, who has an advanced degree but little practical experience or
  2. Peter, who has demonstrated ability and experience to get the specific job done

Who would you hire?

For those of you who chose John, let me know how it goes.

For those who chose Peter, read on.

What does this all mean? How does this apply to YOU?

The lesson is simple: be like Peter. Be the guy who has the experience, rather than the guy who has the education.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s like the chicken and the egg. I need experience to get the job, and I need the job to get experience. Which one comes first?

Your frustration is understandable; lots of people feel that way. In my Know What You Want Workshop, I teach a three-step method that greatly increases your chances for getting the job you want.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want to Do

When you know what you want to do in life, you will have enthusiasm and confidence, which will set you apart during interview time. To know what you want, you have to find the intersection between your values, personality, interests, strengths and favorite skills.

Your Homework: Read What Color is Your Parachute and Do More Great Work and focus on the self-reflection exercises. If you’re too lazy to read, take a workshop similar to the Know What You Want Workshop and focus on looking within.

Step 2: Research How to Do It

Once you have an idea what you want to do, you’ll need to research the following:

  1. What positions and industries fit you and the functions you enjoy?
  2. How do I get into those jobs and industries?

Your Homework: Reach out to your network (friends, family, alumni, strangers, etc.) and brainstorm possible job titles that match the information you gathered about yourself. Since you’re communicating with your network already, ask if they know anyone with these possible job titles. If so, set up informational interviews.

Step 3: Experiment

Once you’ve narrowed down your desired job titles, use both your network and the internet to find job openings and submit your revamped resume. While you’re waiting to hear back, volunteer, intern or simply do the job tasks of the position you want.

For example, if you want to be an accountant, do accounting for your family. If you want to be a life coach, take some life coaching classes and coach your friends.

You don’t need permission. Just start doing it.

Your Homework: Narrow down three to five possible job titles and write a resume for each job. If you think you can have a “general” resume, contact me and I’ll tell you why that’s even worse than going back to school when you don’t know what you want to do.

To be fair, here are some instances when going back to school makes sense:

  • You want a job where you need an advanced knowledge base such as in academia, sciences, medicine, law, etc.
  • You know what you want to do in life and going back to school is a step along the way.
  • Your alternative is to stay at home doing unproductive activities.

So what do you think? Would you now reconsider that assumption that going back to school is the best move?



For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Brazen Careerist!

About the Author: Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and his passion is to guide others to find clarity and to get what they want. If you’ve been putting off your own greatness, check out the 8 Most Practical Ways to Stop Procrastinating.




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  • This is a compelling argument and the author definitely presents reasoning that every reader should consider. As higher ed faculty, I’m going to present two other thoughts:

    1. In some cases, an advanced degree would not necessarily leave the student in more debt and provides experience. Case in point: If the student can work at the college as a graduate assistant or teaching assistant, then the tuition is paid for, the student typically receives a stipend, and practical work experience is had at the same time. A win-win all the way around. Of course, not every graduate program has these slots and there are a finite number of them, but they are there, so if a student is interested in graduate work, then an assistantship can be worth checking into. 

    2. The author’s suggestions of identifying what a person really wants to do, doing research on jobs, and revamping a resume can all be done in a community college employment center. I have seen tons of degreed students return to community college to pick up a credit or even non-credit class to sharpen up on PowerPoint, Excel, Access, etc. This could be a viable option, and then you can get to know profs, staff, etc. who may have other leads or ideas for you. Going back to school can look a number of different ways.

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I will look forward to other comments and I’m going to share it.
    Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof http://ellenbremen.com

    • Hi Ellen,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. There are ways for school to be affordable and worth the time, effort and money. You’ve pointed out some great examples.

      At the same time, it’s important to know why you are going back to school because there is opportunity cost. If you study something without a purpose, you lose the chance to gain real life work experience that can give you more clarity about what you enjoy, you lose time spent studying something you may not use and you lose savings in the form of wage lost from not working at a higher wage.

      Also, schools are not good at screening students based on their reasons for going. They are a business and like any business, anyone that can pay tuition is usually welcome at some type of higher learning institution. I’m a big believer in education and continuous learning. I’m just not sure if the current model for higher education is really designed to help the student who doesn’t know what they want to specialize in.


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  • Also read the 3 Boxes of Life by Bolles (What Color is Your Parachute author). He discusses how the old way of first school, then work, then play(retirement) is so unhealthy for mind, body and spirit. I’m hoping the next generations get to live his way (a little bit of all 3, most of your life).

    • Yes that’s true. Deferred happiness is a scam. All about enjoying the journey.

      Thanks for the comment Denise