When it became apparent to Dr. Sennholz that I was an enthusiastic student of economics in my sophomore year at Grove City College, he told me I should consider becoming a professor. He told me that you only had to work 12 hours a week at the college and the rest of the time you were free to work on your own projects -- whether that be writing or consulting. That 12 hours was lecture time.
That started me thinking. I had already visited FEE, but Sennholz encouraged me to visit FEE again, and he even arranged for me to get a summer internship at FEE, which unfortunately I had to turn down because I had already taken a summer job working at a tennis camp. When I told Sennholz that I couldn't take the FEE internship, he just shook his head and I think registered that I wasn't the serious student he thought I would be. Nevertheless, in my junior year I was invited to join his 'graduate seminar' in economics. Sennholz continued to encourage me to go to graduate school upon graduation, and he got the other professors at Grove City College to start encouraging me to follow that path. The twist was that Sennholz recommended Law School as the path, not graduate school in economics. Well, a bit more complicated -- he wanted me to attend graduate school in economics with him at GCC through the International University (a correspondence school where he was a tutor) and then Law School. Law School he told me was only 3 years and didn't require a dissertation, and more importantly would enable me to avoid studying Keynesianism and studying mathematics.
When I talked to Sennholz about going to traditional graduate school in economics, he told me simply "you will become a Keynesian". Anyway, I graduated from GCC and took a job as a tennis professional at a club in NJ rather than head to Law School or graduate school in economics. But during that summer I realized I couldn't help but go to graduate school. I actually spent my breaks reading economics books at the pool and even thought about economics when I was trying to teach tennis to kids and their moms. I had to go to graduate school because I couldn't imagine otherwise. And I didn't think twice about what it meant in terms of financial returns to my investment in human capital. All I thought about was that I wanted to study these ideas in depth and I couldn't imagine a future of hitting tennis balls to little kids and middle aged women rather than studying Mises and Rothbard. So I headed off to GMU to get a PhD and never looked back. At one point when I was at the end of my time at NYU, I had an offer to go into investment banking focusing on emerging market economies --- I responded to the offer by saying that "I am myopically academic" --- the would-be employer told me "I know a lot of academic who say that until they hear our salary offer." It was impressive.
So when students ask me about going to graduate school, I tell them don't go to graduate school unless you cannot help it. Instead, work, make money, and get subscriptions to The Economist, the TLS, and the New York Review of Books. Unless you cannot envision yourself doing anything in your life but playing with ideas 24/7. The thought experiment I give them is imagine you had a choice --- working in the back of a bank doing loan applications for $75k or teaching economics to kids many of whom are falling a sleep and will never care about what you are trying to teach for $50K, if you don't choose teaching then don't go to graduate school. If, however, you would choose teaching, then go to graduate school and work your butt off to make sure that you do better than that scenario, but be happy as you can be if you end up with the teaching job at $50K.
It is a life-style choice. Sennholz was right, academia even with a 4-4 teaching load, provides you with an amazing amount of freedom to pursue your passions --- whether they be academic in nature or elsewhere. Put it this way, if I had decided to stay a competitive tennis player competing in USTA tournaments, etc. whatever profession other than being a tennis professional would have afforded me the time for off-court training and on-court practice time than being a professor? For the past two decades, I have combined being a professor with being a basketball coach at various levels from middle school to high school to elite level AAU. The time commitment was not trivial, but I was able to consume a part of my leisure time afforded me by my academic profession to pursue my original career aspiration of coaching HS basketball without sacrificing my chosen career of being an economics professor. How fortunate is that?! This, btw, was made possible by (a) a very supportive wife and life partner that allowed me to coach at nights and on weekends, (b) advances in my academic career that led to less teaching and employers (both in teaching and in coaching) that accommodated my schedule requests, and (c) a capacity to sleep little and successfully multi-task. No doubt there have been trade-offs (personal health and appearance probably being one of them :( ), but I made those choices good and bad. But the academic life made trying to pursue a dual profession much easier than a career working as an investment banker would have, or more realistic in my case a pipe-fitter and eventually running construction sites in NJ.
Anyway, there are some recent studies questioning the decision of smart young people to go to graduate school or even to law school. They are based on the important issues of time to get a degree and the opportunity cost of earnings during that time, the financial prospects upon graduation, and the working conditions of the jobs attained. All very important factors to consider when making the decision.
But for those who care passionately about ideas and have curiosity about the world, there is nothing better than going to the right graduate school in economics and political economy. You will see this in the decision to write early and often, the joy exhibited when teaching basic economics classes, and the sparkle in the eyes when discussing new ideas or the latest journal article that captures the imagination. Graduate school when you are in the right place and at the right time in your life should be the greatest intellectual adventure of your life and set you on the right path for a lifetime of continuous learning and discovery. Education can be transformative --- give you the opportunity to be the person you want to be. But not all are so fortunate. They struggle with classes because they think graduate school is supposed to be like undergraduate school just harder, they cannot find their voice to write, they worry about gaming the system rather than just pursuing their passion, and they find teaching to drudgery rather than their true calling in life. To those souls, the information provided in these studies is indispensable for making the calculation of a lifetime. But to those souls for whom academia is a calling, remember value is subjective and choice weighs more than just monetary returns. True happiness can be found teaching those kids falling asleep and struggling with understanding the difference between quantity demanded and demand -- all it takes is one of them to have their eyes light up and see the world for the first time through the economic way of thinking.