To apply or not apply. That is the question many of you are asking yourselves as admissions deadlines approach. Is it time to go for the MBA? The JD? MD? PhD?
Here’s the answer: it depends.
I know that’s a cop out, but it’s true. It really depends on you, your circumstances, and your goals. I’ve seen too many people—clients, friends, and others—target degrees that ultimately don’t make sense for them. And with today’s unprecedented (in our lifetimes) economic challenges, making the right decision about how to spend the next one to eight (PhD’s can take that long) years of your life is even more crucial.
As someone on his fourth career—counting at-home dad—I should know. My full bio’s elsewhere on this site, but I went straight from undergrad to a PhD program in clinical psychology. It took six years to complete the degree and less than six months for me to leave the field, afterward. Do I regret doing my PhD? Not really: it helped me secure a management consulting position and writing work in academia; and those three letters do look nice on business cards. Do I wish I’d thought more about my strengths and interests and gotten more professional experience before taking that six-year plunge? Absolutely.
In that spirit, let me offer some thoughts on each major graduate degree, and what to think about as you consider applying.
PhD: Having earned one, I think the best reason to pursue a PhD is to secure a career in academia. For professorships at big-name research institutes, it’s the only way in. Sure, people go into industry after becoming this “other kind” of doctor, but I would argue that they don’t need the degree to get there, and even that their time would be better spent gaining real-world experience. Beyond that goal issue, this is the right degree for you if you live and breathe research—using data of all kinds to build on existing theories, generate new ones, and explain phenomena. You should love all things research, including debating theory and methodology with others, to be a serious PhD candidate. As you can imagine, earning a PhD also takes tremendous discipline—for that matter, so does being a professor. It’s not for those who need a lot of structure and guidance.
MBA: The vast majority of my clients are MBA applicants. I help most write very specific goals into their essays. My guess is that post-MBA very few end up doing exactly what they say they will. That tells you several things, one of which is that this is a strong all-purpose degree, and not just for the business world. What other degree turns out so many bankers, consultants, non-profit heads, marketers, operations consultants, policymakers, and so on? None. So there are many good reasons to get the degree, which takes the least time of any advanced degree (one to two years) and generates a lot of job opportunities. Even today. Beyond recruiting, MBA programs endow students with fantastic networks—some debate this point, but I’ve seen how much my friends, colleagues, and even my wife (Kellogg MBA) have benefited from b-school contacts. Any reasons not to go? If business or related fields aren’t really your thing—as I discovered as a strategy consultant—don’t go. If you hate structure and data-based problem-solving and team projects, don’t go.
MD: My brother, both brothers-in-law, and many, many friends are doctors—not med students, not residents, not fellows, but practicing doctors. Most hate how long it took for them to get to this point: they watched friends make “real money” for years while they worked impossibly long hours for little monetary reward. Now, most love what they do, and are thrilled to be in such a stable field that allows them to truly help people while making a reasonable living. But is it for you? I think it comes down to enjoying solving the problems that doctors solve. That sounds self-evident, but I think people forget, especially after all the TV shows that highlight the profession’s highest and lowest moments, that in the end it’s often you in a room with patients and/or other doctors, trying figure out how to diagnose and treat a given set of symptoms. Are you good at that kind of pattern-matching-based problem-solving? Are you okay with the idea of dissecting a cadaver (you have to, in med school)? Do you mind dealing with people often at their worst (other than pathology, radiology, and maybe some other specialties, you’ll have to)? Ask yourself these questions to understand if you’d be happy as a physician.
JD: I know the least about this grad degree. But I do know that a very large number of trained lawyers do not work as attorneys—many are in the business world and elsewhere. That tells me at least a couple things: one, that getting a job as an attorney may be difficult, given supply and demand (it’s definitely a bad job market for lawyers right now); two, that many people rush into law school without really knowing if they want to be lawyers. So think hard about it. Maybe it makes sense to work in the field before committing to grad school. Research what attorneys do, day to day. Again, TV has glamorized litigation (i.e., trial work), but many lawyers rarely set foot in the courtroom. If you find a path that seems to match your skills and interests well, it’s a good sign.
The bottom line: think hard about your grad-school decision. Don’t get a degree because you feel you “should” or you don’t have a lot of other options. If and when you decide a graduate degree is the way to go, my fellow editors and I would be happy to help you make it happen.
By Dr. Sachin Waikar, formerly a McKinsey consultant and now an author and advisor to business and grad school applicants.