Work or Graduate School?

Like many college graduates, I thought the hard part was over once I received my degree. I was wrong. After graduating from Ohio State University in June I’m now faced with the toughest decision yet: do I go to graduate school and further my education or continue to look for a job at a time when, let’s be honest, jobs are scarce?

The problem is that colleges are an academic cocoon. Senior year of college, teachers, peers and guidance counselors turn into cheerleaders for continuing education. They recite attractive reasons to go: you’ll make more money, get a better job and move up in your career faster. The extra years of schooling translates into about $16,000 per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s how much more the average person holding an advanced degree earns over someone with a bachelor’s degree. And, if the Census Bureau is correct, the gap is widening even further.

With your favorite professors pushing for more education and numbers like that, it can be easy to get caught up in grad school fever. It’s important, however, to take a break and understand your reasons for choosing academia over the working world.

If you are unsure about what you want to do it is a good idea to go directly into the job market after college, forgoing graduate school in order to gain experience. The Career Development Center Web site states, You need to have sound reasons and clear goals before making this very large commitment [to go to graduate school].

Instead of looking for a prestigious grad school, find an employer who offers tuition reimbursement. This allows you to gain valuable job experience while deciding what you would like to accomplish professionally. Of course, these programs usually require six months to a year of employment with the company before you become eligible. In addition, you must usually sign a contract guaranteeing that you will remain employed at the company for a designated amount of time after graduation. This is still a great option to consider as you get the best of both worlds: free schooling and job experience.

If you are on the fence, one of the most important things to do is to speak with someone in your field of interest. Start with your academic advisor. Other helpful sources of information are graduate school admissions officers. In fact, many experts feel that students should definitely put off grad school. Stephen Mangum is a professor of human resource management and senior associate dean for academic programs at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. He says that most students who enter MBA programs right after undergrad work are not as successful. I believe that MBA education is most valuable after a few years of work experience, he said. According to Mangum, the typical MBA student already has five to six years work experience.

The reason is applied studies. Successful business people need to apply what they’ve learned to real-life business issues. Only after they’ve been out in the real world can they understand how certain theories will apply. Good quality work experience allows the student to better leverage what an MBA program has to offer, said Mangum. So those entering graduate school directly after college may want to reconsider.

Yet, because of the current economic situation, many are choosing to go to grad school and wait out the economic downturn. Mangum says, [The Fisher College of Business at OSU has] experienced a significant increase in the number of applications to our programs.

OSU is not the only school to experience this increase. Trudy Rieser, director of the MBA enrollment services at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, says, Our program has had very stable enrollment for the past ten years, but due to recent economic conditions we expect to see more students interested in obtaining an advanced degree.

Not everyone is choosing grad school over a soft job market. There are students who have decided to attend graduate school because they know it is required for their line of work. Some, like Kim Caserta, know exactly what they want to accomplish professionally. Caserta graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in English in 2000. She spent the year after graduation working in a restaurant as a trainer and currently is a social worker for the Ohio Youth Advocacy Program in Columbus, Ohio.

Caserta plans to go to graduate school in 2003 to earn her license in social work in order to obtain a doctorate in psychology. Working in my field [after college] motivated me to go to grad school because I am not happy making the money that I am making, she said. When asked if it was helpful to work before going to grad school, she responded, Absolutely. I think if I’d had a master’s in social work and had gone straight to what I’m doing now I would have been disappointed. In Caserta’s case knowing what to expect in the work place was helpful because it allowed her to make a more informed decision about long-term educational goals.

For those interested in being a doctor or a lawyer, graduate work is necessary. Sylvia Petrosky is an attorney at law and of counsel to the intellectual property law firm of Renner, Kenner, Greive, Bobak, Taylor and Weber in Akron, Ohio. Petrosky received a bachelor of fine arts and planned on teaching art. However, during college she became familiar with the university’s law office and soon got a job there dealing with the university’s copyright reporting requirements.

It was this job that gave Petrosky experience in copyright law and spurred an interest in becoming an attorney specializing in trademark and copyright law. When asked if an advanced degree means more money, Petrosky says, It may or may not. I think that the skills of the individual person are more important than the degree in terms of the ultimate salary of the person. Petrosky makes an important point, if you go to graduate school and obtain book knowledge yet lack interpersonal and time management skills, you are still lacking in things critical to most jobs.

Cheryl McAlister, a reading teacher in a North Carolina middle school, agrees, I have always heard that most millionaires do not have college degrees. People with lots of ‘street smarts,’ talent and the willingness to work will always do well. They simply must persist until their talent can be noted by the appropriate audience, she said.

After weighing my options, I have decided to skip grad school – for now – and enter the job market. My list of requirements for jobs includes a good tuition reimbursement program. I plan to gain as much work experience as possible and become secure financially and professionally. My new philosophy is shaped by Gordon Folger, director of the career center at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. He suggests young adults suspend further education because there’s no substitute for getting out in the real world and trying something. Graduate school will always be there, a good professional opportunity may not.

Do you need an MBA?
Les Wexner is a millionaire who dropped out of law school. His four-year degree from The Ohio State University lent him enough education to found The Limited Brands. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard yet still managed to found Microsoft, which made him one of the richest men in the world. Stories like these beg the question: is an advanced degree really necessary in today’s business world? Nowadays a lot of companies prefer to promote from within rather than hire outside of the company. The two plus years spent in graduate school might be better spent climbing the corporate ladder.

Brad Sweatland has an M.A. in education from The Ohio State University. After four years of teaching and owning a retail business, Sweatland moved into sales. He does not think a master’s degree is necessary in today’s business world, What a master’s degree can do is over-qualify you; companies don’t want to pay the extra money to hire those with master’s degrees. A master’s degree is good, but what you really need is experience. Trent Anderson, vice president of graduate programs at Kaplan, told USA Today that A graduate degree should be a means to [a professional] end. Keep that in mind as you consider your choices. It would be better to find out graduate school is necessary, after a few years of work experience, than to go to graduate school and later find out it was unnecessary and lack work experience.

Fields that quickly advance, often in the science field, usually require an advanced degree. However, even that is not always the case. John Faust graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a bachelor in physics. He found a job at the Naval Undersea Center right after college and now is employed as a software developer working for a government contractor. Faust touts learning as a lifelong process and proves that it is very possible to succeed professionally without an advanced degree.Instead of studying for the GRE, recent grads may be better off interviewing. With graduate school costing around $10,000, working for two years instead of attending grad school would keep the money in the bank.

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