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The Hill Life: The Grad School Question

Every week, I receive at least one e-mail from a prospective college graduate or a recent college graduate seeking advice about graduate school.  I thought it might be time to share my advice on the matter publicly.

When I graduated in 2004, I did what I thought was best and set off for graduate school.  I had intended to go to law school, but a political science grad program was faster and somewhat less expensive than the law schools to which I’d been accepted.  In the harried final days of college, this sounded like a good plan.

Two years and nearly $70,000 later, I received my master’s degree.  Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t do it again.  At least, I would have waited a year or two before I started a grad program.  Here’s why.

You don’t need a graduate degree to work on the Hill or in the government.  A couple of my co-workers and I have master’s degrees, and we don’t earn any more than those staffers without.  An advanced degree will be most beneficial to you in the latter years (3+) of your career or if you move off of the Hill.  So there’s no rush to get started.

If I had to do it over again, I would have started work on the Hill as an intern and found a staff assistant position shortly after instead of focusing on grad school.  Then, I would have spent a year or two on the Hill, learning the lay of the land before I started my degree.  This would have given me the knowledge and experience to decide where I wanted my career to go before I augmented it with another, expensive degree.

I’m not against graduate school, quite the contrary.  What I oppose is the idea that you should get a graduate degree to improve your career advancement when you don’t know what kind of career you really want.  A 22-year-old college graduate thinks she knows what she should do, but she doesn’t actually know.  And she won’t know with any certainty until she’s tried something for a bit and matured outside of the college bubble for a spell.

When you start work on the Hill, it won’t take long for you to figure out whether this career path is for you in the long term.  Shortly after you make that first choice, you’ll begin to piece together what issues you like, who you want to work for, and what kind of work you want to do.  Once you’ve got a general sense of how the Hill works and how D.C. works, you’ll be better prepared to decide what kind of degree will augment your plan.

The last thing you want is to figure out when you’re 27 or 28 that you made an error.  That what you really wanted to do is not what you went to graduate school to study.  If you take a year or two years off to work and plan, you are less likely to jump into something before you know which direction to leap.  

So unless you are pursuing a career that absolutely requires a graduate degree–medicine or law or business–don’t rush into it.  Take a breath, experience life a little bit, work a little bit and then make a decision.  You can always go back to school, so resist the pressure (from family, professors, etc.) to rush into something simply so that you can seem like you’re on your way.  Once you have a better grasp of what course of study will benefit you the most, you can make the best decision for you and your future.

P.S. When you have a few years of working under your belt, you understand the value of a dollar better.  For example, when I was 22, I looked at $33,000 per year law schools and thought, “No big deal.”  No, I multiply that by three and think, “100k for a law degree? Yeah, I don’t think so.”

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  1. Allison says:

    Couldn't agree more. Also, for anyone considering MBAs, I cannot advocate enough getting at least 4 years of professional experience before an MBA. (Most schools require that anyway.)

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  2. DCGirl says:

    I completely agree. I'm in graduate school now pursuing my masters in public policy after hitting a ceiling in my career. I've done almost everything there is to do in a legislative office, both in the state and in a federal office with the exception of policy (district and capitol offices). I've also worked or volunteered on two campaigns. I was stuck in the proverbial Catch-22, so I went back to school. In my program I'm one of the older, more experienced students. Many of my classmates are straight out of undergrad, and if they aren't, they have only been out for a year or two and don't know much about how DC or the government works. I feel lucky because I know exactly what I want out of my degree because of my experience.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  3. S says:

    On the other hand, if you are looking for a government job outside of the Hill I recommend doing some research. At my agency we are paid up to 5k more for having a masters and we also received a larger signing bonus.

    I couldn't agree more that many people waste money on advanced degrees, but for me, it definitely made sense.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  4. C says:

    I agree completely. My family was pushing me to go to graduate school straight out of college because of the economy. I strongly resisted because 1. Though I was fairly certain what field I wanted my career to be in, I wasn't sure what track I would take, and I was also fairly certain I didn't need extra schooling to get me there, just more experience and 2. Why on earth would I spend thousands of dollars on education just to keep myself away from a bad economy and job market? It was a fairly easy decision for me to say no and I'm so glad I did, although I understand that the struggle for many more people is a lot more difficult. If you're going to go the grad school track, make sure it's for the right reasons and please don't do it just because you're scared of facing a bad job market.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  5. MM says:

    Well said. I work in government relations off the Hill and waited about 3 years to start my masters degree. While I didn't feel a masters was necessary at the time, I recognized others in their mid-30s and older having trouble advancing in their career. They felt they were being passed over in favor of candidates with graduate degrees.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  6. Nina says:

    This is all sound advice, but I can't emphasize enough the point in your postscript. Even though I had worked full time in the summers when I went to college, and considered myself very independent, the cost of real life smacked me in the face. Especially because of my $70,000 in student loan debt.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  7. DCGirl says:

    @MM: I kept getting passed over not by people who had graduate degrees, but by people who were lucky enough to have worked in offices where they were able to learn policy analysis on the job. I was never that lucky so I got stuck and consistently passed over.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  8. Emily says:

    I absolutely agree that taking time off to explore career options before going to graduate school is a smart move. I did the AmeriCorps program for two years after college, which helped me pay off my undergraduate loans and gave me great experiences that I was able to use to get into a highly ranked program.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  9. Career Fed says:

    I agree with you Belle. After undergrad, I worked for two private consulting groups before joining Federal service. I am 32 going on 33 and have been promoted twice without a graduate degree. Based on one's respective field, some employers may be looking for experience over degree. In both interviews, I was asked to demonstrate my knowledge, skills, and abilities using specific examples. I could not have provided that information had I not had several years to pull from.

    When I applied for a promotion at a different Federal agency what was key to getting the job was demonstrating that I could perform the tasks required for the job based on my work experience, even though I was coming from a different department. I also was able to draw certain skills from the old job that could be applied to the new one. Good luck to folks on their job search!

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  10. Sara says:

    I'm a full-time legislative staffer on the Senate side. Getting a graduate degree in public administration full-time and working full-time for Congress is, by my advice, not advised.

    April 27, 2011/Reply
  11. Amy says:

    This post makes me think of something my favorite professor said to my graduating class:

    “There is nothing more boring than a 22-year-old grad student.”

    I took his advice and went “out into the world” to gain work experience, and I am very happy with my choice! I plan on going back to school for an advanced degree in the next few years.

    April 28, 2011/Reply
  12. Sofia says:

    Thank you Belle for this post. It is absolutely perfect timing because I graduated almost two years ago, work in the private sector, but want to pursue a career in government and politics. I was looking at graduate programs this year, but was having trouble finding the perfect fit. I was beating myself up over not having it all figured out at the age of 23, but it's reassuring to know that it is actually more beneficial for me to take the leap of moving to DC without school figured out right away. If any of you would be willing to correspond with me about life in DC and provide some guidance, I would be forever grateful! Thank you again!

    April 28, 2011/Reply
  13. Kathryn says:

    I am just finishing up my Junior year abroad and looking forward to starting an internship on Capitol Hill this summer (one of the reasons I started following your blog). I loved this post- it confirms that my plan to wait on grad school is probably the right way to go. I can't tell you how many of my friends are looking at grad school as a way to “put off” real life and career decisions, but don't fully realize the enormous expense involved… I will definitely be sharing this article with them. Thanks for the insight.

    April 28, 2011/Reply
  14. Rachel says:

    I worked on the Hill right after undergrad. After three years and at the age of 25, I moved to the private sector. I got into library grad school and decided to go, which was the WRONG decision. Basically I was frustrated with my career post-Hill and thought being a librarian would be a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, that was the wrong career choice for me. I dropped out of the MLS program after two semesters, and racked up some nice student loan debt that I am still paying off.

    I waited four years before I figured out that I wanted to go back to school to earn a Masters in Public Administration. Sure, I'm probably five years older than most of my friends in the program, but my experience shows in class. Sometimes I feel like I am behind the curve but there are students much older than me as well (I just turned 30). My advice is to WAIT WAIT WAIT until you know what you want to do with your career. The MPA is the right program for me, and at the ripe age of 22 or even 25 I didn't even know the degree existed. Get an internship, job, or just find someone who has a job that interests you, and ask them what they did to get there. That is worlds of better than a failed attempt at the wrong program, or $100k plus in the wrong program in student loans!

    April 28, 2011/Reply