It’s conventional wisdom that when the economy is bad, college enrollments are up.  Yglesias recommends that 2008-2009 college grads, unable to find employment*, should go to grad school.

Bad idea.  There are two kinds of graduate school.

  1. Kinds you pay for.  Law, MBA, most master’s programs.  Professional degrees.
  2. Kinds you don’t.  Ph.D. programs.

There are some cross-overs, but I will ignore them.  (If you’re getting a scholarship to Columbia law, odds are you didn’t just decide to study law because the economy was bad.)

In the first category, one does a short (two-three year) program, incurs a soul-crushing amount of debt, and then has a degree which arguably makes one more employable.  As Neddy is fond of saying, “J.D. is not Latin for ‘meal ticket'”, and it’s entirely possible that one’s employment prospects are just the same two-three years down the road, except now one has even more loan payments.

It’s also not clear how long this economic downturn is going to last.  It would suck if one found an expensive place to hide for two years only to learn in 2011 that 2008 was really thought of as the last good year….

In the second category, ugh, please don’t.  A Ph.D. program is a multi-year commitment.  And while there’s no reason to be ashamed of beginning a Ph.D. program and leaving having discovered you don’t want to do it, there should be something wrong with starting a Ph.D. program (and eating up funding**) in bad faith.

More to the point, a Ph.D. program is not just like undergrad.  Undergrads never believe this.  There’s a world of difference between liking history or English and being good enough at it to produce it.  It can be very rewarding, but it’s essentially a low-paying job that no one thinks is a job (“Are you still in school? When are you joining the real world?”)

I would recommend to anyone considering graduate school, especially in the humanities, that they work a year or two first.  One of two things will happen:  you’ll realize that you only wanted to go to graduate school because you were comfortable with being good at school, and, look at that!  You’ll have a career!  Or, you’ll realize that you really did have a love for the subject, and you have interesting things to say about it.  In which case, you’ll go into graduate school with a clearer idea of why you’re there, and with a little more cash in your pocket.

But this is not meant to be a system to babysit you because no one handed you an i-banking check upon graduation.

*This is advice targeted at elite college grads whose trouble seems to be not that they can’t find any job, but that they can’t find the kind of job that they’d expect to get. We’re not talking laid-off-from-the-Chrysler-plant territory here at all.

**No loans for a Ph.D.  Don’t even consider it anything that isn’t saying full-tuition, and some sort of fellowship/teaching income.  The market is just too bad, and the job doesn’t pay enough, for hundreds of thousands in loans to be a good risk.