Get a Job or Head Straight to Grad School?

A lot of college seniors think about the immediate future as they launch the last leg of their undergraduate journey. What should they ask themselves when they’re trying to decide if they should get “real world” experience before embarking on advanced academic pursuits?

That’s always a tough decision, especially for students who have always enjoyed school and aren’t sure exactly what they want to do when they enter that “real world.” But while the decision is a personal one, there are some universal things college seniors should consider, according to Terrell Lamont Strayhorn, president/CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting LLC, and professor of urban education at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, who has worked with students and families on the topic of job vs. grad school.

What’s your job- and school-readiness situation?

“Going to graduate school should not be a way to avoid ‘adulting’ or taking on serious responsibilities like working, paying bills, and getting out on your own … and neither should going to work be a way of avoiding further schooling or pursuit of one’s academic dreams,” says Strayhorn. “Entering work before you’re ready may lead to burnout; and entering graduate school before you’re ready and committed may lead to dismissal. Think through these options seriously.”

Is a degree or experience required? Does the job you really want require graduate school? Does your top school of choice require work experience?

“At least one-third of graduate programs require work experience as criteria for admission,” Strayhorn explains. “And contrary to popular belief, most jobs do not require a graduate degree, although some fields do.”

Those fields include industrial-organizational psychologists, genetic counselors, physician assistants, marriage and family counselors, and nurse practitioners. “If landing your dream job or school is most important, know the requirements and follow suit.”

What are the costs?

Not only can full-time grad school be expensive — it also delays entry into the workforce, which can be tough for students from low-income backgrounds, single parents, or those managing other forms of debt and responsibilities who need to make money as soon as they graduate, Strayhorn says. If you can’t handle the price of the advanced degree — at least right away — Strayhorn believes getting a job and saving for graduate school may make the most sense. On the other hand, “If you have other forms of support or don’t have such immediate stressors, graduate school now and family/life planning later may be the right path,” he adds.

Timothy G. Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University in Crete, Neb., also offers words of caution for soon-to-be grads.

“Every year, thousands of recent college grads contemplate heading off to graduate school rather than immediately entering the workforce. For the select few who gain entry into prestigious, well-known graduate programs — especially those that provide some sort of tuition stipend — going directly to graduate school can make good sense,” Wiedman says. But that’s not always true — which is why he suggests asking a few questions before which route to take:

1. Why do I think I need this degree right now?

2. Once earned, exactly how do I expect to benefit from this degree?

3. Are there equally beneficial alternatives available in the workplace that are provided by employers?

4. In the short-term, how will I finance this degree? Does additional student loan debt make sense?

5. In terms of increased future earnings, will this degree pay for itself? If so, how long will that take?

There is good news for anyone on the grad school vs. career fence: It doesn’t have to be an either/or decision.

“There are a number of well-regarded part-time graduate programs that can be completed while a ‘student’ maintains a full-time job,” says Wiedman, who notes that many employers offer some level of tuition reimbursement for employees who are taking work-related courses, a term he says is often interpreted quite broadly.

The bottom line?

“Going directly from college into graduate school can make good sense in some situations,” Wiedman concludes, “but a great many new college graduates would benefit from spending time in the workforce before focusing on a graduate degree.”


(Article written by Kathleen Furore)