One of the formative moments of my life was when I graduated from college back in 2009. This was right in the heart of the financial crisis, so in terms of timing, I probably couldn’t have graduated at a worse time. Like many of my cohorts in that graduating year, I ended up moving back home because I couldn’t get a real job.
My low point came in late 2009 when I applied for an administrative assistant position at a small CPA firm that was paying $15 per hour. I found the job on Craiglist, applied and surprisingly got a response, then went through two rounds of interviews. During my final interview, the CEO let me know that 100 people had applied for the job and they were deciding between me and one other person. I made my case for why he should hire me. They let me know a few days later that they had decided to go with the other person because they had a bit more experience.
Here I was, a triple major from a well-renowned university – and I couldn’t even get a job as a secretary.
It was in this climate that I ultimately made the decision to head off to law school. Law wasn’t necessarily a dream of mine or even anything that I knew much about. All I really knew was that it was something I could probably do and it was – or so I thought – a way to get a good, real job and the middle-class lifestyle that comes with it.
The way the world currently looks means that a lot of young adults are going to be entering an economy similar to the one I entered into a decade ago. You’re going to see graduates moving back home with their parents. They’re going to be underemployed, working the same jobs that they had when they were in college and high school. And they’re going to feel directionless.
Without much going on, it’s going to be tempting to make your way back into grad school with the idea that you’ll ride out the market downturn until things improve. In a few years, you’ll have a shiny new degree and maybe some better job prospects. I really think that this is something that you need to think about carefully if this is you. I’m an advocate for more schooling. But using grad school as a way to get past a recession can put yourself in a bigger hole – one that can hurt you for far longer than any market downturn.
Think Carefully – Grad School Might Not Be The Answer
When you look back over the past decade, you can see that grad school applications saw a marked increase during and immediately after the financial crisis. I know that the year I applied was the peak for law school applications and then it steadily dropped as the economy improved. I suspect that over the next few application cycles, we’re going to once again see huge increases in law school applications.
It makes logical sense to ride out a recession by spending a few years in a grad or professional school. If it was possible to do it for free, that’s what I’d be advocating people do. The problem is that I see so many people do this same thing – they can’t get a job, have no idea what to do, then end up going to whatever graduate program will take them regardless of the cost. A few years later, you find yourself doing something that you maybe didn’t really want to do, but now with the anchor of 5 or 6 figures of student loans.
It’s this going to grad school or professional school without a real reason to do it that I warn people against. This is exactly what I did – I went off to law school because it was there, I couldn’t get a job, and I had no idea what to do.
In terms of professional degrees, law school is uniquely suited to the person that has no idea what they want to do. There are no prerequisites to go to law school other than having somewhat decent grades and the ability to take a standardized test. Medical programs are a bit different – you need to have certain undergrad classes in order to go, which makes the people going to those schools, I think, a little bit more focused.
You can’t stumble your way into med school or dental school. You absolutely can stumble your way into law school, business school, and many other graduate programs. And stumbling into anything, I think, is a mistake.
Questions To Ask Yourself Before Going To Grad School
Here are three questions I would ask yourself before you take the plunge into grad school or professional school. You have to really dig deep here and answer these questions truthfully. It’s easy to delude yourself if you aren’t really being introspective here.
1. Do you really want to go to grad school or are you just doing it because you don’t know what else to do? I can’t back this up with any stats, but I’m fairly convinced that half or more of the people that went to law school during the financial crisis did it because they didn’t know what else to do. My guess is that this could be true for many other grad programs with low prerequisite requirements as well.
On the one hand, it sort of makes sense. The opportunity cost of going to a grad or professional program isn’t very high when you’re underemployed and making minimum wage. Taking two or three years and seeing what things look like on the other side has a logical rationale to it.
The problem is that jumping into something without thinking too much about why you’re doing it can lead to dissatisfaction later down the line. That’s what happened to me. I jumped into a path because I didn’t know what else to do, then found myself a decade later unhappy with where I was, but with an identity extremely tied to the thing that I didn’t really care about.
Life is long. Too often, we act like it’s short. There will be twists and turns along the way. You can take your time. Sometimes, it’s okay to figure out where you want to go before taking that first step.
2. What sort of student loan debt are you going to take? If grad school was free or didn’t cost much, then I’d say go to grad school, even if you have no idea what you want to do. There’s nothing better than being in the sweet embrace of school while the world is falling apart around you.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world that we live in. Graduate and professional schools are expensive. Three years in law school can easily result in $200,000 worth of student loans. With a 50% scholarship, I still managed to stumble my way into $87,000 worth of student loans for my three years of law school. It ended up costing me $102,000 after paying interest. I’m definitely the exception – most people are going to end up with six figures of student loan debt by the time they’re done.
When you’re in school, student loans can feel like play money. But you need to be careful because they can potentially ruin your life (maybe ruin your life is too harsh of a word, but we can at least say they are life-altering). Being underemployed and just trying to get through the recession, on the other hand, isn’t going to destroy you. You can cobble together something and regroup in the future. It gets much harder to regroup if you stumble your way into grad school and six figures of student loans.
My general rule – unless you’re going into medical school or dental school, don’t take out more in student loans than you think you’ll make in your first job out of school. And you have to be realistic and discerning with your expected earnings. Most graduate programs are notorious for overestimating what you’ll make.
3. Seriously, do you really want to go to grad school? I know, I already asked you this question, but I think it’s so important that it bears repeating. You need to ask yourself again and answer truthfully – do you really want to go to grad school?
I typically divide the world of post-college education into two types – (1) those that have prerequisites and (2) those that do not have prerequisites.
The graduate programs that have prerequisites tend to be medical field based – think med school, dental school, pharmacy, etc. I’m more inclined to believe that those people actually want to go to med school, dental school, etc., simply because they had to do more while they were in college (i.e. taking organic chemistry and other required science classes). You can’t really be a political science major and then just find your way into med school. If you’re aiming to go to one of these graduate programs and tell me that’s your dream, I’m not going to second-guess you – you probably really want to go.
The other types of graduate programs are those that have no prerequisites. These are programs like law school, business school, etc., where you only need to take a standardized test in order to apply. I went to law school because I was an economics and history major and didn’t have the prerequisites to apply to medical school. A lot of other lawyers – while they might not admit it – probably ended up in law school for the same reason.
If you’re graduating into the recession and now are thinking about applying to law school or business school, I really need to urge you to think about why you’re doing it. You’ll have to dig deep here to understand what you’re doing.
Think Carefully About Grad School
I don’t know if I have a good, single answer as to what you should do if you’re entering what might be the worst job market in a century. Graduating into this time, unfortunately, is going to have a big impact on the rest of your life. Your wages will start off lower. You’ll probably have more student loans. You might never catch up.
There are positives too though. You’ll come out scrappier and more resilient than your peers that had it easier. You’ll more easily avoid lifestyle inflation. And remember, big things tend to happen after bad things happen – that’s a fact of history.
I’m a big proponent of school and I think it’s valuable – if I had infinite money, I’d seriously be a student forever. But you need to be careful about the decision you make here. It’s not a small matter. Riding out a recession in school is likely not going to solve all of your problems. If you’re on the fence, my advice would be to sit it out and wait.