THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Grad school? Bet on yourself in tough times

Whenever I found myself in financial trouble, the first thing I thought was, "Can I solve this problem with school?"

I learned this behavior early when boys were stealing my lunch money on the way to school. I started going to school extra early to do times tables with the teacher until the boys stopped looking for me.

I continued this behavior into adulthood and used graduate school as a way to occupy myself during bad economic times.

I am not alone in this technique. The current economic slide has been met with a dramatic surge of grad school applications.

Grad school is not for everyone, though. Even during a recession, when you find yourself with the choice of unemployment or grad school, unemployment might be your best bet. Grad school is a popular choice for people who are lost and people who are scrappy. Make sure you're in the latter group or you'll likely lose a lot of money.

Grad school is pricey. Most programs cost more than $8,000 a year, and MBA programs can run $100,000. Unless you can get your parents to pay for school, unlikely if their retirement funds were in the stock market two years ago, you risk being stuck with loans that you can't pay even after the recession.

So you should check out predictions for the job markets of the future, and get credentials that will prepare you. (Here's a start: health care worker, good. Musician, bad.)

You should also be honest with yourself about whether or not you can stomach school. A friend of mine wanted to change careers, so he considered getting a degree in a new field.

He took one class to test the waters, and the first day, the professor asked students about their political views. Each student defined her views in relation to those of her parents. Not surprising for a bunch of 20-year-olds, but untenable if you're 35, like my friend. No degree program for him. But here's the good news– he got a job anyway. And you might be able to do that, too. So don't be so quick to sign up for more years of schooling.

If you are still gung-ho on more schooling, make a plan for what that degree will get you after school in terms of lifestyle and job satisfaction. For example, polls show that lawyers are typically not happy in their profession and biochemists are very happy.

Don't neglect the dreaded grad school essay. If you are having trouble writing about why you want to go to a particular program, you're probably trying to solve a problem that school can't solve. My third-grade teacher put it to me this way: It doesn't help to come back to school when your brother ate your after-school snack.

A lot of the going-back-to-school game is luck. During the last recession, I went back to school for English. I thought I would be an English professor, but I got sidetracked by the computer science department and wrote my thesis in HTML.

I was lucky that while the idea of teaching English was delusional (jobs are scarce), the Web was the new big thing, and no one knew HTML. I turned my generally useless grad school program into a lucrative job in the high-tech industry.

So think carefully before you go back to school, but realize that all the planning in the world does not make you a predictor of the future. Grad school is not a way to play it safe, but it's a way to play the odds by opening new doors for yourself.

And after all, when it comes to risky bets, who is better to bet on than yourself?


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column in 2002, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.