5 Reasons You Should Never Go to Grad School Without Working First

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Thinking of grad school?

Get a job. Then think about it some more. And if you keep thinking about it, go.

You’ll be older, wiser, and more ready to succeed.

Those with work experience have an incredible advantage over classmates who have no professional work experience. Here’s why: 

1. You’ve learned detachment

“It will crush you… if you let it.”

This is the best way I have heard doctoral study described. It’s as much mental attitude as intelligence.

At any given moment I have scores of articles to read and half a dozen papers due. 

It’s easy to let this crushing workload get the best of me. Some days I just want to draw the blinds, forget the outside world, and glue my eyes to the screen.

Such a routine will pull you under. 

You need to show the work who’s boss. You need to learn not to define yourself solely by your workload. You need to learn detachment.

And the best place to do this? In a full-time job, and particularly one you don’t like.

With my work experience, I am able to maintain a healthy distance between work and existence. I do not sense this detachment from classmates who haven’t worked before — life is, was, and always will be that of a student, so get cracking!

2. You’ve learned discipline

Incidentally, the student life may not even be the best preparation for doctoral studies.

You have an unparalleled amount of unstructured time as a graduate student. And nobody is asking for progress reports. 

Remember getting extensions in undergrad? Yeah. In the working world, there are no extensions.

But in graduate school, there is no deadline to begin with. Which may sound awesome, if you just try to play it by ear and wait for a “this is due next week” announcement. 

With the level of scholarship demanded in graduate school, the half-assed scheduling and discipline of undergrad will just not work.

Even most jobs won’t prepare you for it, but still you learn the importance of taking the initiative far more than you would have as an undergrad. 

3. You’ve paid your debts

This is a practical reason, but no less valid. I was able to pay most of my debts before returning to school. Most graduate programs offer a stipend, but it is not the kind of money you need to pay your undergrad loans, make car payments, etc.

So you will be carrying it with you for another few years, only to continue the bloodletting at a time in your life where you will need that extra income even more. 

So work first, pay off debts, save a little (Yeah, right, I know. Indulge me.). 

4. This isn’t just theory

Classes in graduate school are seminar-style. You read 200+ pages of dense scholarship and come prepared to discuss it. Provocative insights and creativity are valued over recitation of the articles’ main points. 

Fortunately for me, all I have to do to be creative is to think of the implications for my time as an analyst. I can picture nearly every theory, model, and insight fitting into my work career. 

To study something, it’s helpful to actually do it. I find it incredible how many business school professors have spent their entire careers in academia. I would be at a loss to internalize anything that I am learning without my work experience.

5. You know how good you have it

This morning I walked to my local library, picked up a few groceries, and made lunch at my place. 

On a Monday. 

This would have been a squandered vacation day in my working days. Now it’s just how the work gets done. 

I get far more done on my own time than on a boss’s antiquated, factory-based 8-to-5 workday. 

If I need a break, I write a blog post (like now). Or go for a bike ride. Whatever. 

I don’t have to sit in an ugly box, lifeless, with that “two-thirty feeling” just because it’s policy.

Had I come straight from undergrad, I would not appreciate how amazing this really is. Subsequently, I may not be as purposeful with scheduling my time or detaching myself from my work (for knowing it may actually be more productive, for example, to spend an hour walking outside than another hour studying). 

Don’t just study something, work there!

“Those who can’t, teach.” Maybe not. I have never learned more about Excel, for example, than by teaching it myself. 

But too often in our schools, it’s even worse: “Those who never have, teach.”

I owe a tremendous sense of detachment, discipline, and yes, gratitude, to my work experience. Try it first. If you get those learning pangs, think about grad school. 

But do, then teach. 

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