There are many reasons you might be thinking about getting a Master’s degree. Some identify the Master’s as a definite stepping stone on a path that leads to their dream job. Others are simply looking for some kind of expertise and accreditation that will help their career path, without having a specific vision of what their career path after getting their degree will look like. Still others are motivated by passion and interest in a particular field more than they are by any particular career ambitions.
And for all the endless variety in motivations for getting a Master’s degree, there’s just as much variety in terms of what people go on to do after getting their degrees. For some, their time after graduating looks a lot like they imagined it would when they enrolled. For others, what they end up doing with their Master’s degree looks nothing like they imagined. Here we take a look at five famous people with Master’s degrees to see what they can teach us.
John S. Watson – Retired CEO Of Chevron
Before assuming the role of CEO at one of the most powerful companies in the world, Watson earned a BA in economics and an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Watson, therefore, is an example of someone who stayed on the same route his degree might have predicted, but who took the degree to a level of success that probably seemed unimaginable back when he was a student.
Still, even if he couldn’t have predicted he would one day be leading such an influential company, Watson credits a great deal of his business success to his education. The importance of getting an MBA, in Watson’s opinion, can be seen in his writing for LinkedIn, where Watson says, his MBA “has served [him] particularly well over the years.” What about the MBA helped facilitate his success? Watson credits the “approach to problem solving [involving] multiple disciplines, including accounting, statistics, and behavioral science.”
But he insists it was much more about an integration of many different skills than about any single skill in particular. And he also takes care to note that his MBA merely paved the way. He says ongoing learning, including learning on the job, were also instrumental to success.
Mike Greenberg – Award-Winning Broadcaster
Mike Greenberg became famous hosting ESPN’s “Mike & Mike,” the most popular sports talk show in the country before Greenberg moved on to other broadcasting projects. Aside from the training and pedigree of the athletes themselves, most sports fans overlook just how much education, training, and expertise go into their entertainment.
Before going on to sports broadcasting fame, Greenberg earned a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Greenberg identifies journalism as a unique field in that the actual curriculum is somewhat limited in terms of preparing you for an actual career. Speaking to his alma mater in 2013, he said, “If you want to be in broadcasting, there are only so many things you can learn in a classroom.”
He goes on to mention the importance of experience: “the only way to become a broadcaster is to broadcast. However, there are still essential skills you can learn from the right school, even if those things don’t guarantee success in and of themselves. “The most valuable thing I learned in Medill was that the most important thing is not asking a question,”says Greenberg, “but it’s listening to the answer.”
Jeffrey Immelt – CEO Of General Electric
Immelt is one of successful people who is happy to attribute a great deal of his success to his education. However, the aspects of his education he cites as most important are not exactly what you might expect. Immelt has an MBA from Harvard Business School, which you would think would be a crucial component of his success in running a company as large as GE. And Immelt, according to a Business Insider profile from 2015, does acknowledge the benefits of his MBA.
However, he goes a bit farther back than his MBA, back to his undergraduate degree in mathematics, in tracing the roots of his future business success. “I use my math major every day — I don’t use the MBA quite as much,” said Immelt, speaking at BI’s IGNITION 2015 conference. And while he does acknowledge, as many CEOs likely would, that problem solving is essential, he attributes this more to his mathematics and physics education. He learned about problem solving in these fields because of their “inherent intellectual curiosity.”
That’s probably the most important takeaway from Immelt’s career. Education is obviously valuable, but the most important aspects of your education can come from unexpected stops on your career trajectory, especially those stops that feed your curiosity and hunger to keep learning.
George Saunders – Award-Winning Fiction Writer
The fine arts present something of a challenge in trying to assess the value of a graduate school education. You don’t really need any kind of accreditation to succeed in the arts, and throughout history artistic geniuses have made brilliant work without any kind of degree at all. In fact, there are some who suggest that formal education and accreditation in the arts is essentially meaningless.
And yet there are some, like Saunders, who have turned their arts education into a successful career in the arts. He was awarded the so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.
Writing for The New Yorker in 2015, Saunders reflected on his time earning a Master’s in Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Syracuse University. The entire essay is worth a read, but the most salient point is that Saunders seems to identify the teachers as being the most important part of his education. He writes movingly of the lessons he learned from them—which include both how to value your own work in a profession that doesn’t always offer much validation, as well as how to conduct yourself with personal grace.
Saunders suggests we think of our teachers with gratitude, “because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love.” He goes on to say they “do something almost holy[…]They accept us as new members of the guild.” Maybe one of the most valuable elements of your graduate school education will simply be the step forward in your identity that you’ll be able to take in the new environment.
David Duchovny – Award-Winning Iconic Actor
Duchovny, along with Saunders, is another entry in the file of artists who complicate our understanding of what the purpose and benefits of graduate school actually are. Not only does Duchovny have an advanced degree that he didn’t technically need to achieve his acting success—his degree has nothing to do with acting at all! At least, not on first glance, anyway.
Before going on to Hollywood success, Duchovny completed a Master’s in English Literature from Yale University, writing his thesis on the critiques of pure reason in the works of Samuel Beckett.
Duchovny reminds us a little of Immelt and Greenberg in his suggestion that the most important tools for success do not necessarily come from the obvious aspects of your formal education. Speaking at his alma mater in 2009, Duchovny said, “There’s some truth to the idea that acting is instinctual, not intellectual.” He even suggests that his education was something of an obstacle to be overcome: “I had to unlearn some of the intellectual side.”
However, it’s also easy to see that his degree—while not technically required for or related to his ultimate career success—was an important element of his education and was deeply related to the same passion he brought to his work on screen. It was while pursuing his literature degree that Duchovny became increasingly interested in drama, from both an acting and a writing standpoint. “I was interested in writing for screen and television but I wanted to know what it was like to speak the words,” he said. “So I started hanging around the Drama School like a stray dog and sat in on classes.”
These test cases might seem to suggest contradictory things. Some, like John Watson, can draw a clear line from their higher education to their career success. Others, like Duchovny, took a far more winding and unpredictable path, but with equally successful outcomes.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from all of it, it must be this: while the exact outcomes for the rest of your life are impossible to predict, they will ultimately be related to the experiences and education you get along the way. But also: the education doesn’t just come in the classroom. You’re getting an education all the time, with everything you do—and it’s how you’ll apply that education that makes the difference.