My Thoughts on a Graduate Degree

I just read an article from 20SomethingFinance and really wanted to respond back. As I was typing up my response, my comment started getting too long, so I decided to create a blog post instead. The topic is about whether graduate degrees are worth the money.

From the recruiting and hiring perspective, here is how the employer perceives graduate education. 

  • Specialized degrees (like PhDs) will narrow you down, and sometimes will work in your disadvantage. Most graduate degrees (minus law and medicine) will lead you to a very general path, where you'll find your coworkers probably don't have a grad degree. I used to hire for Google, and whenever candidates coming from elite universities like Stanford, Berkeley, or MIT couldn't find job within the company, it was discouraging. Imagine spending 7 years of intensive academics/research and not being able to find a fit at your dream company. That being said, when you specialize and want to work in industry (versus in research/academia), be prepared to work on something that's outside of your dissertation. The lucky ones may find something within their realm of research, but that's typically a minority (I'm just setting expectations here).
  • Having a graduate degree on your resume does not necessarily mean more money. A graduate degree without the right experience means almost nothing. If you have a masters, but have no internships or work experience, you are just as entry level as someone with a Bachelors. 
  • You can't bank on a graduate education to open up doors for you.  Recruiters and employers aren't necessarily going to jump to hire you simply because you have a masters. 
  • You don't need to go to business school to learn to start a business. If you want to start a business, the best way to learn is to just do it.

Alright, so it sounds like I just went on a rant of why going back to school is a bad idea. If it's such a bad idea, then why am I going back to school? Why am I willing to invest 140K (sigh, I know) in getting an MBA? 

Graduate school is a huge investment. For me personally, I know that if I'm going to spend THAT much money, then I'll need to miiiiiiiilk it as much as I can. Meaning, I better utilize all the resources that Duke will give me to the absolutely core. I'm willing to make this financial investment for a few reasons: grad school is going to give me a whole new level of intellectual capital that no one can take away from me. I might be able to self study basic business concepts on my own (which would forever), but in school, my learning curve is exponentially accelerated.  More importantly, you go to graduate school for the social capital and experience. A graduate program allows you to diversify your network and perspective, along with give you access to people of the same intellectual and socioeconomic status. Bigger networks means access to more opportunity (but of course you'll still need to put in the work). 

Overall, my advice to those deciding whether or not further their education is to really understand why they want the degree, and what they want to with it afterwards. Are you interested in getting a masters in say, history, because you just really love the subject, or because you want to make a life long career with that knowledge? Can you get your "dream job" without having that degree? Talk with people who are older and more experienced who have your dream job to get their perspective. Don't go to grad school because you want to make your parents happy, or because you think it's "the right thing to do." Do it because you absolutely know and believe that having that higher degree will lead you to the path you want. 

My Journey About Getting into Business School

After a year of working towards my business school applications, I got the good news this week: I got into business school!  Though I have not formally accepted (yet), I will most likely be attending Duke University's Fuqua School of Business next year.  This was my top choice, so I'm very excited. For those who don't know my backstory, I'll tell you why getting into business school in itself is a huge accomplishment for me.  If you haven't read my first post, you'll understand why, but here's the full scoop (it's a pretty long read).

Getting Rejected.. Multiple Times Back in 2010, I felt like I hit rock bottom. I had tried applying to grad schools (for Sociology) twice; once in my 4th year, and once after graduating.  I was rejected both times from all schools, applying to about 16 different schools in total. When the rejections came, it was devastating. I felt like all my efforts in trying to be a good student was wasted.  I felt like a complete failure: who gets rejected from all graduate schools? TWICE?! Me.

Plus, it didn't help that both my brother and cousin applied to grad programs at the same time as me. They got good news: my brother was accepted into a PhD program at USC, and my cousin was accepted into a Masters program at Columbia. This made me feel like even more of a failure (yes, we have a pretty competitive and academically focused family).

My mom would try to appease me by telling me that "I'm not cut out for academia" and that I "just wasn't the studious type." In a way, she was completely right, but more importantly, the timing just wasn't right for me.  It wasn't my time to go back to school because I lacked the work experience and maturity to even understand what kind of career path a graduate degree in Sociology would entail.

I learned that I needed to stop comparing myself to my friends and family who were already in grad school and work at my own pace. I'll get there.. someday.

Re-focusing I don't remember exactly when I had the urge to go to business school, but it was probably in 2010 or 2011, right after receiving all my rejections. I needed another plan, and my sad 30K sales job at the Chinese company was not something I wanted to do forever, nor was it a path I wanted to continue with.

It's funny: I remember when I interviewed at my first job (at the Chinese company), my interviewer asked me what my 5 year plans were. I remember blurting out "business school" on a whim. I probably also threw that answer around to appease my parents when they would ask what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that as long as I continued along this path in business, it was something I would consider.

It wasn't until after working at Google and working at my current start-up that I started to get serious about business. I would get these A-HA moments at my start-up that made me really excited: how are we going to monetize? acquire users? stand apart from the competition? stay afloat with funding? I would speak to some really experienced business development executives who were so knowledgable and savvy; I would try to mirror their charisma, learn their negotiation tactics, and see things from their business perspective. That in itself was a huge resource for me, and it made me excited to learn about other options outside of HR / Recruiting. It's not that I was unhappy with what I was doing, but that I wanted to diversify my skills and make myself more marketable to future employers.

Taking the first step: the Dreaded GMAT This year, I committed myself to studying for the GMAT and working on business school applications. Just to let you know, standardized testing is NOT my forte.  I wish I was able to do well on those types of tests, but it never works out in my favor. I hover around a 50% curve (or less in come cases), so I am in by no means bragging or even proud of my scores. The first time I took my GMAT in May, I completely bombed (I even took a GMAT prep course, but I guess that didn't help). I'm not even kidding you - it was embarrassing.  After coming back from the test center, I came home, cried and set a date for my second test immediately.

I gave myself a month break after taking the test the first time. Sometime before my second test, I had a panic attack. I remember suddenly crying, hyperventilating and panicking in my room about this dreaded test.  Thoughts were running through my head: what if I do even worse than the first time? Is that even possible?! What if I apply to grad school again and don't get in - that would be my third time trying! I eventually got over my self pity and kicked my self denigrating thoughts to the side. I needed to actually do something about it instead of cry, complain and whine about how hard the test was. I decided to get a private tutor to help me better prepare for my second test. We met 2-3 times a week. It definitely helped, but it was a brutal and time consuming process.

The Application Process I had been pretty studious about doing my research on schools pretty early on in the game. Maybe I'm obsessive. I created an excel spreadsheet of which schools I wanted to apply to and stayed on top of recruiting events and open houses. I ended up going to about 4 different informational sessions and tried to connect with admissions officers so that they knew who I was. I also reached out to friends/alumni/current students of schools I was interested in; whoever had an MBA or was pursuing one, I wanted to talk to to get more perspective. I also sought MBA application consulting services (just for the first initial free assessment - I ain't payin'). I probably also talked to about 4-5 different consulting services to see what I could do to make my application stronger, and they all gave me similar and generic advice. In the end, I didn't use any of them but just focused on writing my own application in my own voice.  Even though those services claim to help candidates stand apart from the traditional "cookie cutter background," to me, their service seemed really cookie cutter in itself and it really stressed me out. Last but not least, my recommenders knew of my bschool goals at least 3-4 months in advance and had plenty of time to write to a letter of recommendation.

Because I wasn't going to use an MBA admissions consultancy service, my strategy was to do some deep thinking and soul searching to really understand why I wanted to go to business school. Before I can even convince anyone else, I need to be able to truly understand my own motives. Once that's in place and my dots are connected, I sell others on my vision.

My Support NetworkNaturally, I was really scared to even consider applying for schools again. If it weren't for my supportive friends and significant other, I probably would have quit after taking the GMAT. But, I'm thankful and really happy to have supportive people in my life who pick me up when I'm down, believe in my potential and give me the confidence to try. Not only do they provide emotional support, but they also understand and give me the time and space to focus on my achieving my goals.  They understood why I was so mia this year and were okay with it.

I'll be honest, I tried to keep my family out of the loop about my goals in applying for business school because sometimes I get negative energy and general doubts from them (and because this was something I needed to do for myself, not to appease my parents). So, they would get updates here and there, but in general, I knew that distance from any sort of doubt and negativity was exactly what I needed. I needed to stay focused, and couldn't risk allowing negative thoughts get to my head. Of course now that I've been accepted, they are very supportive, but during the process, they never believed. It was a difficult struggle.

ConclusionLooking back, I'm actually VERY thankful that I never got into a Sociology grad school program because I would be in a completely different place from where I am now. I'm glad that I took the extra 4 years to mature, develop, grow, and soul search. Without all the anguish, failure and rejection, I wouldn't be who I am. I'm excited for new adventures and the next chapter of my life!

In my next post, I'll share with you all the lessons that I learned from this process.