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Perspective

The dubious shelter of grad school

Why going for another degree right now isn't as safe as it seems.

(Illustration by Justin Renteria)
By Kara Baskin
May 31, 2009
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Two years and a lifetime ago, my husband entered business school. The school touted its formidable alumni network and the salaries of recent graduates. There were posh admissions events, Edens of hors d'oeuvres and wine. He attended swanky mixers and networking soirees. He pored over case studies and engaged in team-building exercises. These hypothetical challenges would prepare him for a fruitful career in finance! Consulting! Entrepreneurship!

A lot has changed since then. My husband graduated two weeks ago, and he has entered a grim job market. As of this writing, he estimates that only 10 percent of his class has landed gainful employment. And he's not in that group.

For his 90 percent, the adjustment ahead is more than daunting. After all, there's a sense of self-esteem that comes from being in school, a halo of upward mobility. When reality sets in and the outside world comes calling (or not calling), it can be demoralizing. Much as I supported his choice to enter grad school, I now harbor dreams of concocting a permanent MBA program so that he might remain in this cocoon indefinitely.

It's a hollow desire, but I bet I'm not alone. Graduate school applications are up nationwide, with students ducking the downturn and hoping to reemerge into a cheerier job market. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, applications for master's programs are up 20 percent at some schools, though that doesn't reflect enrollment. At the very least, more people are considering a return to school; test-prep company Kaplan has seen a 20 percent increase in students registering for GRE, LSAT, and GMAT practice tests since last year.

But what if students are scurrying to prepare for jobs that simply won't exist and might never exist again? What if the recession represents a seismic shift, not a temporary blip?

From what I've observed, schools aren't designed to react quickly to changing times. My husband's career center is plugged in with longstanding connections at consulting and financial firms, places now turning to layoffs or hiring freezes. Masses of qualified students are competing for fewer job slots. At this point, I wish the career center had an in with Starbucks.

My husband specializes in green energy, a field that's pretty foolproof, if you believe the headlines. Yet, because the industry is so new and fluid, there are few preordained paths to secure a job. He must think creatively, generating opportunities out of nothingness, a skill just as important as data analysis. And that's something he's learning largely on his own.

Making his predicament tougher, there are also few societal indicators pointing the way toward success and security. For our parents and grandparents, America after World War II offered clear-cut opportunities, thanks to the obvious, pressing need for new infrastructure and technology. Today, there are fewer next steps that are clearly dictated by market forces, and thus fewer barometers by which to measure one's achievements. At a loss, many of my husband's classmates are retreating inward, taking soul-searching as seriously as any finance class.

But let's face it, introspection doesn't pay the student loan bill. Recently, Harvard University held a seminar on how to handle rejection. Good idea. Learning how to innovate and cope is a skill that will become as crucial as any other as the job market continues to sputter. My generation was taught to believe we could accomplish anything. But the stinging reality, one that my husband is coming to terms with, is that hard work and ambition aren't good enough anymore. Flexibility and steeliness are key. For schools to remain relevant, it's a lesson that must be taught in the classroom.

Until then, I wonder if the incoming class at my husband's school could be blinded by strategic jadedness. They might take refuge on campus. But will they be prepared for reality once they leave? Or will we end up with yet another class perhaps boasting obsolete skills acquired thanks to a decision triggered by panic?

Schools might not be able to control desperation, but they can improve a person's ability to respond to it. So I hope they do more to embrace the changing landscape, readying students for a world in which disappointment, at least in the short term, might be the norm. After all, my husband was taught how to write a killer resume. He was taught how to behave in an interview. He was taught to believe in himself. But he wasn't taught how to conquer the paralysis of fear.

Kara Baskin is the editor of Lola magazine. E-mail her at editor@lolaboston.com.