Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Copyright 2013 Dorie Clark. All rights reserved.
I often get inquiries from executives looking for advice about whether they should go to graduate school. They feel like their career is stalled, and wonder if an MBA, a JD, a doctorate in organizational psychology, or maybe a journalism degree would give them that extra edge. It's true that top-tier programs can provide valuable networking and connections (and I wouldn't advise anyone to turn down the opportunity to attend Harvard Business School or one of its elite peers).
But unless we're talking about the pinnacle of top schools, my answer is generally no. As someone who has a great but perfectly useless (in the professional world) degree in theology, I have firsthand knowledge that a master's degree doesn't win you extra points or gain you any additional respect. It's your demonstrated expertise – not your academic credentials – that counts in the business world.
Unless you have to go back to grad school, as in Heather's case, you should think carefully about your end goals, especially when nearly $100,000 in debt is likely to be involved. You may be interested in the subject and want to expand your worldview. You may have a clear sense of particular skills you want to develop, as Alice did. You may want to wait out a recession and learn something new, which is better than moping around unemployed. But a lot of graduate programs are simply a racket, preying on people's status concerns and fears about the future. In many cases, it's simply not worth it.
You can often learn what you need and make connections with professionals in your field, rather than fellow newbie students, through networking, volunteering, or other inexpensive means. Given the massive cost involved, it's often better to rule out every other option first and return to grad school only when you've determined it's the sole route to meeting your personal objectives. Something as simple as starting a blog can sometimes be a much more potent demonstration to employers that you know what you're doing.
• What skills do you need to develop for your rebranding?
• Can you learn them on the job or through a side venture, or do you need to return to school?
• Make a list of three things you can do in the next several months to enhance your knowledge base (take an adult education class, seek out a new assignment, connect with knowledgeable colleagues, create your own research project, and so on).
Do a 'Mini-MBA'
Dave Cutler decided to take a hybrid approach during his recent job search. A husband and father, he knew he couldn't afford to take a year or two off for full-time studies. But because he wanted to land a position in social media, a new area for him, he decided to go all out demonstrating his skills and simultaneously pursue additional studies. Dave honed his personal blog to showcase his knowledge of social media. He developed a "Hire Dave Cutler" website and began actively using a variety of social channels. Finally, he entered a weeklong "Mini-MBA" program at Rutgers.
"With things you learn by doing, there are going to be gaps in your knowledge," says Dave. "I wanted to fill in those gaps and have more of a foundation in social media, as well as something tangible to point to, because it's hard to call yourself a social media guy without something on your résumé." The program was ideal because it was taught by knowledgeable, real-world practitioners, some of whom Dave already followed on Twitter. He left with practical tips (one professor suggested he place a QR code on his résumé, which has increased his "scan-through" rate) and some valuable connections, including a link to a guest lecturer who is the business partner of the influential blogger Chris Brogan. Thanks to the connection, Brogan took up the "Hire Dave Cutler" cause and has repeatedly plugged him on his weekly web TV show. In general, says Dave, the mini-MBA course "isn't a substitute for work experience. But it says I've made a concerted effort to learn about and understand this business."
Targeted Strategies to Build Your Skills
Depending on your goals, the best recipe may be targeted classes that focus on a particular skill. Joel Gagne completed all the courses for a master of arts in government. But in the midst of running a company, a couple of cross-country moves, and a new baby, completing his master's thesis just didn't seem that relevant. "I don't want to say those classes were worthless, because they weren't," he says. "There were one or two nuggets. But as far as directly affecting my professional life, graduate work has not had the type of impact necessary or given me the business skill set I need."
Instead, he's made a point to continue his professional development by taking targeted classes that address clear business needs. "Let's take writing," he says. "I don't need the fundamentals. I need to be skilled at how to write a blog post, or how to write a proposal–specific things that will impact my work. Tackling something small and more focused has served me far better than completing that master's degree or anything I took from studying for it." He's taken classes on goal setting, effective business writing, and how to sell your business. He took a noncredit class at the University of Chicago on creative writing, but with an emphasis on business applications.
"Almost no one in the room was looking to write the next great novel," he recalls. "Everyone said, 'I'm in business, I need to be able to write better; my work can't sound clunky or dry. I have to capture someone's attention off the bat: how do I do that?'" As you reinvent yourself professionally, you'll need to cultivate new skills. But you don't necessarily need to pony up for an expensive graduate degree. Think carefully about your goals, and you may be able to obtain the experience you need through volunteering (as we discussed in the last chapter), expanding the parameters of your current job, moonlighting, or taking targeted classes to expand your skill set.
• You can often push the boundaries of your current job in ways that allow you to explore new avenues and build new skills. Ask if there are relevant new responsibilities you can take on.
• Going back to graduate school shouldn't be your default option. If it's not mandatory for your chosen field, think hard about whether the debt and time out of the workforce is worth it. The most prestigious schools have powerful brand value and alumni networks that can turbocharge your career, but that's not the case for most programs. Ask yourself if there are other, cheaper ways you can obtain the knowledge you want.
• Create a concrete list of skills and knowledge you should develop. That'll force you to think harder about your education. If you need to be able to write better reports, you can probably find targeted help (such as a class or a writing tutor), rather than jumping into a two-year program that only tangentially touches on what you want to learn.