Recently, I’ve received hundreds of emails about earning multiple graduate degrees and the impact it will have on a career. With such interest in this approach, I felt it was time to share some thoughts on the pros and cons of earning so much formal education.
There is no ladder to climb. Just a few decades ago when I began my career, there were defined paths for upward mobility. Companies would outline how one could transition from position to position, eventually gaining responsibility, authority and greater benefits (e.g. pay). Today, that doesn’t exist. Many companies don’t even have an organizational chart. They will tell you that it provides you the benefit that you can go anywhere you want without restriction and that those old predefined paths only restrained you to a certain future. They will say you have complete control over your career. I really like this idea but it was really done to reduce top heavy management ranks, which is often slow, inefficient and expensive. It wasn’t done to move more people upward. You can make all the lateral movements you want, but moving upward, well, this is where you have to apply your knowledge to navigate an uncharted organization. If you’re really searching for structure, you’ll need to target big corporations.
Graduate degrees are not required for executives. While it seems logical that the most brilliant people will rise to the top of organizations, this simply isn’t true. In fact, many businesses are started by people with little formal education. I mention this because you might join such an organization. You’ll take the job and then do research on the executive team, only to find that they are not highly educated like you. I’ve found this many times in tech and high tech companies, where you might expect to find highly educated managers. If you desire to be around the highly educated, you’ll need to seek them out. Most are in technology and finance.
I know it’s hard to believe that being highly educated could have a down side, but it does. Here are a few things you might encounter when you have a lot of formal education and you’re working in Corporate America.
You’re a threat. You might not ever actually see this directly but to management teams that don’t have graduate degrees, employees that do can be threatening. They fear being embarrassed by their lack of understanding of many topics and feel there is some secret competition at play. A good judge in determining the type of organization you’re in is to assess the leadership. If they are more interested in growing their career, you’ll be considered a threat. If they want to grow their organization, then you might have a chance for growth.
Possible solution: If you find yourself here, you have to be humble and give your ideas for growth and improvement away. Show your management you’re here to help them become a success.
You’re underemployed. Face it. There are not that many jobs that require a graduate degree and hardly any that will list two graduate degrees as necessary. Unless you can afford to search for that perfect job for a long time, you’re likely to accept a job that you can easily do.
Possible solution: Begin your job search when you are in graduate school. Utilize the university’s resources to place you in a higher position. Work with professional organizations while you are in your academic program too, as they are more likely to help students than graduates.
You’re Academic. I always thought this was a good thing but I’ve had a few instances where senior managers have told me I was too academic. I think they meant it to be derogatory and imply that I didn’t have enough experience. Well, when you’re a young professional, this will be a problem. Again, this is a biased view from a less educated management team, where experience is more important because it is what they have most. What I found is that being labeled academic is good and bad. It’s bad because it implies you do threaten people around you a little. It’s good because they realize that you are well educated and have the ability to perform industry recognized analyses.
Possible solution: Don’t waste any time or energy on proving you are smarter. Let your work show that. You should focus on results and creating tangible successes that define your value to the company. It is helpful to show management that you can help them improve their own career. Once they feel that support, they won’t be as inclined to keep your career suppressed.
You’re Expensive. High credentials mean high salary. This is what companies will see and that can scare them. They’ll overlook the fact that you can bring high productivity, high efficiency and high output. Most companies don’t try to identify the financial impact of such indirect benefits. They only focus on the direct costs that are easy to measure, like your salary. This can make finding a job really difficult.
Possible solution: High salary is offset by high returns. You’ve got to be able to show real situations where you have greatly reduced cost, created new earnings, or improved existing earnings. Companies want to make money and you must be able to provide evidence where you’ve helped do that.
The majority of the advantages of higher education are personal. It brings a sense of accomplishment, pride, an understanding of how to learn and confidence. These emotions are powerful and will help you push through challenges that are ill-defined, untested and unbeaten. The difficulty is keeping this confidence under control and avoiding being overbearing to others, as most people aren’t excited by change and challenge.
You’ve got credentials. It feels good to help those degrees and more importantly, the knowledge and understanding of how to learn. Multiple graduate degrees communicate the message that you are smart. In organizations that like utilizing smart people, you’re an asset. You have numerous advantages, like being able to work alone without supervision, solve difficult problems, create new ways of doing business, research how the competition does business and so much more.
Career Strategy: Don’t focus on communicating your brilliance. The degrees will do that for you. You should however strive to create tangible accomplishments that clearly articulate your ability to put that brilliance to work and create success. These tangibles are what others will consider to be work experience.
Changing fields is easier. Many multiple degree holders have earned these illustrious credentials to afford themselves the power to change occupations much easier. In my experience with such high achievers, it does help to have a considerable depth of expertise in multiple areas. Transitioning from one industry to another is possible but not necessarily any easier. The advantage of your credentials is that you usually don’t have to entertain a lower position at the new company.
Career Strategy: While you may have knowledge in multiple areas, it’s important to create tangible accomplishments in these areas to communicate that these skills and knowledge are still current and valuable. If you can’t create accomplishments with the knowledge, create some successes with the skills that can be transferred to other fields.
Instant Recognition. When you submit a resume that has multiple graduate degrees, companies will recognize they are dealing with someone who is smart and can learn. They will search for the value you can provide. This is very important as most first reviews of resume are typically to identify factors that eliminate you from consideration, not inclusion.
Career Strategy: Ensure your credentials include accomplishments and accolades that are expected for someone with such qualifications. The value is not just in what you know, it’s in what you can do with what you know…and that you have to prove.
The mind that wants to learn and grow constantly is special. It seeks to create value wherever it can and as often as it can. Most of us are not like this, as we seek to settle into life, create stability and entertain ourselves until retirement. While we appreciate its abilities, it also reminds us of our own abilities and how we may not measure up. It scares us and, at times, makes us feel as if our stability is being threatened. Education is very important and we should all seek to constantly improve ourselves. But we don’t. So to those who chase many academic credentials, your success will be found with those who appreciate and value such knowledge. Please know that all companies don’t appreciate you. So you may have to spend some time searching for those who will embrace you, preferably while you’re still in school. Finally, I leave you with a quote from the British Author and creator of the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who once said “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”