Liz Ryan recently wrote up "The Five Worst Reasons to Go to Grad School": (1) to fix something broken in you; (2) to impress people; (3) to buy a professional network; (4) because employers want it; (5) because I don't know what else to do.
Ryan offers solid justification for her points. But if you want my two cents, every one of these reasons could, if looked at in the right way, be a perfectly good reason to get that Master's or Doctorate.
(1) If what's broken in you is that you feel intellectually listless, going to grad school might provide just the growth opportunity you're craving.
(2) If some small part of your choice to go to grad school is that you want to impress people, that can be ok as long as the desire to impress is part of a desire to belong in a certain group of people that you like and admire--rather than a desire to make others feel inferior.
(3) You can't buy a professional network in grad school, but you can find mentors and colleagues with whom you build mutually beneficial relationships. We would never say that you should only build your community in grad school--you can be building it everywhere you go--but what's great about a graduate program is that it offers a concentration of people who are passionate about the same subject as you. It might not be easy to find a dozen American literature or public policy or mathematics enthusiasts on just any street corner.
(4) It's hard to generalize about which degrees employers look for in potential employees, but you can use your graduate degree as evidence that you are capable of working faithfully toward a difficult goal and achieving it. Plus the degree can be evidence of your research and problem-solving skills.
(5) This is the point that I challenge most strongly. If you really, honestly, can't think of anything better to do with yourself, and if going back to school won't drive you into financial ruin, what better use of your time than to study a subject you love as deeply as you can?
Let us know what you think. How should a person decide whether or not to go to grad school? What sort of problems can people fix in their lives by going to grad school, and what sort of problems are not going to be solved through further education?