Why Millennials Go To Grad School

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Headshot of Brooks Holtom of Georgetown

Brooks Holtom of Georgetown

How do people decide whether they should go to graduate school? It’s possible to respond to that question with a bunch of vague answers, but there’s been little research on the subject—which is a bit strange, considering the fact that a graduate degree can have the power to fundamentally change the trajectory of a person’s career.

In response to this dearth of information, three professors–one from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and two from the University of Iowa–carried out a study with a long but telling title: “Even the Best Laid Plans Sometimes Go Askew: Career Self-Management Processes, Career Shocks, and the Decision to Pursue Graduate Education.” “In my mind, there was a lot of anecdotal discussion about what motivates Millennials, and this was an attempt to start to collect data and better understand their career choices,” says Brooks C. Holtom, the Georgetown professor involved in the research.

The trio developed a model that could (theoretically) predict whether college graduates a few years into their careers would decide to apply to graduate school. They then tested that model by tracking and surveying 337 college graduates from two different universities, one public and one private. The study focuses on graduate school in general, Holtom translates the findings for the MBA crowd—and draws some surprising conclusions.


Part of the study examines differences between intrinsic and extrinsic career goals. The way Holtom explains it, people with primarily intrinsic career goals seek to develop skills, accumulate knowledge, and make an impact on society. Meanwhile, people who focus on extrinsic career goals go after things, such as pay raises, promotions, and positions of power.

The researchers found that intrinsic career goals correlated positively with applying to graduate school, which makes sense—the point of graduate school is learning, right? On the other hand, extrinsic career goals actually made people less likely to pursue graduate school when they were satisfied with their careers. After all, why get off the corporate ladder when you’re climbing it well?

Still, in the case of MBAs, it’s possible that extrinsic career goals do correlate positively with the decision to pursue more education. Holtom explains that unlike many other graduate programs, MBA programs usually give graduates a solid monetary return on their investment: Most people come out of MBA programs making a lot more than they were making before. As a case in point, take a look at GMAC’s alumni perspectives survey:

“Alumni from the class of 2011, across all program types, reported they recouped one-third of their financial investment in their graduate management education immediately in the first year after graduation. Class of 2007 alumni typically saw a full return on their investment after four years from graduation. Ten years after graduation, alumni, on average, nearly doubled their return on investment.”


Not too shabby. Holtom says he doesn’t have the data to prove it, but he assumes “MBAs as a population tend to have more extrinsically motivated goals.” And those goals actually align with the results business school delivers.

Still, Holtom points out that in the last five years, the fastest growth in centers and specializations has centered around social enterprise. At Georgetown, he’s seen that trend at play in the Global Social Enterprise Initiative and the growth of the student group Net Impact (which promotes positive change through business—and even gives members access to exclusive job postings). So, while MBA programs are largely dominated by extrinsically motivated bankers and consultants, it’s important to pay attention to the growing group of MBAs who want to do well while doing good.

Holtom says that for those with extrinsic career goals, there’s a prime time to invest in an MBA, and it’s usually after five years of work experience. Postponing business school beyond that timeframe would increase the opportunity cost of attending and delay the acceleration of wage increases. Sticking around to pursue the next raise or promotion could be short-sighted. The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma has contributed to the growth in part-time MBA programs, which allow students to keep gunning for promotions while getting their degrees.

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