Think Again About Sticking Around for a Masters Degree

Mark Twain was said to have remarked “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”, and whether the quote itself is apocryphal, the sentiment should be applauded.  True education is a beautiful thing. A master’s degree, on the other hand, is not only a waste of time (with a few exceptions I’ll get to), but often epitomizes that proverbial interference.  

As I spend a lot of time talking to college students I encounter many who are signing up for the increasingly popular one-year master’s degrees.  I understand the appeal from the student’s perspective and I understand the appeal from a parent’s perspective.  In fact, I pursued one myself.  I had just finished undergrad, I didn’t have a compelling opportunity, and more importantly I had somewhere to get to (Silicon Valley).  For many of today’s brightest engineers, I don’t think a master’s degree makes any sense, and that was exactly the advice I gave my brother who just graduated.  In order to appreciate why a master’s might not be such a wise idea after all, it’s worth considering what makes education meaningful to begin with.  

To begin with, education creates opportunity.  This has probably been drilled into your head from an early age, and for good reason.   If your parents were the first generation in your family to attend college (or you are) this needs no explanation, and it’s a tragedy that education is taken for granted by anyone, let alone so many.

There is also much to learn – much more than most people would ever guess.  When I went off to college, I certainly thought I knew more than I did.  Being disabused of this notion may seem like the first step in one’s education, and it often is, but it’s a really a lesson worth relearning at any stage.  Then there’s the process of learning how to learn, and this is one of the primary reasons you go to school, independent of your field of study.  There are countless dimensions: learning to make abstractions and conceptualize, to interrogate a problem, to work inductively and deductively, to separate first principles from careless assumptions.  You need to experience breadth, both to strengthen your foundation, and to find subjects worthy of exploring in depth.  

Education also provides a unique platform to gain impactful life experience in a low-risk environment.  School is a place to build formative relationships, explore different paths, be in charge of your own time and activities, even start something if you are so inclined.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a time to learn about your strengths and weaknesses with high upside and low downside.  Of course, college is costly, and time itself is far from trivial, but it’s much easier to avoid loss aversion and do something truly experimental when you’re not deep into your career.   The phrase “do something” is the key here – “finding yourself” has become sort of a cliché of indolence, but it’s while moving forward that you truly find yourself, and college can be the perfect place to do this.

Finally, education validates that your best years really are ahead of you.  High school is certainly a valuable experience, and in the best case can lay the groundwork for the level of exploration that college makes possible.  At the same time, it’s a small pond both socially and in terms of what you’re asked to do.  However triumphant or painful it is, it’s not a place to remain.  College may feel like a time for reinvention, but it’s really a time for original discovery.  

 To understand why master’s degrees are superfluous and even counterproductive for engineering students, I like to use the framework of getting somewhere versus getting something.  You can also think of this as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself.  Education provides many things of intrinsic value, but much as nine months, give or take, is enough to prepare you for the outside world, so is one degree.

The exceptions tend to fall into the category of getting somewhere: for example to Silicon Valley or to the United States.  A master’s degree can also be a good way to test the waters of academia.  You can take classes with doctoral students and get a feel for the academic life without having to commit to a dissertation or taking on a teaching schedule.  For some friends, a master’s has been an informative gateway to a promising academic career, whereas others consider it worth the price of admission to have been persuaded that doctoral studies aren’t for them after only a year.  I am not coming down on one side or the other, only advocating for informed choices.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to obtain something – experience, distinction, deeper cultivation of your superpower – it’s usually better to just get that thing in its pure form.  If you want entrepreneurial experience, go out and get some – don’t learn about it in an MBA course.  If you want to be a better software engineer, don’t sign on for an extra year of TAing - work on challenging, real-world problems in a production environment, with peers who force you to raise your game.  

I’ve said before that learning for its own sake is not necessarily valuable, and this is especially true of master’s degrees in the workplace, especially degrees in one pure subject (as opposed to MBAs and other first professional degrees).  There is a lot of misleading and unsubstantiated chatter that a master’s degree makes you a more valuable employee ipso facto, and this is just not the case, as many people find out the hard way.

It’s also worth acknowledging that there is often a socio-cultural bias towards more education, especially among generations who experienced firsthand the power of education to achieve an objectively better life.  This is not a perspective to be discounted, but at the same time you need to recognize when the preference for more higher education is no longer contextualized and ignores the question of somewhere versus something. 

Finally, and most importantly, don’t do a master’s because college is fun and it will never get better than this.  If you care about your future as much as I imagine you do, that simply won’t be true (regardless of whatever sentimental projections people offer you).  The fifth year isn’t like the fourth.  Everyone is gone, and you realize that what made college meaningful was the people who went through the experience with you, not the buildings and the campus.  Moving on is not always easy, especially when you strip away the structure and predictability of school, but it’s simply time to forge new experiences.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving school, it’s that they can all be the best years of your life when you get out there and Do Important Things.