Cognitive Dissonance from Truth in Graduate Schools | Notice
In my fifth year in a professional degree program, a disturbing trend emerged. Graduate programs of this nature enjoy unique protection against student criticism, both during and after student participation. This leads to an asymmetric information problem in which the public, including prospective students of these programs, overweight the value of graduate degrees. Different programs benefit from this ultimate result through dynamics that are both similar and disparate.
First, graduate students are older. Most have work experience and probably greater responsibilities, financial and otherwise, than they might have had in college. Second, most graduate students have already been orientated towards professionalism through post-graduate work experience – notably, experiences that have led them all to choose to return to academia. Conditioned by low expectations for fairness and equity across American businesses, by contrast, the professional school environment appears enlightened. The passion of undergraduates protesting right above buildings is quite exhilarating – from a safe distance. Two years at McKinsey will do it for you. Many are simply relieved to return to school, at the unsatisfactory work environment they have chosen to leave.
Additionally, the personal sacrifice required to complete a professional degree program often leaves applicants with limited options. Professional degree programs pose a unique financial burden. A study found that among graduate degree holders, “vocational degree holders were the most indebted group, with 56% borrowing $ 100,000 or more for their vocational studies.” Ninety percent of those with a professional degree have at least some debt. In contrast, up to 30% of college graduates complete their studies with almost no debt.
The costs, of course, are not just financial. Take the example of a Harvard Kennedy School master’s student in public policy who quit a middle-income job, uprooted a spouse and young child to settle in Cambridge, and contracted tens of thousands of dollars in ready. It is not someone who is likely to rock the boat. No matter how horrible the HKS experience may be or not, students in this position will avoid the cognitive dissonance of an honest assessment of the program.
In my experience, as someone who has spent half a decade in such programs, those who pursue a professional degree program view their degree, at least in part, with a return on investment lens. While a graduate degree is an asset, intuitively you don’t devalue your own asset. In a world where brand names matter, it is incumbent on students and alumni to ensure that their school remains in high regard. Spilling dirty little secrets will not serve professional graduates in the long run. This signals to future employers that you could do the same with them – if they hire you. Even your classmates and future colleagues may be offended by criticizing you for the program they have just invested in.
For many, university is synonymous with freedom and experimentation – broadening horizons and gaining access (at least in theory) to a new world of opportunity. Conversely, most professional graduate programs aim to narrow down choices, to specialize – and for many – to leave the world of work for the chance of a second start. According to the US News & World Report, two thirds or more of MBA candidates, for example, use their degree to change industry after graduation. Everyone knows it – you don’t waste a second chance.
The burden of age aside, even professional graduate students who are younger than others, like those faculty of Law, are arguably less likely to wrinkle the feathers. The overwhelming majority of those who take a professional degree program… want to be a “professional”. More … than three quarters of the students of the best law schools across the country, land a job with “BigLaw” after graduation. The close mapping of the school environment and network to postgraduate employment prospects puts students in a pseudo-employee mindset. “It’s a vocational school and being on time is important, think of it like your job,” a Kennedy School professor harassed our cohort whenever he had the chance. Good employees follow the rules and don’t constantly challenge superiors. They are not negative. They are collegial. Good employees never publicly criticize the company. And good employees understand that when the business is successful, they succeed.
After graduation, the incentive to be honest about the negative aspects of professional graduate programs decreases even more. Your diploma is now a networking tool. In professional conversation, it will always serve as a reminder of Harvard Business School famous gym and are rarely used as a reminder of surprising lack of diversity in faculty.
Kaivan K. Shroff is a third year student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.
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