Thursday, October 21, 2010

Should I attend graduate school?

Q: I'm halfway through my senior year as a journalism student and starting to think about grad school. The problem is I am having a really hard time deciding whether to go to J school, law school, or enroll in a joint-degree program that combines the two (though the latter will no doubt take longer and accumulate more debt). Journalism is my passion, but I'm worried that I won't be able to find a job in the industry even if I go to J school and ever since I was a kid I've always been interested in the prospect of law school. As a person with legal training who has sought a career in journalism, how were you able to negotiate the two? If I go to law school what are my options in securing a journalism-related job? -- R.H.

A: Whichever route you choose -- be it journalism school, law school, both, or some other graduate program -- it will be a big investment of money, time and energy. So, you want to be 100 percent sure and not make any hasty decisions.

Keep in mind, there are no job guarantees when you graduate. Even law school isn't the golden ticket it used to be to. There are recent graduates from Ivy League law schools who can't find jobs. I wrote a column last week about this. Basically, I'd go to law school only if 1) you can go for free or 2) you really want to practice law and don't care how much (or little) you make.

There's a misconception that a law degree gives you flexibility and options. It really doesn't. If you go straight from undergrad to law school, the only thing you're going to be trained to do is to be a lawyer. And, with all the debt you'll likely incur to pay for law school, practicing law will be your only option to repay your loans. A law degree will only give you career mobility if you've had a substantive career in something else prior to law school. For example, I was able to get a job as a journalism professor after finishing law school, but that was only because I had practiced journalism for several years. If I just had a J.D., I wouldn't have been able to get my job in academia.

Attending j-school, likewise, is fraught with uncertainty.  Certainly, j-school can't hurt. It will make you a better journalist and make you more marketable. It may open doors that otherwise wouldn't be open for you. On the other hand, there are no job guarantees. In this economy, even grads from top programs are having trouble landing good jobs. I'd hate to see you spend $25,000+ for a master's degree only to land a minimum wage job at a tiny weekly newspaper in the middle of nowhere. I wrote an article about this, too.

I think the best thing to do is to take some time off after college graduation and work before applying to grad school. Grad school will always be there, so there's no harm in waiting a year or two or even several years. On the other hand, if you go immediately after college and decide you made a mistake or change your mind about your career goals, you can't reverse it -- and you may be $150,000+ in debt.

Ultimately, you have to make this tough decision on your own. There are pros and cons, and you have to decide whether grad school is worthwhile and worth the risk. Good luck.  â€“Mark Grabowski