The two types of grad school: what is your ultimate goal?

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, let’s get into it. So, with today’s educational marketplace, online schools are all over the place, including smaller schools, larger schools, and of course, the Ivy League. There’s grad school, and then there’s grad school now. Hmm. So, what are the two types of grad schools? When we’re considering the GRE and what we want to do with our graduate degree?

Orion: Well, you’re absolutely right, Davis. There are so many different grad school programs that exist in the world. And some of them are worth your money, in my opinion, and some of them are not. And that depends on more than just the standard rankings associated with these programs, which I’m sure any student can and should Google before they apply, right. So, I have this conceptual framework for looking at grad school. And I do believe that there are two types of grad schools. And the two types of grad schools really depend on whether the degree that they award is legally instrumental to getting a certain job. That’s the difference between the two categories.

Davis: So, what does that mean?

Orion: So, for example, if you want to be a medical doctor, you need an MD; there’s no way around that, right. If you want to be a lawyer, you need a JD; there are very few ways around that. If you are a psychologist, you need to have a Ph.D. or PsyD; that’s a legal requirement in all 50 states. So that’s one type of program, a program that awards a degree that you legally need to get a license to do a specific job, to have a specific career.

Davis: Education is the same, right? If you’re going to teach, that depends on state to state. Like in New York State, you need a master’s degree in order to teach in the public educational system. And I don’t believe that is a requirement in other states. So this is part of the research process you have to do beforehand.

Orion: That’s right, exactly. Yeah. So, my kind of rule of thumb about this is that if you’re looking to get a degree so that you can apply for a license to do a certain job, it doesn’t matter so much where you go. So if you’re wondering, okay, well, if you’re wanting a degree to apply for a license, and the license is what you need, correct, for the job, as opposed to the actual degree itself, then it doesn’t matter where you go; it doesn’t matter as much, right? Because I’ll be honest, once I got my license to practice psychology and I established my private practice, I don’t think anybody in six years has asked me where I attended my graduate school. The fact is that I’m a licensed psychologist; I can compete in the open market with other psychologists who went to Harvard or Stanford. We’re all on a level playing field with respect to offering our services to the public. I have a bit of an entrepreneurial streak. So I always knew that I wanted to go into private practice. And so I just needed the degree to get the license that I could enter into the free market economy and promote my practice and get my patients that way.

Davis: Right.

Orion: And if you do your job well, if you help people, if you provide a service that nobody else can do, frankly, most people won’t care if you dropped out of kindergarten. They’ll say, “You can help me; I want what you have. Here’s my money, take it.” And that license serves as a voucher of trust for the consumer to say, “Oh, he’s licensed by the board or by the state or by whatever. So I know I can count on his services being legitimate.”

Davis: Yes, that’s ascribed authority.

Orion: And that’s a big part of it. There’s a difference between saying that you’re a licensed psychologist versus I’m a life coach.

Davis: Right, right.

Orion: Now, does that mean that the advice or the support that a life coach offers is necessarily superior to anything that a licensed psychologist would offer? No, there are bad licensed psychologists, and there are really great life coaches. But it’s harder to establish that initial trust, to get someone to pick up the phone and ask for help. Right. And so the license is really useful for that. To get your foot in the door, kind of. But like if you’re bad and licensed, people aren’t going to stick around, right? And if you’re good and non-licensed, eventually people will find you. So there is an element of trust associated with the licensure.

Davis: Yeah, right.

Orion: But yeah, but legally, right, you have to have a license to practice certain jobs. And if that’s the goal, to practice that job, then getting a license is what’s going to allow you to do that. So where you get your graduate degree in order to obtain the license doesn’t have as much importance in the long run, in my opinion. And so, if that’s the kind of grad school that you’re looking to go to, there are other considerations that I think would take priority over, let’s say, the ranking of the program. What’s the most affordable program? What’s the one where I can get the degree in the least amount of time? Because every year you spend in grad school, it reduces your overall lifetime earnings; you’re out of the marketplace. You want to get in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible. All other things being equal.

Davis: What about locations? I considered it dependent.

Orion: You know, it’s like a lot of grad schools can be online these days, which works for some people and doesn’t work for other people. I’ve moved across the country to go to my grad school program. But I also wanted to live where I was moving. I didn’t just apply randomly to the top-ranked programs and resigned myself to live in, say, Missouri, or no offense to Missouri, I guess, but not my favorite state in the union. I knew where I wanted to live. Does that make sense?

Davis: So location depends on the people involved. But that’s good news. If someone’s looking to go to grad school, and they know the license is what they’re eventually needing, they can look for a place more where they want to live and find the cheapest, quickest grad school program in the area of their choice.

Orion: That’s exactly what I did. I’m very happy that I did that. I got what I needed and moved forward. I was able to get out of debt a year or two after I graduated. I have a thriving private practice, like I got what I needed from grad school, which is important to consider: grad school is a means to an end. That’s right. And you don’t want to linger in grad school. And you want to make sure that grad school is actually facilitating that end, which means you also have to clarify what that end is before you go in. Unfortunately, a lot of folks, especially if they’re younger, they can enter into grad school because they just don’t know what else to do with their life. Maybe their career is kind of stagnant, or the economy’s going bad. So it’s hard to get a job. It’s like, okay, I can understand those considerations. But if you don’t have a clear end goal in mind, you just kick the can down the road. So now you’re three to five years older, potentially, and you still have those same questions. And now you have a huge debt, and you’re older, without a clearer idea of how this is going to apply in your job, not a good idea.

Davis: So, we’ve talked about one type of grad school, which is going for, you know, being flexible with the grad school of choice, because the license is what matters to enable you to have that end goal achievable. So, the other type of grad school, I’m guessing, is where the grad school you go to, and that name carries a lot more weight. And that matters.

Orion: Well, the other type of grad school is one that awards a degree that you don’t legally need to do a job, which is the vast majority of programs. Let’s be clear, only like, I don’t know, 10% of grad schools award degrees that you legally need to do a job – teaching, teaching masters in certain states, the JDs, the MDs, things like that. Yeah, the vast majority of programs give you master’s degrees in psychology, or MBAs, which you technically don’t need for a specific job. A lot of companies, they, they put a big carrot on a string and say, “Hey, you’d be more competitive for these jobs if you had a master’s.” And that could be true if you’re just comparing two cold resumes against each other. But that also, again, diminishes what’s really important about getting jobs, which is who you know, and being able to leverage relationships and networks and experience and being incredibly good at what you do. If you have those things going for you, you don’t need an MBA.

Davis: That’s true.

Orion: Okay. So, with this 90% of grad schools, where you technically and legally don’t need that degree, it’s very, very important where you go. Extremely. Because what that grad school is able to do for you is, you’re basically paying to enter into a kind of a country club. And you’re paying to be associated with a brand for the rest of your professional career. Right, “Harvard-trained.” Sure, some brands have way more power than other brands. Harvard, Stanford, they’re going to open doors. I believe South Central Florida State University is not going to open a lot of doors. You know what I’m saying? No offense, South Central Florida State University, you know what I’m saying?

Davis: That’s a real university?

Orion: No, I’m just making it up. So I don’t get sued. So, the point is, is that some brands open more doors than others. And if you don’t need this degree, you’re paying for opportunity, right? You’re also paying for a network and a network of the people that you meet.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: Because those folks that you form relationships with will be your professional network that you’re going to be leaning heavily on for jobs and opportunities for the next, you know, 10 years of your life. That extended alumni network as well, so you can kind of like an old boys’ club, you go into a room and you realize you’re both in the same fraternity from even though you went to school in Virginia and you went to school in Oregon, it’s like it’s a point of connection, that can actually improve your chances of getting that job.

Davis: So, does this apply also, not just for the name brand of the school itself, but say, there’s someone in the field you’re interested in, that is already a distinguished professor or researcher in one of these 90% of jobs where you don’t actually need the degree necessarily. If you follow if you go to a school and you follow that person, even if it’s not a name-brand school, or an Ivy League, but you get to say, “I studied with this professor, this pioneer in the field at such and such university,” does that carry as much weight as well?

Orion: That’s an excellent question. That’s a bit more subtle, and it can, but that person needs to be really famous within that field. That name needs to carry as much weight as Harvard or Yale or Stanford by itself. And it’s also important to keep in mind that when you apply to those programs that do have these stellar personages on their faculty, there’s also no guarantee that you’re going to be studying under that person. Maybe you’ll take a class with him or her. But that won’t be enough to really associate with the brand, right?

So generally, I think it’s a good idea to favor a strong brand, even over a strong program. This is important to keep in mind. Not all grad programs at Harvard are fantastic, right. But Harvard, everyone in the world knows what Harvard University is, you know what I’m saying? So even if it’s like a 40th ranked program, I don’t know, maybe dentistry? I don’t know if Harvard has a good dentistry program. Maybe it does, maybe. But that’s probably something that you need a license for. So let’s say paleontology, you probably don’t need a degree in paleontology to become a paleontologist. I don’t think that’s a legal designation. And maybe Harvard doesn’t have a top-ranked program, but it’s still Harvard.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And you get to be associated with that.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So that’s, that’s kind of it in a nutshell, is think about what your goals are. Do you need this for a job? If so, get in and out as quickly as possible. And if you don’t, I would not recommend applying to any institution that’s lower than like, the 15th ranked, okay. Because thresholds, if the 40th or the 50th ranked program is just as expensive as the 10th ranked program, but it comes with a fraction of the opportunity for networking. So it is really useful to shoot for the stars when it comes to the second type of grad school programs. I hope that makes sense.

Davis: No, that makes sense. Thanks for clearing up and making that structural framework of the two different types to keep in mind when we’re trying to figure out, you know, where to go.

Orion: I’ve done a lot of grad school consulting in the year. So, besides during the GRE prep, I’ve helped hundreds of students get into their grad school now, it’s valuable information.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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