The Case Against Going Back to School

You may not need the classroom to get what you want out of your career. Though unconventional, spending your time and money on a real-world education could pay off.

Thinking about going back to school? Think again. Yes, it might open doors to a better job and, yes, you might learn some things of value. Besides, a back-to-school stint gives you a socially acceptable excuse for not working. That's especially attractive if you're one of the many people who does school better than life.

Of course, if you want to be a brain surgeon, there's no avoiding the halls of academe. But for many career paths, it may be wiser to take the road-to-success less traveled: forgo State U, let alone Private U, in favor of a real-world education I'll later describe as You U. It may be a bit unconventional to bypass the classroom, but, in my opinion, this method could help you get what you want out of your career while saving you time and money.

Questionable real-world value

College may be the worst place to learn anything career-related:

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  • Rather than learning what you need, you're buried under mountains of information, most of which you'll never use, and the rest of which you'll probably long have forgotten -- or it will have become obsolete by the time you need it.
  • You're often taught in a lecture class (the least effective way to learn,) or in a discussion section, in which you endure more professorial prattle punctuated by student comments often ignorant and/or designed more to impress than to edify.
  • Worst of all, most professors are far less qualified than are master practitioners to help you prepare to be competent in your career. After all, they are people who deliberately opted out of the real world so they could study esoteric academic research questions. The more prestigious the institution, the more likely professors are to be hired, promoted, and tenured based on their research productivity, with little regard to whether they confuse or bore the pants off students.

You U

But aren't colleges always trumpeting the statistic that people with degrees earn more over their lifetime?

Yes, and there's no better example of misleading with statistics. Why? In part, because you could lock the pool of would-be degree holders in a closet for four years and they'll earn more than non-degree holders: They're brighter, more motivated, and have better connections.

Whatever increase in salary derives from those letters B.A., MBA, whatever, is usually outweighed by the cost of that education (often reaching six figures), the often even larger dollar loss of being out of the workforce for years while in school and, most importantly, by the fact that you could have learned much more of real-world value in far less time and at far less cost at what I call You U. The curriculum:

  • Have a mentor
  • Read key articles and books
  • Attend conferences
  • Do apprenticeships alongside a master practitioner

You have to be a self-starter to make You U work, but the benefits are more than worth it.

Landing the job

What about getting hired? Won't most employers want that degree? Yes, but many will end up preferring you over a degreeholder if your application includes a letter such as this:

Dear Ms. Hirer,When you're inundated with applications, it's tempting to weed out those without a prestigious MBA, but I believe I'm worth a look precisely because I don't have an MBA.I considered getting one, but after talking with MBA holders and examining the courses' relevance (or, too often, lack thereof) to becoming an excellent software marketing executive, I concluded that the two full-time years and $100,000 could be more profitably invested.So, I contacted directors of marketing at leading Silicon Valley hardware companies and offered to work for them for no pay in exchange for their mentoring. I figured that was cheap tuition for the on-target learning. A marketing manager at HP took me on. After three months, I felt I had learned about as much from him as I could, whereupon I made a similar arrangement with a director of marketing at Cisco Systems.In those apprenticeships, I was deeply involved in a number of projects similar to those mentioned in your want ad, specifically Internet marketing and managing a national consumer branding campaign. In addition, I attend American Marketing Association conferences, read the best articles and books recommended by the AMA, and spend much of my commute time listening to relevant books on CD. To get the bigger picture, I even read a couple of books by leading academics.I hope you'll appreciate that I was enough of a self-starter to see a comprehensive learning plan through to completion without a professor and deadlines forcing me to do so. Perhaps more important, in working at the elbow of top hardware marketing executives, I learned a tremendous amount about how to do the job well.But now comes the moment of truth. In choosing a self-directed education over a traditional one, I believe I prioritized substance over form, but will you interview me?I enclose samples of the deliverables I produced during my work at HP and Cisco.Thank you for your consideration.Sincerely,Joe Applicant

I give talks to executives and often ask them, "Imagine you're an employer and you post a want ad that says 'MBA required.' and one applicant wrote this letter." I read the letter above to them. I then say, "Raise your hand if you'd interview him." Invariably, 80% to 90% do.

Many people consider a degree to be a magic pill, but in fact, its side effects often outweigh its benefits. You'll feel much better -- and still get what you want out of your career -- if you get your education at You U.

Marty Nemko is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies and The All-In-One College Guide. He holds a Ph.D specializing in educational evaluation from the University of California at Berkeley, where he later taught grad students -- without boring their pants off.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,