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Jacoba Urist

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Should Your Kid Apply To Grad School Now?

Posted: 09/26/11 02:03 PM ET

The LSAT is this Saturday. People around the country are switching their morning latte from iced back to hot again. And that means, the season is upon us: college seniors are lining up to apply to grad school.

While enrollment was down slightly, applications were still up last year by over 8 percent, leaving many of you parents wondering: should my child join the crush of students applying to graduate programs this fall, or brave the worst job market in recent history with only a Bachelor's?

My husband and I have a spent a nice chunk of our adult lives in the ivory tower. Between us, we've got two Masters, a JD, an MD, and a PhD. And as a mom, I get the dilemma. You may have heard a B.A. ain't what it used to be. Employment is grim. And, if I had to guess, you'd probably say your offspring is pretty smart and has a decent level of motivation. So why not encourage them to ride out the recession in the hallowed halls of higher education, and vóila -- emerge in a few years with some bankable skills and an impressive degree under their belt, when all this jobless recovery is behind us?

Well, here's my advice:

1. Be honest about reputation.

College rankings make a difference. If Henry or Hannah is coming out of Duke or Dartmouth next spring, chances are, they'll fare better in the "real world" right out of college, than their lesser-credentialed counterparts. Top ranked degrees come with a certain caché and alumni connections -- especially in today's tight market.

By the same token, the reputation of the graduate program your kid is looking at matters a great deal. Take law school. Graduates of lower-tiered places just aren't getting jobs, even though they might be paying as much as Harvard students.

Most of all, be straight with yourself. Do not have your kid apply to grad school because she may have to wait tables or temp for a few years after graduation, and you'd rather tell people she's studying social work or screenplay writing. Remember, this isn't actually about you.

2. Be honest about money.

When it comes to graduate school, return on investment is tricky. Numerous factors play into the equation. Most importantly, look at the degree your child is considering. MBA's have traditionally been better bangs for the buck. But that certainly doesn't mean you should urge your child towards an MBA just to maximize financial return. It may sound obvious, but parents forget sometimes: the most successful grad students have a strong interest in the subject matter they're studying.

Next: Is your child going to be shouldering all the responsibility of school and living expenses? Do they understand how long it will take to pay off their student debt (a decade for the president), and the drudgery they may endure to get up and running in their chosen profession (hello, law firm associates)? Make sure your 22-year-old understands exactly what they're getting into up front.

3. Be honest about ability and maturity.

Try to step back and take a semi-objective look at your prospective graduate student. Before you push your kid to further pursue his "love" of the humanities, look in the mirror and ask: Would you really call your son a scholar right now? In the age of grade and recommendation inflation, you aren't doing him any favors if he isn't ready for the long, uphill road (both ways) that is the modern PhD experience.


4. Be honest about flexibility.

Would your kid move anywhere for her first job? Most med students don't get to "pick" any residency they'd like. Someone with a Masters in Art History might have to move far away -- and sub-par by their standards -- to score a spot at a museum.

Also, consider how flexible your child would be about working outside of the field they studied, in the strictest sense. After everything, would your future Master of English Lit be happy starting out on the bottom rung, answering phones at a PR firm? Teaching language skills to fifth graders?

At the end of the day, these opportunities do not come with an expiration date. It's never going to hurt your child to take an extra year or two away from school to figure out what he or she wants to be, before applying to graduate programs. Even if that means moving back in with you or serving up those morning lattes.

 

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