Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Considering Grad School

With unemployment on the rise, should you think about going back to school?

By Robert Kallick

The job market for recent college grads can be tricky to navigate. The competition is fierce and every employer is looking for a candidate with an extra edge. Before jumping into the job hunt, be sure to analyze what a graduate degree might do for your chances as well as earning potential.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, someone with a master's degree can earn around $400,000 more over his or her lifetime than a person with a bachelor's degree. Lifetime earnings increase by about $1 million for each additional degree—a doctoral degree, for example, or a professional degree like an MD or JD.

"This financially rewarding reason alone may be enough for undergrads to think twice about jumping into the workforce before building up an even stronger academic resume," says Priya Dasgupta, graduate school program manager for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "One that recruiters will find attractive and pay dividends to you in the not-so-distant future." Why Should You Go?

There are a number of reasons to pursue a graduate degree. For those looking to pursue a career in academia, a master's degree or a doctorate is required to teach at two- or four-year colleges. To earn professional licensing in fields such as social work, psychology or therapy, you'll need graduate education to meet national and state licensing requirements.

"The proper licensing and credentials are essential not only for employment reasons, but also for insurance reimbursement," says Dasgupta. "Many insurance carriers will authorize payment only to practitioners who meet certain educational and licensing standards."

Photo credit: coolkitten12

Photo credit: coolkitten12

Many graduate students are back in school because they are embarking on a career change—in this case a graduate degree is often necessary training for the new field. Or you may want to switch from practitioner to administrator.

"After working in the trenches for a while, and developing a strong sense of how an organization, school, clinic, or department could be better run, you may be interested in moving up to the management level of your field," says Dasgupta. "This may also require some graduate education."

Or you may just find that the job market is lousy. Dasgupta says that a slow economy is a popular reason for going directly from undergraduate to graduate school.

"The reasoning is: Since I'm not going to get a job anyway, I might as well go to grad school now," she says. "Maybe I can ride out the job scarcity and even come out more employable than when I went in. With rising unemployment in mid-2008, now is as good at time as any for those thinking about graduate school."

Timing is Everything

Deciding when to go and get your graduate degree is a big choice to make. For some degrees it's best to go right after college, for others it might be best to wait a while. For an MBA, Penelope Trunk, a career expert and blogger at the Brazen Careerist, says you should act fast.

"The value of an MBA goes down the longer you wait to get it," she says. "At the beginning of your career you can get a jump-start out of the gate with an MBA from a top school. Mid-career, you won't get that jump-start, because you've already started. So at that point, the MBA is just a ticket to play; most large companies like to see an MBA before moving you to the top levels of management."

But for many other graduate degrees, Trunk says it's good to go slow and make sure you make the right decision while gaining experience.

"If you get a job in, say, public policy, and then decide you don't want to go into that field, that degree makes you look unfocused, at best," she says. "You might think that more degrees are just more qualifications, but in fact, when you spend years getting a degree in a field where there are no jobs that interest you, you put a red flag up to employers that either you don't know what you want or you don't want them."

The Application Process

Once you've decided to attend graduate school, the next challenge is applying. According to Jayne Mashett, director of graduate admissions at Chestnut Hill College, you should be sure to know the basic theory and curriculum of the program to which you are applying.

"Read about the professors and their work to make sure your intentions fit well with the program's goals," says Mashett. "In all verbal and written correspondences, make certain to conduct yourself in an intelligent and appropriate manner. Proofread every essay and email. Don't IM or write shorthand emails to admissions personnel or department representatives."

Test scores, while not the only deciding factor for most programs, will definitely play a part in determining your chances of being accepted. Don't wait until the last minute to schedule your test.

"Take a preparation course, if needed, and give yourself plenty of time to retake the test if you do not score well the first time," says Mashett. "If your score is still low, write a brief explanation to include with your application explaining the score, if possible. Point out that a strong undergraduate GPA is a better determinant than test scores for graduate school success." When filling out your application, Mashett says to imagine that you are a member of the admissions committee.

"What would you want to see in a candidate?" she asks. "If a GPA, test scores, recommendations, and essays are all adequate, what could that person do to convince you that he or she is a strong and deserving choice? A student who demonstrates commitment to the field and enthusiasm for the academic challenges of a graduate program will stand out in the crowd."

Robert Kallick is a freelance writer and career expert living in Los Angeles.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice