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Monday, June 30, 2008

SIWOTI Syndrome...

I had this article shared with me a while ago, and it bugged me enough that I thought it deserved a rebuttal. After all, how could I abide by someone being wrong on the internet?

I think it is important to start off with a brief discussion of what graduate school is. To make sure I wasn't confused about my definition, I looked it up on Wikipedia to get the popularly held concept of graduate school. As I suspected, graduate school primarily refers to degrees earned following a bachelors, and medical school, law school, and an MBA are all referred to as graduate school either unusually or rarely. One way Penelope Trunk may perhaps have realised this, other than looking it up, might have been to think about the names of the standardized tests involved in getting into these different programs. Graduate school tends to require the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), whereas med school requires the MCAT, law school the LSAT, and business school the GMAT.

1.) Her confusion of what graduate school actual consists of is first flagged here. While an argument may be made for the opportunity cost of graduate school (you are not working, and thus are missing out on two to five years of wages as well as possible promotions). However, most graduate students receive at least some money (either as a stipend or from being a teaching assistant) over and above the cost of tuition. Also, not everyone is constantly shifting careers as she seems to think. While it is true that those working in the corporate world often do change careers these days, that change is often as much a change of company as it is a change of vocation. Thus, while obviously graduate school is not for everyone, it is hardly invalidated and obsolete from this objection.

2.) As previously mentioned, graduate school is not synonymous with MBA. Usually it doesn't even mean MBA. For the sake of argument, though, you are referring to an MBA, sure it might no longer be required. But that doesn't mean it isn't an asset. Anyway, I don't really know a lot about the world of business, since that isn't what I want to get into, but I think the fact that you can sometimes get a job without a degree does not mean the degree has no value.

3.) This is really an argument against professional degrees of all sorts, including some undergraduate disciplines such as engineering or a technical program at a college. I agree that it is a problem, but it doesn't mean there is a problem with professional degrees. It means there is a problem with how we educate young people in what options are out there.

4.) I'm not really sure what she is basing this argument on. Just because someone has a degree in something not directly related to a job they are applying for does not mean they are not interested in that job. The main thrust of this argument seems to be relying on a graduate student garnering a large amount of debt, thus forcing them into accepting work to pay it off. However, as was covered in (1), graduate school generally doesn't mean massive debt unless it is professional graduate school. Debt is something to consider, but not everyone plans to open a high-risk start-up company, so having that door closed by having a school debt that needs to be paid off isn't really a drawback for everyone.

5.) This is really just argument 3 focused in a slightly more specific way. However, I think it is rather poorly posed even when focusing on the professional degrees that she means when referring to graduate degrees. Lawyers often go into politics or business. Engineers often go into management and business. An MBA is useful in a wide variety of business related jobs. At the worst a degree is ignored, but even an unrelated degree serves to display a level of intelligence and commitment. The only time it might serve as a drawback is when it puts one at a higher pay bracket than a company is willing to pay.

6.) This one is just silly. Ever heard of an employee review? That is far more detailed feedback than a set of marks. While it is true that performing graduate research with a professor often involves close work with a superior, that isn't always the case. Some professors run their labs like an assembly line. Additionally, courses tend to have very little feedback other than a (sometimes brutally low) number. Most jobs tend to have a direct sub-manager to deal with a small subset of employees, allowing everyone to get direct feedback from someone. This is especially true in project based professional work, which this article struck me as focusing on. One last thing to note, is that graduate work is, for the most part, not coursework, in which case it isn't kids doing "what teachers assign". Graduate work is meant to be research, and while it is guided by experienced specialists in the field, it is controlled and driven by the student. Even in my undergraduate research position this summer I have more control over what I do (or do not do) than when I worked in automation engineering. My professor is well experienced with classical measures and interpretations of EEG experiments, but it is up to me to develop and apply some of the more advanced mathematical techniques that he has never used for EEG analysis. Shockingly, he never even suggested I do this, it was just something that I thought might actual give the research we are doing some novelty and merit.

7.) I have had my quarter-life crisis, and graduate school is where it pointed me. I agree that graduate school should not be a default position, but that doesn't mean it is archaic and obsolete. Graduate school has exceptional merit for those who want to pursue knowledge and research. The fact that many people who go to graduate school (especially when one includes the rather generous definition of graduate school the article seemed to encompass) end up unhappy isn't a clinching argument. Many people in many careers are unhappy. I don't really know a way to fix that, but I believe less education is never the way. Virtually every day I realise just how lucky I was to meet someone who understands the world of academia and decided to take the time to impart that knowledge onto me. It is hard to know what is out there without trying it, but plunging into the working world isn't the only way to get an idea.

Anyway, admittedly I am still young and in many ways unworldly. If I have made blatant mistakes in my rebuttal, I would appreciate it being pointed out to me. That, of course, goes for everything I write, but I tend to be more confident in my statements when writing about scientific ideas than when writing about what life choices people should make.


BrianS1137 said...

Amen! Preach it sister ;)