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Skip Graduate School, Save $32,000, Do This Instead

Three years ago, I invested $32,000 and the better part of two years at the University of Washington for a master's degree in International Studies. The verdict? It wasn't a complete waste of time and money. Once I accepted that 80% of the course requirements were designed to keep people busy, I enjoyed the other 20% of the work.

If you're strictly interested in learning, however, you may want to get a better return-on-investment than I did. Here's how to save $32,000 (or more) through your own self-directed, alternative program.Here's how to save $32,000 (or more) through your own self-directed, alternative program. Feel free to revise, subtract, or drop out whenever it's convenient to you.

The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience

• Subscribe to The Economist and read every issue religiously. Cost: $97 + 60 minutes each week.

• Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. Cost: $0 + 3-4 hours once.

• Buy a Round-the-World plane ticket or use Frequent Flyer Miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia. Cost: variable, but plan on $4,000.

• Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha. Visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple. Cost: Materials can be obtained free online or in the mail — or for less than $50 + 20 hours.

• Subscribe to a language-learning podcast and listen to each 20-minute episode five times a week for the entire year. Attend a local language club once a week to practice. Cost: $0 + 87 hours.

• Loan money to an entrepreneur through Kiva.org and arrange to visit him or her while you're abroad on your big trip. Cost: Likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid.

• Acquire at least three new skills during your year. Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts — or even the flying trapeze. The key is not to become an expert in any of them, but to become functionally proficient. Cost: Variable, but each skill is probably less than three credits of tuition would cost at a university.

• Read at least 30 nonfiction books and 20 classic novels. Cost: approximately $750 (be sure to support Powell's!).

• Join a gym or health club to keep fit during your rigorous independent studies. (Most universities include access to their fitness centers with the purchase of $32,000 in tuition, so you'll need to pay for this on your own otherwise.) Cost: $25-75 a month.

• Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills. Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is also beginner-friendly. Cost: $25 + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks.

• Start a blog, create a basic posting schedule, and stick with it for the entire year. You can get a free blog at WordPress.org. One tip: don't try to write every day. Set a weekly or bi-weekly schedule for a while, and if you're still enjoying it after three months, pick up the pace. Cost: $0.

• Set your home page to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Randompage. Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you'll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it. Cost: $0.

• Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast on iTunes and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.

• Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, a good summary. Cost: $10 or less.

TOTAL COST: $10,000 or less

Note: The total cost of the self-directed, alternative graduate school program does not include housing or food, but neither does the tuition for traditional school programs in the U.S. and Canada. Freedom and independence, however, are included at no extra charge.

Study hard! See you tomorrow.

÷ ÷ ÷

Chris Guillebeau is the author of the new book The $100 Startup, which provides a blueprint for freedom by building a business with a small amount of money and no special skills. The book is based on the stories of 70 ordinary people like Michael and Sarah, who both live and work in Portland. You can also read his free blog at ChrisGuillebeau.com.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way...
    Used Hardcover $12.00
  2. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble...
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95

Chris Guillebeau is the author of The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future

53 Responses to "Skip Graduate School, Save $32,000, Do This Instead"

    Blake N. Cooper September 28th, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Fantastic post, Chris. I couldn't agree more. Something is seriously wrong with the University system here in the States.
    Blake N. Cooper
    Creator and Managing Editor
    ThinkingTen—A Writer's Playground

    Bob Stewart September 28th, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Yeah I did this, for the most part anyway. Somehow though it doesn't seem to negate the degree requirement for most jobs though. So I'm doing that 80% busy/boring work thing to get the piece of paper now.

    Kyle Callahan September 28th, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    A brilliant to-do list for learning and life. I had already known about kiva.org and some of the resources for news publications and language learning. Never considered how all these ideas combined create some very powerful experiences and opportunities that you might not even get through formal education. A great plan when graduate school isn't in the cards right now.

    Rarian Rakista September 29th, 2010 at 10:24 am

    This might work if you are a history major, but building your own engineering lab is a rather daunting experience and will set you back more than the cost of a education.

    grrlpup October 5th, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    This sounds like a great way to spend a year, but it has nothing to do with the purpose of graduate study, which is advanced and specialized work in a field.

    Susan K October 9th, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I have no issue with your suggestions, nor the premise for this piece, but it might also benefit a person to find a graduate program that's a better fit for his or her interests and learning style. Not everyone enjoys school or finds it valuable, just as not everyone finds a particular person to be an attractive mate, or a job to be meaningful. If your impression was that "80% of the course requirements were designed to keep people busy," there might be a problem with the program, but there might be a problem with how you approached it or how good a fit it was for you as well. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but this wasn't my experience in graduate school, though it describes my middle school nicely. As university faculty, I must say that there is plenty to do without adding busywork to already overstuffed curricula. It's pretty popular right now to take an anti-intellectual, anti-education stance, but that popularity doesn't mean it's especially interesting.

    John Andersen October 22nd, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    This is the best course of action for most people.

    For those who desire graduate education in say chemistry, math, physics, foreign languages and literature, literature, biology, etc., graduate school with an assistantship is actually free.

    Granted, those who qualify for such programs and financial assistance need to have top drawer academic records.

    But for most people, Chris' suggestions are the best course of action.

    My current "graduate" school is reading everything I can get a hold of on Oregon History. I plan to be in this "school" for the rest of my life.

    Toni December 7th, 2010 at 4:33 am

    My son is looking at grad schools for IR...I've sent him a link. I think your take on grad school is pretty good. I, for one, could have done w/o about half of mine.

    j s December 7th, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I have an issue with point 8, reading 30 non fiction books, and 20 classics can be done for exactly $0 using a public library, or for much less by purchasing through the friends of the library store that most libraries run.

    CHeese December 7th, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    If that's equivalent to your graduate school experience, then I must say you did waste your $32k. Then again... "International Studies" says it all.

    Real graduate programs guide you in learning to contribute to the field of study, and a good one will have you spend a year deeply engaged in an emerging facet of the field -- recording your discoveries as a thesis, and if you're any good, some journal articles.

    Either that or your advisor(s) sucked.

    Danielle December 8th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I agree. I know plenty of people who never went to grad or undergrad yet are more educated than half the people in my graduating class.

    Sad thing is, most of them are unemployed or are having trouble finding work. More and more, it seems like the degree is what matters, not the education that the degree is supposed to represent.

    A+, America.

    Jacob December 14th, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    That's a great idea, unless you actually want a job. Employers rarely care about your personal growth or knowledge. They want a degree.

    Mark December 25th, 2010 at 2:51 am

    If you can memorize all the countries of the world including leaders and capitals in 3-4 then I don't think the rest is necessary as you clearly have magical powers.

    The Arabic Student December 26th, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    If the goal is to learn then all the stuff posted is great. The goal, however, is not to learn. It's to jump through the hoops because, to an employer, if you have a Master's degree it at least says that you're hard working and you're probably willing to put up with pointless crap as well.

    Julie December 27th, 2010 at 4:53 am

    I love all of your recommendations but a perspective employer does not have the time in a typical interview to figure out if you have the knowledge base he needs or not. Hence a degree will at least tell him that you have a base level of knowledge in a given field. He will assume the quality of the knowledge depending upon the reputation of the school and publication of articles that you achieved while there. I believe part of your frustration may be the degree you choose and the school in which you were enrolled. Your ideas are excellent and may give one the equivalent knowledge but one would not have proof of that knowledge nor would one of printed conclusions/papers in a peer reviewed journal to show that one had learned and contributed to a particular field. Also, most non liberal arts degrees could not be achieved via independent study.
    That said, I will print your article and save it as a great program for a year off from college or taking a year in between high school and college or even as supplemental ideas to the senior year of high school. All are excellent suggestions for anyone to broaden their knowledge of the world. I will save this article for my son to read when he is of an appropriate age.

    Stephen December 27th, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    I don't know how you went through graduate school, but you obviously did it wrong. By wrong I mean you didn't engage with your fellow students, you didn't help undergrads, you didn't relate to any serious theory, and you didn't take the time to explore alternative ways of thinking. As a graduate student, I have been forced to deal with concepts that the Economist is rarely able to tackle in its articles, and I'm often privy to information that the world at large is unable to access due to the expertise of my professors.

    I'm not being elitist or attempting to say your education was less than exceptional. I know the International Studies department at the University of Washington and they are a fantastic faculty. However, asserting that your world class education is worthless because people can get a subscription to the economist is jumping the gun. I'd suggest that you might not have found the right field if you find it so intuitive.

    Larry January 14th, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Be sure to add in the cost of supporting Wikipedia for the year. Figure $25-50 ought to do it. Also, you can do everything for zero cost by joining the Navy for a three-year enlisment. Room and board are provided as a net credit against expenses...

    kathy January 15th, 2011 at 3:52 am

    1) $32,000 was a bargain- be thankful. My tuition for medical school is more than that each year.
    2) Memorizing the name of every country and leader is the kind of inane waste of time that gives schooling a bad name. These things change constantly, and it's better to get to know a region well than memorize minutiae for the entire world.
    3) A lot of graduate-professional education is *process.* You emphasize facts. As I've already mentioned, facts are ever-changing. It's more important to be able to think logically and have a good understanding of how things are done in a field.

    Ellen Zelinski January 17th, 2011 at 9:03 am

    The only problem is that most jobs want documentation of your apparent knowledge, and the government won't give you a student loan of $10,000 to take control of your own learning. I don't know about you but I can't muster up $10,000 on my own in 2 years

    SarahStalker January 19th, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I get it. It is a lot of knowledge while truly experiencing things. And at a lot less money. As everyone pointed out, hard to parlay that into a job. If it is just learning for learning's sake, then bravo.

    LISA A January 20th, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Maybe you can take the knowledge and go on Jeopardy?

    JustLutz January 31st, 2011 at 7:18 am

    I think this is a great program or list of things to do for someone who does not desire to go to grad school but wants to increase their knowledge. This obviously is no substitute for grad school nor a supplement. I think this is geared more towards someone who would rather learn to be knowledgable rather than obtain a job that grad school is necessary for. great post though.

    Elisa February 5th, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Damn it people can be so literal.
    I like this blog. I'm not quite ready to drop off school yet, but I definitely will follow through some of your suggestions. :)

    Gortos March 27th, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I like it, but I don't think it's a substitute for university. No degree, no job goes for most businesses. However, going to university isn't all that expensive here in Germany... So you can just save up the money and do that special year later.

    eaf March 27th, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    international studies? wtf, did you think you could get a real job with that.

    Simim April 2nd, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    I hate to say it, but despite the fact that you may end up significantly more intelligent than a person with a bachelor's degree doing this.... it's still not going to put that requirement onto your resume. Employers are going to see some person who may know a lot of stuff, but didn't go out to college nonetheless, and not hire as a result.

    I'd like to be able to educate myself AND obtain a high-paying job. Therefore, I'm still dishing the money out.

    Oswald April 4th, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    I have often had a similar thought - I called it the "Half Price Books" degree after that wonderful store. There are so many great, and up to date - science and math and poli sci books at Half Price books for only dollars each. And the classics of history & literature, because there are so many old printings, can be had literally for a few dimes each - it is amazing. 50-100$ well spent there could LITERALLY provide someone with an equal or better education than they would get in an M.A. program.
    Cheers, Os at sunsetsandcervezas.com

    Oswald April 4th, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Oops - I honestly didn't realize this blog entry was on a website selling books! I "stumbledupon" it and liked the article and just commented on what I had read - well - I am sure Powell's is every bit as good as that other place I mentioned. I really wasn't trying to advertise any one place over another. SImply wanted to agree that good used books (and travel) are a better education than an M.A., and the money saved can set a smart person up better if used right I think. Credentialism is a bad thing, and a "degree bubble" the result.

    Josh April 13th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    This is a good idea for a lifelong learning course. As others have said, it probably won't replace graduate school in the context of job seeking, but it's a great idea of personal enrichment. In addition to the Economist, I'd personally add Harper's, The New Yorker, New Scientist and a good daily newspaper (New York Times, for example). All of these could be found at your local library for free, so you need not spend your cash on a subscription to all of these unless you really want to. Another thing you can often get at your local library is the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is a great alternative to reading articles on Wikipedia (not that I'm knocking Wikipedia, but EB is great). The EB blog (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/) is fantastic, too.

    Josh April 13th, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Another magazine worth checking out is Utne Reader. The nice thing about Utne is that it's really a digest of the best of the best in the alternative press (which isn't to say they always get it right, of course), so you can read a good cross-section without subscribing to a lot of different magazines and newspapers.

    Max April 14th, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    All of you suggesting that "course of study" won't help you get a job have missed the point horribly. If you've read any of Chris Guillebeau's work before, you know that he is completely opposed to the idea of jumping through hoops for the sake of education. (His book is titled 'The Art of Non-Conformity' for crying out loud)
    I, for one, think this a brilliant way to spend a year/10 grand. Besides, as studies have repeatedly shown us, making more money doesn't make you happier after you've reached middle class. Personal growth and development are far more important to us as individuals, and I would argue society at large as well. Happier, more well adjusted people tend to be peaceful law abiding citizens.
    If it's not your thing, fine. But some of us aren't huge fans the bureaucratic disaster that is graduate school, and this man has suggested a fine alternative.

    Ruth Cooke April 15th, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    This would be an awesome plan for a year's sabbatical!

    Jason April 16th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    Ruth Cooke April 16th, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    I decided I'm going to do this. You can read about it here: http://buildinganawesomelife.blogspot.com/2011/04/im-going-back-to-school.html

    Josh April 18th, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Oh...I'd definitely add the Tao Te Ching and Analects of Confucius to the world religions readings. Taoism and Confucianism may not be "major" in the sense of Christianity or Islam, but these are foundational texts for Chinese culture and philosophy, apart from any religious significance. Also, I'd add the Bhagavad Gita for a little slice of Hinduism.

    Rick May 15th, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    You can save 750$+ by obtaining a library card.

    A really interesting an insightful post, but I still think there is a greater benefit to a graduate degree than you give it credit for - yet, the practical (especially the round the world trip, really visiting a place is so powerful) knowledge your method gains is also very valuable.

    Shane May 23rd, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Some of this sounds like a good idea, but it's not a good idea for people like me going for a Biology major.If I wasn't interested in Biology, I would do this. Hell, I can do this anyway and still get my Bio degree because it's only going to benefit me.

    Nathan June 3rd, 2011 at 11:00 am

    LOL! This kid was probably one of those know-it-alls who I wanted to smack in my master's program!

    Rachel C June 3rd, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Too, too funny - loved the article! These are useful ideas for many of us in the homeschool crowd, also. The program does sound more like undergraduate work, and I might quibble on the time estimates. However, it's still a fantastic list. My daughter just switched her homepage to Wikipedia's Randompage, and I will be looking into Kiva after I finish this post.

    Dave June 4th, 2011 at 7:09 am

    If you can memorize all of the countries, capitals, and leaders in 3-4 hours you are clearly an EXTREMELY fast learner that is not realistic at all.

    Oindreela Ghosh June 4th, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Very good read. I wish i stumbled upon it at least a yr bfr. Plz post similar articles in the future!

    Oindreela Ghosh June 4th, 2011 at 9:49 am

    However, I think making Stumble Upon as ur homepage wud b more beneficial, considering i came across this page thru it.. :)
    n moreover, wiki random won't give u articles of ur choice. But love the other suggestions. Wud try to apply some of them, definitely!

    elyzah July 8th, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    i'd love to do all of this, but i have to go to work now.

    Laura July 21st, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Although this is a great list, obtaining an actual degree than just saying, "Yeah, I learned a language, traveled around the world, and read random pages of Wikipedia every day," would be much more beneficial in getting a job. Sure, these things are great to do, and would make a nice bucket list for someday. But a degree guarantees that you've taken ALL those classes, yes even the 80% that "doesn't teach you anything." Facing the facts, yes, sometimes you don't learn as much in certain classes. But can you gain all that same knowledge by doing what you listed? Probably not. It's great experience, and I'm sure you do learn a lot from reading The Economist. But current events and sitting in synagogues doesn't teach you the basics of say, International Business, Political Science, or another formal degree. In my opinion, I would rather spend that $32k (actually, I'll probably attend a $40k/yr school, so I'm willing to spend much more) from a prestigious school than go into an interview hoping that this mish-mashed list you provided is good enough to make the cut against someone who got a degree in PoliSci from U of Chicago.

    steveh July 22nd, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    A lot simpler way of saying this is, "don't go to college, instead enjoy your life with the money that college costs." Learned that at about age 15.

    Canaan July 25th, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Good article. One quick point: reading every article from The Economist does not take 60 minutes/week. It takes me 3-4 hours and I read faster than most.

    Sunny July 29th, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    you can read the economist in 60 minutes? you're a quicker reader than me...

    Sandra August 14th, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers. The ONLY reason is for a JOB! I know a young man who refused to argue his dissertation based upon his dislike of a board member. What a waste of money, time and effort. He still has the career he would have had, the wife he would have had and is as strange a person as ever. He can program a computer and is a super IQ but would get lost in the parking lot. Five years in a University for one afternoon of I am better than you at this decision.

    SparkleBerry September 10th, 2011 at 12:50 am

    I've found this post really really interesting. I've started in a similar project a few months ago: reading the key texts, watching important films, weekly reading of The Economist... I have to say though it does take me rather longer than 60 minutes to read The Economist!
    Thanks for the inspiration to expand my project!
    And here is my little post on your brilliant website:

    Colleen May 27th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Too bad you can't really put these on a resume. Grad school still necessary.

    Michael May 29th, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Yeah, I did that through out my undergraduate study and still only got a BA. If only I had been the primary mover on writing a book saying this was all you need, I could have afforded that unnecessary master's.

    7LeagueBoots September 23rd, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    True as far as it goes. If you're in grad school only for personal development, I completely agree that you can do more and better independently. Unfortunately, the grad degree is often a door opener for further professional opportunities, and one of the best aspects of school is the connections you make and the exposure to new things from like-minded people and from people who have spent a large amount of their life sorting through the various resources out there. Grad school, and undergraduate school, in the US is criminally over-priced, but we are living in a global system that imposes strong caps on your professional potential if you lack the requisite pieces of validating paper. Stupid, but that is how it is.

    Observer X May 1st, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Nice article, except for one thing... I you can read the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha, visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple, all in 20 hours, you should for get about education, buy a cape and fight crime because you've got super-powers.

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