The Hill Life: The Grad School Question
Apr 27, 2011
Every week, I receive at least one e-mail from a prospective college graduate or a recent college graduate seeking advice about graduate school. I thought it might be time to share my advice on the matter publicly.
When I graduated in 2004, I did what I thought was best and set off for graduate school. I had intended to go to law school, but a political science grad program was faster and somewhat less expensive than the law schools to which I’d been accepted. In the harried final days of college, this sounded like a good plan.
Two years and nearly $70,000 later, I received my master’s degree. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t do it again. At least, I would have waited a year or two before I started a grad program. Here’s why.
You don’t need a graduate degree to work on the Hill or in the government. A couple of my co-workers and I have master’s degrees, and we don’t earn any more than those staffers without. An advanced degree will be most beneficial to you in the latter years (3+) of your career or if you move off of the Hill. So there’s no rush to get started.
If I had to do it over again, I would have started work on the Hill as an intern and found a staff assistant position shortly after instead of focusing on grad school. Then, I would have spent a year or two on the Hill, learning the lay of the land before I started my degree. This would have given me the knowledge and experience to decide where I wanted my career to go before I augmented it with another, expensive degree.
I’m not against graduate school, quite the contrary. What I oppose is the idea that you should get a graduate degree to improve your career advancement when you don’t know what kind of career you really want. A 22-year-old college graduate thinks she knows what she should do, but she doesn’t actually know. And she won’t know with any certainty until she’s tried something for a bit and matured outside of the college bubble for a spell.
When you start work on the Hill, it won’t take long for you to figure out whether this career path is for you in the long term. Shortly after you make that first choice, you’ll begin to piece together what issues you like, who you want to work for, and what kind of work you want to do. Once you’ve got a general sense of how the Hill works and how D.C. works, you’ll be better prepared to decide what kind of degree will augment your plan.
The last thing you want is to figure out when you’re 27 or 28 that you made an error. That what you really wanted to do is not what you went to graduate school to study. If you take a year or two years off to work and plan, you are less likely to jump into something before you know which direction to leap.
So unless you are pursuing a career that absolutely requires a graduate degree–medicine or law or business–don’t rush into it. Take a breath, experience life a little bit, work a little bit and then make a decision. You can always go back to school, so resist the pressure (from family, professors, etc.) to rush into something simply so that you can seem like you’re on your way. Once you have a better grasp of what course of study will benefit you the most, you can make the best decision for you and your future.
P.S. When you have a few years of working under your belt, you understand the value of a dollar better. For example, when I was 22, I looked at $33,000 per year law schools and thought, “No big deal.” No, I multiply that by three and think, “100k for a law degree? Yeah, I don’t think so.”