American Bar Association: Think Twice About Law School

Last Updated Jan 7, 2011 6:45 AM EST


The American Bar Association has posted a warning about getting a law degree on their website.
Far too many law students expect that earning a law degree will solve their financial problems for life. In reality, however, attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision.
They go on to detail the high cost of school (not only tuition, but living expenses and the eventual interest on student loans). When you have a profesional organization saying, "Maybe you shouldn't become one of us" you can either think "Bah, they just want to keep their little club exclusive!" or you can say, "Wow, these people are saying this career isn't the bed of roses you'd think it was, given all those law shows on television."

Law isn't the only advanced degree that perhaps doesn't pay. Once upon a time, I was enrolled in a PhD program. Midway through I realized I did not want to be a political science professor and left the program. Two years later, my class was finishing their dissertations and applying for professor positions. I was also hiring an entry level analyst. I jokingly said to one of my PhD colleagues, "Hey, if you don't find a job, I can hire you. Do you want to do HR analysis? It pays $46,000."

She sadly replied, "I have a job offer for a tenure track job, but it pays less than that."

Turns out she was one of the lucky ones--getting a tenure track job at all. The Economist reports:
In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships.
Many people with PhDs will end up in "post-doc" positions where salaries are low and the work is hard. But, do salaries eventually pay off? Getting a PhD will not usually result in a huge salary boost.
The earnings premium for a PhD is 26% [over a high school diploma]. But the premium for a master's degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master's degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master's degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master's degree.
If that's not a good enough reason to keep you out of graduate school, keep in mind how long these things take. Dr. Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist writes:
I wish someone had told me years ago at 18 that I would be spending another 14 years in school training to be a psychologist. I even made it through undergrad in three years but little did I know that it would be years of work before I finished two masters, a postmasters, a PhD and a post-doc--11 more to be exact. I have almost no regrets about my life, save for one, that I spent my youth in graduate school when it was unnecessary, unfulfilling and not very lucrative.
Lost income and increased debts are something to think about even if the end result is a job with a higher salary. The current lousy economy means that you can't be guaranteed a good job once you finish, either. In fact, you may end up doing what someone without your degree--and your debt--can do.

Education is a wonderful thing, but make sure, before you pursue your advanced degree, that you know what you're getting yourself into. After all, the lawyers have made it pretty clear that there is a downside to higher education. Of course, they could just be covering themselves, as they don't want their colleagues to sue them.

Does this mean you shouldn't get the degree of your dreams? Well that depends if your dream is based in reality or not. It's absolutely true that there are some jobs you cannot get without one. But, an advanced degree doesn't guarantee more money and more success. Stop and ask yourself if the degree will get you what want, or if pursuing your goals through your career can be more successful--plus you get paid along the way.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr cc 2.0

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