Avoid Confirmation Bias When Considering Grad School

Don't go to grad school advice

Current grad students should ask prospective grad students if they are aware of the job market conditions.

That’s one of the key bits of advice in Kelly Hanson’s GradHacker article yesterday. In the piece, Hanson also gives four other solid suggestions for how current and former graduate students can be tactfully honest about the realities of grad school and the academic job market when talking to prospective graduate students.

Hanson happens to oppose the blanket “Just Don’t Go” advice that has been previously offered by William Pannapacker and Rebecca Schuman. Personally, I come down on the side of Pannapacker and Schuman much more readily. I see too many reasons these days why earning an advanced degree might not be the best use of time and money.

But Hanson disagrees, arguing that she’s “not going to take the extreme ‘just don’t go’  route.” She even pushes her dismissal a step further, citing Tressie McMillan Cottom’s rebuttal to this position. Hanson writes:

“That is not what this post is about. And frankly, I don’t think that is useful advice—as some have pointed out, the advice to ‘just don’t go’ to graduate school assumes that there are better options available, which just simply isn’t the case for everyone.”

I get Hanson’s argument, but I just want to add a caveat. One shouldn’t use dismissals of this anti-grad school advice as an excuse to go to grad school. It’s still a hugely important decision with a very questionable return on investment.

Confirmation Bias Obscures Reality

When we really want something to be true, it’s easy to “prove” it by ignoring any information that contradicts it and by embracing any information that confirms it.

Known to economists as confirmation bias, this fallacy occurs when 1) we have a preconception, 2) we want it to be true, and 3) we seek out and favor information that confirms our hypothesis.

For example: 1) I want grad school to be a good idea, 2) I find advice on the internet that says grad school is a good idea, and 3) grad school is a good idea. Hooray.

Of course, I’m aware that confirmation bias can also go the other way in this scenario, which is something I personally need to be diligent about. I have a tendency to automatically advise against graduate school, an equally unproductive stance that is not always wise.

I have a couple of heavily-trafficked posts on this website about earning a master’s degree in English. Often commenters relay their circumstances to me and ask my advice. I have to be careful not to respond with “Run Away!”

So, it’s good for me to read articles like Hanson’s occasionally in order to be reminded of my own confirmation biases. Better yet would be for me and others to read accounts of successful grad school stories. There aren’t many in the news these days. I suspect there’s a reason for that, but I’m sure there are at least a few out there.

Do you have one?


  1. My position isn’t “just don’t go,” either (that’s just a polemical, provocative headline). My position is that prospective graduate students should research their decisions so that they can complicate the tendency towards confirmation bias. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of reliable information about graduate programs to support that research, and it doesn’t help that professors are the lucky survivors of the process. http://chronicle.com/article/Just-Look-at-the-Data-if-You/139795/

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Bill. I knew that, and I should have explained that your position was more nuanced.

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