Office Hours: Considering grad school over the startup path? Here are 4 questions to ask yourself

Grad school and working at a startup couldn’t be more different — but every year, we meet a lot of college seniors and recent grads trying to decide between the two.

Grad school, to many, seems like a safer bet. Where a startup career can seem murky and uncertain, grad school can look transparent and predictable: there’s a timeline from beginning to end, specific requirements to meet, and an instant network that comes with registration. If all goes according to plan, you’ll finish two years with a shiny new degree, a higher expected salary range, and increased job prospects.

But choosing the startup route offers a number of things that grad school cannot. Like: a level of real world work experience that even the most hands-on, internship-heavy graduate experience can’t provide. The opportunity to gain a wide range of new skills all at once, in order to decide what you really want to do. A resume that proves you can solve all kinds of problems. And the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re not incurring student loan debt.

We’re not saying that graduate school isn’t the right path for some people. But if you’re teetering between grad school and the startup route, it’s worth really interrogating your reasons for applying.

We spoke with a group of VFA Fellows who have attended grad school, are grad-school bound, or decided the timing wasn’t right. Here’s what they think you should consider before buying those GMAT flash cards.

1) Do you need a graduate degree to have the kind of career you want?

Sometimes, the answer is yes.

For heavily technical fields, there’s a good chance you can’t get by without an advanced degree.

2014 Fellow Jessica Smith considered grad school for urban design as an undergrad, but didn’t feel certain enough to commit the time and money. Instead, she joined VFA, and while working in Providence discovered a field she really loved: industrial design. “It just felt right,” she said. “It pulled together all my favorite parts of the seemingly disconnected fields I had been interested in until that point.” Once she knew industrial design was the right choice, she needed to figure out the best way to pursue it.

At first, she considered trying to learn on the job. But she was friends with a number of senior industrial designers and hiring managers in Providence, and most agreed that they wouldn’t seriously consider hiring someone who without an advanced degree. This fall, she’s heading back to school—with infinitely more direction than she felt as a college senior.

Sometimes you can get by without a master’s—even at a highly technical startup.

2014 Fellow Forrest Miller, the co-founder of biotech startup Synotrac, doesn’t have a graduate degree. Because his company designed a biomedical device, this isn’t always easy for him. “Not having an advanced degree means I always have a high burden of proof that I know what I’m talking about,” he said. But when he does prove to investors, advisors, and medical experts that he really knows his stuff, he finds that they’re impressed by his scrappiness and doubly willing to go to bat for him. While he hasn’t written off going back to school eventually, his bachelor’s degree is enough for now.

If you’re not planning to work in a highly specialized role, a graduate degree might not be necessary.

While graduated degrees can help you learn useful tool sets, no education can fully prepare you to excel at a startup or launch a company. In our experience, the best way to learn startup-specific skills (think marketing, operations, product management, or sales) is to work for a startup—ditto for starting a company.

There’s little data about whether or not an MBA increases performance at a startup job or helps you launch a company. Anecdotally, though, the vast majority of founders in our network view them as non-necessary, and a slew of think pieces make the same argument.

2) Is the timing right?

The Fellows we spoke to thought grad school timing was everything. Here are a few themes that came up most frequently.

If you don’t know what you want, grad school can buy you time

2012 Fellow Tim Dingman got his MS in electrical engineering right after undergrad. Now he’s the co-founder and COO of Castle, a property management startup. He doesn’t use the skills he learned in grad school day-to-day, but he’s still glad he got a master’s when he did. “For me it was definitely the right decision. It was a short program (one year), and it bought me time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It was very much a continuation of undergrad.” After earning his degree, Tim joined VFA’s first class.

If you’re burned out on school, it might be wise to take a break.

It can be easier to appreciate the flexibility of student life after a few years in the working world—easier still if you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve through your degree. If you feel like you can’t write one more paper, it might be time for a break from academics—you might discover that you come to miss the classroom. (Or, you might not.)

Grad school will always be there, while other opportunities might not.

After gaining several years of work experience through VFA, Forrest wrestled with whether to go full-time on Synotrac or go to grad school. Ultimately, when he and his co-founder were accepted into the VFA Accelerator, he chose his company. It came down to the fact that he can always go back to school—but the opportunity to work on Synotrac with his co-founder and attend the VFA Accelerator wouldn’t always be there.

3) Do you know what you want to achieve? Can you accomplish something comparable at work?

Getting a master’s will not automatically advance your career, and it will almost certainly cut your income for the years you’re in school. If you feel stuck but don’t know exactly what you want to achieve, it might not be worth giving up the year or two that you could spend learning on the job.

2014 Fellow Jolene Gurevich has been thinking about grad school for a while, and still intends to get her MBA eventually. But right now, she’s not sure exactly what she wants to gain. “When I thought about what I wanted out of the MBA, frankly, every answer I came up with at that point I could also achieve by being in the workforce for a few more years,” she said. “I consider an MBA a huge investment, and I can’t in good conscience make that investment without knowing exactly what I want on the other side.”

4) Do you have to choose?

While it’s certainly a challenging path, many grad programs are designed to accommodate students with full-time jobs.

There are part-time MBA programs at great schools all over the country. If you’re eager to get your degree but don’t want to sacrifice your salary and work experience, this might be the road for you.

One caveat: it can be easy to underestimate the commitment of a full-time job before you’ve joined the working world. It might be worth giving yourself a year or two to adjust before taking the job plus school plunge.

So, what’s the verdict? Grad school can help you gain the technical expertise you need—but you can find plenty of startup success without a degree.

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