12 Questions to Answer Before You Puruse A Graduate Degree

Are you thinking about pursuing another college degree? Are you in the business of encouraging others to do so? Please read this. A growing number of Universities are spending in excess of twenty percent on marketing. Higher education marketing and recruitment is a billion dollar industry. That means that we are bombarded with more higher education advertisements (just notice the ads showing up as you browse the web), and this is creating even more of a credentialing crisis.

I have over twenty years of experience in the field of education, four college degrees (a bachelor’s, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate), and I have worked in higher education for almost nine including. More importantly, I have been researching academic credentials and the value of college degrees for several years. I am not writing this to discourage anyone from pursuing second degrees or graduate studies, but I am writing it to challenge people to count the costs, do their homework, make the most informed decision possible, and take into account the social impact of over-credentialing.

Here is how to do that. Take the time to reflect on each of these questions. Don’t just skim through them, but dedicated time to each of them. Degrees are expensive and time-consuming and they warrant careful consideration.

1. What are your personal and professional goals? 

Don’t just think about goals for a promotion or raise. Be brutally honest with yourself. What do you really want to have or achieve? Is another college degree essential, important or just modestly beneficial in achieving those goals? Look into this carefully. Find out about all the options available to you. Some career paths and goals have certain degrees as essential for entry into them. However, there are often surprising options available that just don’t get the marketing dollars spent on them to make you think about them all the time. For example, maybe there are alternate routes for entry into a given profession. Learn as much as you can about those different options so that you make a wise and informed decision.

2. Do you care about increased knowledge and skill?

If not, please do not pursue another degree. A college degree is supposed to represent that you gained new knowledge and skill in a given domain. It is possible to get through many programs while learning or retaining very little. You have the same diploma as the person who learned as much as possible, but the fact that you have the degree while not taking the education part serious hurts everyone else with that degree. It diminishes the value of that degree.

3. Are you a self-directed learner? Do you know how to gain new knowledge and skill?

If not, learn to become one. A self-directed learner is someone who takes personal responsibility for determining what you need to learn, how to learn it, and how to get the necessary feedback to grow and improve. It is someone who embraces and works through the messiness and discomfort of learning something new. A sure sign of one who is not self-directed is a student who is always blaming the professor or school for not having taught or prepared them well. Self-directed learners do what it takes to learn what they need or want, regardless of what others do. As such, truly confident and competent self-directed learners rarely have a shortage of career and other options and opportunities in life.

Most college degrees do not encourage self-directed learning. They instead focus upon teacher-directed learning. Authority figures tells you what to learn, how to learn it, and how you are doing. You submit to that authority, do what they say, and jump through the academic hoops. Here is the problem. This is not going to help you be at the top of your game in life and work.

So, I argue that it is important to develop competence and confidence as a self-directed learner before starting another program or even if you choose not to pursue that next degree. Or, find degrees that value self-directed learning and even help you develop as one. A great start is to build a strong and robust personal learning network.

The reality is that success in almost any field or discipline requires a commitment to lifelong learning. Becoming a self-directed learner will help with that. Pursuing a degree without also growing as a self-directed learning is, in my opinion, a waste of time in the long run.

4. What can you learn without being in a formal program or getting another degree?

There are many benefits to being in a formal degree program. There is often a rich community and access to experts. However, you can gain access to learning communities and experts without being a degree program as well. That is where the last point about personal learning networks and becoming a self-directed learner is important. Look into massive open online courses, read books and articles, participate in free online webinars and conferences, join online communities of practice about your area of interest. Follow people in your area of interest on Twitter and Linked In. Read what they write, network with them, and learn from them. Attend special events and conferences. Read blogs of people in your area of interest. Look up videos and article online about your topic of interest. Write, discuss and share what you are learning. There are so many free and open ways to learn in our increasingly connected world. Learn about them and take advantage of them. Another degree may still be valuable to you for any number of reasons, but answering this question will help you clarify what you really need or want.

5. Are you looking for the fastest way to a degree or are you looking to learn as much as possible?

Your answer may be a mix of the two and that is alright. After all, your life is more than college. With the intense marketing campaigns in higher education, you can find plenty of programs that boast of allowing you to finish the degree in a shorter period time. Beware of “get your degree quickly” schemes. It takes time to learn new things, and cramming all your work into shorter time frames is almost certain to decrease how much skill you develop and how much knowledge you retain. You will not find many places blatantly stating that you can get your degree with minimal effort, but read between the lines. Adding more “quick and easy” diplomas to the world risks decreasing the perceive value of that degree for everyone. Beware of diploma mills. A diploma mill is not just a school that gives you a diploma for doing nothing, but it also includes organizations that are continually lowering the bar for what it takes to get a given diploma. Flexibility and respect for the rest of your life is critical, but are high academic standards.

6. How much is your interest in increased status?

This is a reality. Sometimes people pursue degrees because they want the status associated with them. However, do take the time to carefully consider if this is an important enough reason. There are people with very high status in many fields of study who do not have multiple degrees. Look at Joi Ito at the MIT Media Lab. He doesn’t even have a degree and is leading one of the more high profile higher education projects in the country. Of course, he is brilliant, but that is my point. Do you want status because of what you know and can do or just because of letters behind your name?

7. Are you ready to take on the social responsibility associated with a graduate degree in a given area?

If you are interested in a graduate degree, know that there is a social responsibility that comes with it. Not all agree with this standard, but I contend that it is essential. Earning a graduate degree in a discipline is also agreeing to take the responsibility to be a thought leader in that discipline. You are committed to ongoing study and reading in that area, contributing to the field in substantive ways, and holding to a high ethical and intellectual standard. If you don’t want this responsibility, then pass on the extra degree. There is plenty that you can learn on your own.

8. What other credentials exist that relate to your goals?

As I so often state, we are in the Wild West Era of education. New academic currencies continue to develop. Take time to learn about the many different types of credentials available in your area of interest. Take the field of education as an example. There are digital badges through groups like Digital Promise (just in a beta at the time of this writing); non-degree certificates; graduate certificates; leadership programs; alternate routes to new teaching certificates and endorsements; and educator certifications through groups like Apple, Google, Discovery Education. Find the equivalent training and certifications in your area of interest. What can you learn from these compared to degree programs? What prestige or social value do these different credentials hold?

9. What is the actual cost of a desired degree?

Most of us have experienced “sales” in stores during the holidays where prices seemed to be raised soon before the holiday and then they put on a 25% discount advertising campaign. In the end, you feel like you are getting a bargain, but they are charging you as much as before. The same thing is happening in higher education. There are some places that have a higher starting tuition but then they boast of discounts. Other colleges are providing true discounts to make college more affordable. Take the time to do your homework, learn the facts, and compare the real cost of the degree. Don’t just getting pulled in by a crafty advertising scheme.

10. What is the return on investment for another college degree?

Degrees are about more than getting a larger income. I am not talking just about a financial return on investment. I am referring to what you get out of the degree compared to what you have to put into it in terms of time and money. To answer this, you need to have a detailed and clear answer to question #1 about your goals.

11. Find people who are the best at what you want to do or learn. How did they get there? How did they learn?

Reach out to them. Interview view. Find out how much college helped them and how much they learned on their own or on the job. Some knowledge and skill can be learned in a college setting, but many skills are best learned in real world contexts. Taking the time to explore this will help you get the best idea of how to achieve your goals, and it will help build that personal learning network.

12. How can you contribute to a culture of competence and confidence more than credentialism?

While credentials and titles are a big deal in much of society, they are not the same thing as being competent. We need more competent people in every field. Competence helps people and sometimes even saves lives. Credentials don’t do that. From the perspective of a social good, credentials are only as valuable as the competence that they are intended to represent. We need communities and societies that truly value competence more than credentials. If another degree is really about getting more competent and it can genuinely help in that pursuit, then consider it. If not, please pass on the extra credential.

Posted in blog, credentialism, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.