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CHS Careerist: Lessons Learned, Part II

Like most colleges in America, my alma mater was ill-equipped to provide career advice to students who were pursuing careers outside of the school’s immediate sphere.  If you weren’t looking for work in Seattle or Portland or you didn’t have an engineering, accounting or other career-ready degree, they had very little advice to offer.  And the professors, lifetime academics, were also less than helpful when it came to knowing how to turn your liberal arts degree into a job.

So like many college graduates who feel unprepared to pursue the career of their dreams, I enrolled in graduate school hoping that a few more years of higher ed would set me on the path to professional success.

Educational decisions are very emotional.  Your hopes, your dreams, your sense of who you want to be are a huge part of the decision making process.  And there are a lot of people–family, friends, professors, guidance counselors–who will tell you that more education is never a bad idea. But women should make smart educational choices based on research and facts, not assumptions and hope.

Over time, I’ve developed a list of questions that I think every person considering a graduate degree should ask herself before taking the plunge.

Is it necessary?  Before you let a college career counselor or a professor whose probably never worked outside of higher ed tell you that spending $80k on another piece of lambskin is a good idea, figure out whether you need an advanced degree to pursue your career.  Wannabe lawyers, doctors, architects, etc. aren’t getting there without more schooling, but most professions don’t require more education to get started.

The best way to determine what is required is to look at some resumes on LinkedIn, read a few job postings and ask an expert.  Had I delved deeper into the political realm, I might have learned that most of the skills you need in politics are best learned on the job.  And I probably would have figured out that an internship and a bigger network of associates would be more valuable than my degree (at least in my early years).

Is this really the field of study that I want to work in?  Imagine how awful it must be to spend $120k on a law degree only to discover that you hate being a lawyer.  It’s a reality that way too many people, in a variety of professions, confront every day.

Before you commit tens-of-thousands of dollars and years of your life to studying for a career in law, politics, business, etc., you might want to get some hands on experience.  Find an internship or pick up an entry-level job.  It probably won’t take longer than six months or a year to figure out whether you love the work or would be better off doing something else, and you’ll pick up some valuable skills along the way.

Must it be done now?  For careers where advanced study isn’t a requirement, such degrees rarely become a benefit until you hit your “mid-career.”  Most employers are not going to pay a staff assistant or a junior account representative more because they have a master’s, but that changes as you climb the ladder.

Also, many large employers, like the federal government, offer tuition assistance as an incentive to foster talent and hold on to current employees who have proved that they can do the work.  So if there’s a chance that your employer might pay for your master’s/law degree/MBA a few years down the road, why should you pick up the tab for it now?  And, trust me, post-graduate course work is becomes more valuable once you have some experience under your belt and can apply what you’re learning to your every day work.

Can I really afford it?  A master’s degree should help you grow professionally and earn more financially. So how do you figure out if grad school is a sound investment?

Use websites like The Glass Door to figure out what people in your chosen field really earn.  (It’s probably less than you imagined.)  Then, use this LearnVest calculator to figure out how much it will cost you to take out all of those student loans and how a graduate degree will affect your earning potential.

Considering cost is an important component because while it’s easy to assume that you’ll reap financial rewards, if you turn out to be wrong you could be shackled to a life-altering amount of debt with the same caliber of job you had before.  Then, you wind up postponing other dreams (having kids, buying a home, etc.) because you don’t have the money.

Bottom line, don’t put yourself in debt for another piece of paper without knowing if and how it will benefit your career.

I’ve made a decade’s worth of personal and professional decisions based heavily on paying back my $100k+ in loans.  That is not a life that I want other young women to be living.  Because while I’ve made the best of it through hard work, sacrifice and planning, many people who are in the same boat have not been as lucky.  (I mean, I had to go on a game show to even make a dent in my debt.  If that’s not luck, what is?)

So I’m curious, how many of you ladies made the decision to attend grad school?  Do you think it paid off?  What advice would you offer?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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    43 comments

  1. KC says:

    Belle,
    This could not have been a more timely post. I, like you, attended grad school right out of undergrad – I also went to a small liberal arts school that if you didn’t want to work in the upstate NY, NYC or Boston area, you were out of luck. being that I wanted to do politics, I knew DC was it for me. I enrolled in graduate school at a prestigious sounding program here in DC at a well known school….and to put it lightly, got NOTHING out of it. I graduated with great grades, internships a plenty, recommendations….and a job folding sweaters in Pentagon City. All that my masters did was have employers ask more questions of where my real experience was. My biggest mistake/regret was not asking people in the program to talk to Alumni, not at events they held, but outside of them, so people felt they could be honest. It was a waste of my time and money, and i’d say to anyone considering grad school right out of school, especially in the soft sciences (my masters in in “applied politics”) wait a year. The program will be there in a year. The grad programs do a great job of selling themselves, but from my experience, their ability to place people in jobs is not so great. I hope i don’t just sound bitter, because at the time, I loved the program – i was learning a lot and thought it would be useful….

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  2. Clare says:

    I agree. Definitely get yourself involved in your possible field prior to investing in your education. Thankfully, for me, doing so reaffirmed that grad school (for my specific career path I was determined to take) was the next possible step to advancing in the field.

    What else helped me? I sat down with everyone in my office/internship/first job and asked their opinions and their personal paths to get to where they are. Most all the people I sat down with were like me, just trying to figure out what they were doing until they realized that they could get paid more for what they were doing. It didn’t have to be right out of college to go to Grad School, but eventually, they realized that in order to be a mover/shaker in the field, school was necessary. One of the most repeated things I heard in these “interviews” was “I was going to go to grad school to become a _____ but ended up finding a school that had what I really wanted to do, and I never regretted it.”

    May those who are choosing to go back to school make the right decision for themselves, not for family/friends/spouses. Don’t waste oodles of money only to be let down. Take your time with the higher ed process. And know- you aren’t alone, and from personal experience, the more life experience you have in that specific field prior to Grad School, the more enjoyable you will find the academic rigor! Good luck!

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  3. L says:

    I think the importance of work experience in between college and grad school cannot be understated. Having been to grad school, there was a noticeable difference not only in the academic maturity and applicable work perspective, but also the ability to find a job that paid back your students loans after. Many of the folks who came straight from undergrad have ended up in jobs they could have gotten without a degree, and still have no idea what they want to do with their 2 degrees. The best advice I received was to never go to grad school until I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know the exact job I would get, but I knew the work I wanted to do and found a program that put me on the trajectory. I wouldn’t have my job or the career in front of me without my program, but not everyone who was in my program his n the same position and the difference really does seem to be past work experiences.

    Additionally the difference between federal and private loans is a huge factor, and an entirely larger conversation, but the terms on federal loans make working and living in DC after grad school much more plausible. Private loans are less flexible the federal loans in terms of repayment and that can be limiting on what jobs you take or long term financial abilities. (fed loans can limit this to, but in my experiences are much more manageable)

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  4. Sofie says:

    While I agree that it’s best to know the direction you’re headed and whether additional schooling is necessary before enrolling in grad school, also keep in mind that there are consequences from putting it off, too.

    After undergrad, I got a job I loved right away and have been working in the same field, using my degree, ever since. Now I have a clear idea of where I want my career to go, and I’ll need another degree to make it happen. Because I work in an academic setting, I can get my degree for free, so that isn’t holding me back – but the time commitment is discouraging. Especially now that I have a great job, great friends, and a great boyfriend who I love spending time with, it is the hardest thing to convince myself to take time away from those things and spend it working for a degree instead. My time has become to precious to me!

    Ironically enough, if I had gone straight to grad school from undergrad, I would have no idea what I was missing.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
    • CarlyRM says:

      I just comleted an MBA program, nearly 10 years after earning my undergradate degree. I did the program part time, even more slowly than most of my peers, sometmes only taing one night class per semester. I had a demanding job and life. aking even one class at a time was very demading at times, and meant I had to schedule my time ver carefully and free time for social activities was often the area I had to cut down. My work evaluations during this time always rated me highly on time management and motiviation factors and cited my pursuit of my MBA every time. The fact that I was doing it “slow” was only ever an issue to ME. I was way ahead of everyone else who wasn’t taking ANY classes. When I interviewed for a new job, the fact that I was able to juggle school and ful time(+) employment at the same time was always a huge plus.

      April 10, 2013/Reply
  5. Telisa says:

    I have a Masters Degree in Counseling and Organizational Psychology. I thought I wanted to be a counselor and the Org Psych would give me more options. In undergrad the psych professors pushed graduate school because the focus was on counseling and not any other type of job you could get with a BA in Psych. During my internship in grad school, I realized my personality was not cut out for counseling as a full-time job. I moved to DC, started working for the gov in HR, and at the same time realized I couldn’t get licsensed as a counselor outside of my home state. Although I now have a job that pays decently I am saddled with 90K in student loans with a degree I can’t even use. Considering my job only requires a BA I could have the same salary with only undergrad student loans that would have been paid off by now.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  6. RAW says:

    This rings close to my heart. Given how expensive higher education is in this country, 20 years into my career still debating if a graduate degree is worth it.
    I work in Silcon Valley high tech, now a first level manager. My undergrad is from one of the best colleges in India. I was hired out of campus with a decent starting salary. A graduate degree there would have landed me the same job. So I decided not to waste any time and not to waste my parent’s money on a US degree.
    I still don’t believe that it matters in day to day life..you don’t wear your degree, so no one really knows until you start getting to middle management.
    I am still contemplating getting a graduate degree, but only for change in career, but as Belle says it could be done through taking a job in a different discipline.
    Unless you have rich parents or a sponsor or want to be in academics, you should assess the ROI based on current situation and returns from the degree before you dive into an expensive degree education.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  7. a.k. says:

    The two best things you can do, in my opinion, are:
    1. Get at least a couple of years of work experience before grad school. This will help you decide how to focus your studies – a better understanding of what you want out of school – and in turn, make you a better student.

    2. Talk to as many people as possible before going. Talk to alumni. Talk to professors. Talk to people in jobs you want to have someday to get their recommendations about what is most valuable or applicable out of grad school. Make sure you understand if there are alternative paths to the jobs you want (or if there aren’t).

    I would also recommend doing whatever you can to minimize your debt load. I worked full-time and did grad school at night part-time, paying for it as I went. Yes, it sucked. I had almost no social life, and I got used to functioning on very little sleep. But the lack of free time was more than made up for by the freedom at the end, when I didn’t have to make job decisions based on loan payments. I know that’s not possible for everyone but it made a huge difference for me.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  8. JM says:

    I too am asking myself the same questions about grad school. I completed my political science undergrad degree four years ago and put off grad school until being confident I knew what I wanted to study. Now I know what I want to study/field I want to work in (communications), but even with experience as a Senate Staff/Press Assistant and some, but limited, campaign press work under my belt, I’ve had no luck getting an entry level position. Add this past year of unemployment and I’m lucky enough to be working as an Executive Assistant in the private sector. Now I’m asking myself is it worth going into debt and going back to school for a field that (I assume) values experience over education? Because right now it seems like going to grad school may be my only option to get through the door.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  9. Ashley says:

    I really have mixed feeling on this based on my own experience. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t entered grad school straight out of college, but I am very happy where I’ve ended up. I applied to law school and graduate school at the same time, right out of undergrad, thinking I needed to get an advanced degree but not really sure what I wanted to do. I am so thankful that I chose to go to grad school where I was offered a full fellowship instead of law school. I may not be an attorney, but I have zero student loan debt and generally love working as a policy analyst.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I think you made a smart choice. You ended up with no debt and you benefitted your career. A lot of young women take out loans for grad degrees as a way of delaying setting out on a career path, and think they’ll be able to pay it all back when there degree leads to an awesome, six-figure job. But that is rarely the case, and that’s what I want people to think about. Grad school is a big decision and I think a lot of fresh grads don’t understand the gravity of their choice.

      April 10, 2013/Reply
  10. Addison says:

    I’m really liking all these career centered posts lately (although I do love the fashion posts too!) Like a lot of people, I planned at one point to go to law school. That changed when I got my first political internship and discovered how much I loved it. I talked to a lot of people who were already immersed in this world and determined that a graduate degree may or may not be necessary and that I should certainly not turn down a job offer to get my masters instead. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll go back to school but I’m still early in my career path, and as you mentioned, I don’t think it’s necessary yet. My dad has been in the same industry for 25 years and, through sheer hard work, has built a reputation that speaks for itself. He says he’s never felt like not having an advanced degree held him back. I’d like to think that’s still possible today. If I do go back, I won’t be getting a masters in political science which was my major in undergrad. Once I actually got to Washington, I discovered that my degree had left me woefully unprepared for anything other than an academic career in politics.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  11. Rachel says:

    I think your advice is very sound. In about 3 weeks, I will graduate with my Masters in Public Administration. I decided to go back to school about 1.5 years after starting my career with Social Security. For me, the timing was right, I found a flexible program with night classes, and we could to pay for it out of pocket (my agency would not pay for it). It took me 3 years as a part-time student working full-time, and I am so relieved it is almost over. Having my MPA will not automatically get me a promotion to a GS-12, but hopefully it will help me to be more competitive in the long run. I would definitely encourage most recent graduates to get some work experience before returning to school.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  12. RS says:

    I would echo the comments on getting work experience before going to grad school. I did not, and I find myself frequently wondering how things might have turned out differently if I had. I went to a great law school straight out of undergrad, but I lacked the confidence and perspective that working experience might have given me. While I luckily landed a big law job and paid off my student loans, working in big law has been largely unpleasant and dissatisfying. I do think my lack of prior work experience might have hurt me in big law as well — again, since this was my first full time job, I was missing confidence to take control of my career.

    In short, consider getting some real world experience before taking the graduate school plunge.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  13. AP says:

    These are all really important questions to ask yourself. The only two things that I would add are that it is incredibly important to work for as long as you can take first, and keep working – IN YOUR FIELD – while you are in school. It may be different for people in some professional degree programs (I’m thinking in particular of med school) or liberal arts programs that forbid working while in school (seriously, those programs are jerks), but I would not have even considered my degree program if it weren’t for the fact that I could work full-time in my field and avoid losing those years of income and experience while I learn. It’s minimized the amount of debt I need to take on (see also: attending a state university), minimized the financial and professional risk, and given focus and practical application to my coursework. I’m still young, and I know this will not instantly translate to a bigger paycheck, but I’m hoping that I’m saving myself the agony later when I’m transitioning through middle and upper management positions that expect a degree.

    Not going to lie, it’s been hell on my personal life and health to juggle grad school and a career-track job. I am so glad that I took several years after undergrad to consider my career options and try things out. I chose to take on a debt burden that I can comfortably pay off within five years, even if my salary does not improve. I’m glad at least that I’m doing this now, before I consider starting a family. There is something to be said for getting it out of the way while you can. I know too many people who completed half a degree because they thought they could juggle it all, and couldn’t.

    Don’t look at grad school as an opportunity; look at it as a liability. All you have is a CHANCE of succeeding, and you need to be prepared psychologically and practically for things to not go the way you want them to. Don’t gamble anything you can’t afford to lose, whether it is a job, your network, or your money.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  14. Jacqueline says:

    I too went to law school after only one year of legal-type work experience. It was not a decision I took lightly and had thought about a career in law for 4-5 years prior to applying. Even still, I felt overwhelmed in law school and to this day think my experience would have been so much better had I not been 22 years old with very little life and work experience at the time. Today, I am using my degree but not in a conventional way (I also lobby for large association) and while I love my job and know I would not have gotten it without a law degree, I always tell my younger friends who are considering grad or law school to take their time. Get some real work experience in the field you want to work in long term, because it will also give you confidence and perspective when you enter academia again. Thanks for the wonderful post Belle.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  15. M says:

    When I was graduating college with a Spanish degree my parents pushed me really hard to become an attorney. I wanted to be a social worker. We compromised by me being a paralegal for a year and a half. After that when I said I didn’t want to be an attorney, my parents listened. I also learned that there are many ways (much more lucrative than social work) to help people and got a master’s in Organization Development and Knowledge Management. My husband and I did the math at the time and it was going to cost us roughly 25k, however, I chose a program where I worked full time and went to school full time and we put an inheritance I received towards school. 18 months later I came out with a dual master’s degree and within a year increased my salary by 40%. Also, I aged like 100 years and gain 15 lbs, but whose counting?

    Proper planning and working while pursuing degrees can really help make the investment worthwhile.I can show that I am a hard worker, intelligent, and driven by simply saying “I worked full time and went to school full time. All the while exceeding my work goals and maintaining a 4.0.”

    Boy am I glad I didn’t just go into law school. Also, I really like the lifestyle my career affords me. There is a balance, but it may not be for everyone. I was willing to compromise on doing what I love at work so that I can have the lifestyle I want after work. It may not be the most glamorous thing I’ve ever decided to do, but it works. I think its all about finding out what works and making your plan from that. Also, I understand that not everyone will be able to pay for school in cash, but that’s not the moral of the story. Compromise is the moral of the story and going up a size in your jeans 🙂

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  16. SG says:

    I decided to go to graduate school when I was still in college; as you mentioned, Belle, professors who have never worked outside of academe will often advise their students to get a Ph.D. because it worked out for them, not knowing the realities of the job market or offering alternative advice geared towards other career paths. So, because I was good at writing and analysis, and double-majored in English and History, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in English Lit., which was at the time more interdisciplinary than it is now (thus I believed I could work on political issues through the lens of literature). I took a year between undergrad and grad school to work as a temp, study for the GRE’s, and apply.

    I got into a top 15 program in my field, but still, I would not recommend going to graduate school without getting real work experience between undergrad and grad school (i.e. at least a few years). I wish I had done so. I would also not recommend pursuing a Ph.D. or a Master’s in the humanities unless you truly want to become a professor. If your interests lie slightly outside of the academy, and by that I mean if they are inflected by wanting to engage in political or social issues through work in the humanities, then do not pursue a degree in the humanities. It will only help you get a job *in that particular field.* Additionally, the hiring rate for humanities Ph.D.’s is terrible now (see the recent Slate article about emotional train wrecks etc.), and is not expected to get better anytime soon. So most degree-holders will have to search outside the field they were trained in for employment, anyway. I am 30 and am finishing up my Ph.D., and now have to consider a squeezed job market and my interest in policy – therefore must consider seeking out internships or entry-level positions to switch careers before any career has truly begun.

    This advice may not apply to many of your readers, who may not consider applying for Ph.D.’s in the humanities, but I have heard that even masters or doctorates in Political Science are not as useful as direct experience.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  17. Sue says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Belle. I went to law school right out of undergrad. After the first year I realized it wasn’t for me and left school so as to not continue growing my debt. If a were wiser, I would have worked in the legal industry first to find out if it was for me.

    Just after my law school stint, I began working full time in finance – which was closely related to my undergrad major. I worked for a couple of years and loved it. My employer offers tuition assistance, so I started a part-time MBA program. It took a little bit longer than the traditional full time program, but having my employer pay for it was worth the delay.

    I have found that the combination of MBA and experience has allowed me to leap frog qualification requirements for job postings. For example, some senior staff positions at my company require a bachelors and 7 years of experience, or a masters and 5 years of experience. I was able to qualify for my current position 2 years prior to some of my other colleagues because I worked full time while earning my MBA. Those without a graduate degree had to wait two more years to obtain experience and those who left work to obtain a masters didn’t have enough experience upon their return to qualify at that level.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  18. L. M. says:

    I graduated from college and did AmeriCorps for a year before starting grad school, which I’m just finishing up this spring. Part of me is glad I went back to school when I did because I still knew how to be successful in school (it’s not a skill set you retain 10-15 years down the road in most cases) and I know my degree is helping me stand out in my field/ will benefit me in the long run.

    That being said, with the job market the way it is you are at a disadvantage if the bulk of your resume is your education and intern positions, however relevant they may be. Those like me who are highly educated and fully capable of entry-to-mid-level jobs are in a tough spot because hiring managers don’t know what to do with us. We don’t have the “real” 3-5 years of work experience they’d expect to see with a master’s degree, but it’s assumed that we won’t take a more entry level salary because of our degree. It’s something I wish I would have realized before starting school again. I don’t know that it would have changed my path, but I would have been better prepared to still struggle to find a full-time position, more education or not.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  19. Emcie Kaye says:

    I completely agree with your post, Belle. Thanks for sharing.

    I graduated from a good university with a bachelor’s in journalism and several internships under my belt in 2010. Many of my peers entered grad school because job prospects in journalism were tough to come by. My parents encouraged me to attend grad school because that’s just “what you’re supposed to do.”

    I chose not to go to grad school – at least not right away – because I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Instead I worked hard at my internships and applied to as many jobs as I could (targeting my resume for each one). I was fortunately hired as an editor/PIO for the government and I make a decent salary. My college debt is paid off.

    Three years later, I love what I do, and grad school still isn’t out of the realm of possibility. However, the grad school programs I would consider now (MPA) are completely different from what I would have considered three years ago (Journalism).

    Like Belle suggested, I only plan to go to grad school if it will positively affect my position. For me, that wouldn’t be until I reach a mid-level job. I’m not quite there yet. 🙂

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  20. Randi Decker @ CarolinaSugar.com says:

    This post is perfect timing for me. I have been contemplating whether to attend grad school right after I graduate in December or to hold it off until #1 I can afford it #2 To make sure I need it and #3 To make sure my current degree is the path I end up taking.
    I really think experience in the field I want to work in (PR) is much more valuable coming out of college rather than having a Masters. Every degree is different, but I think all the experience one can get helps before making that much of an investment is crucial!

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  21. KateW says:

    I’m pretty sure I did the same graduate school program as Belle, and when I send in that loan payment every month, I curse myself for not doing more research to find out if it was worthwhile. Fortunately, I was working while in grad school so I didn’t amass “living loans”, but its still 30k (plus interest!) for a degree of questionable value.

    I strongly echo the advice of other comments: talk to school alumni, talk to those in the career you aspire to, and take a realistic look at your finances before you saddle yourself with ten of thousands of dollars in debt.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  22. Mary says:

    I currently work full time and take 1 or 2 graduate courses per semester. It’s really difficult to schedule around everything sometimes and that has occasionally taken a toll on my social life (and as some other poster mentioned, contributed to weight gain) but it was definitely the best choice. There is no way I would have been able to afford an extra 55K in debt straight out of undergrad. Now, I’m able to pay for each graduate course as I go without taking on any more debt and my income also allows me to continue paying down my loans from undergrad. If everything goes as planned i’ll be completely debt free two years after completing my Masters. I only had 1 year of experience at my current job before I began but since i’m taking courses while working, I regularly see the direct connections between what i’m learning in class and my work. My course work is regularly discussed during my performance evaluations and completion of certain courses factored into one promotion already. I’m earning the degree to continue to advance at my current company, not to break into a new field. I think that makes a big difference.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  23. Lindsay says:

    You were on a game show? Please share. And yes to everything in this post, as someone who doubled my loan debt to earn a MA in Religion that I don’t use.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  24. K says:

    I’ll jump in as someone who made the decision NOT to go to grad school.
    I debated it for a long time, and was seriously considering getting my MBA or doing Master’s in Finance. I talked to a few professors and they all pushed me towards grad school, but I ended making the choice to not pursue an additional degree for several reasons. First, many people at places I had interned said that their advanced degree was much more valuable after having worked for several years. They felt like they had a better grasp on things, and were also able to gauge whether grad school was even necessary for their career track. Second, I paid for my entire education on my own and I couldn’t really justify racking up MORE debt when I wasn’t even 100% sure what I wanted out of my career long term.

    3 years after graduating, I’m so glad I made the decision to not go to grad school. An advanced degree isn’t really necessary to facilitate my long-term career goals, and I never would have know that had I not taken some time to actually work in my field. I think the decision about grad school is different for everyone, but often the “cons” get swept under the rug.

    Thank you, Belle, for these career posts!

    April 10, 2013/Reply
    • EK says:

      As someone who is several years into my career and considering one of those two degrees (MBA or MS Finance), would you mind sharing just a little bit more about your goals?

      April 10, 2013/Reply
  25. Linsey says:

    As a recruitment and human resources professional, I think this post is spot on. I truly appreciate you sharing your personal experiences in pursuing graduate school and a career in politics as it gives true insight in to a path many may or may not choose. In working closely with my alma mater, I feel that colleges and universities often do a great disservice in encouraging their undergraduates to go directly in to their graduate programs, instead of pushing them towards career services department where real world experiences can provide the opportunity to choose what might be best for the student. There is no other way to see if a career is right for you than spending sometime in an internship or even better, a full time role in that industry. Many people will pursue careers in the area they held internships in, while others will know that the industry is not for them. Regardless of your decision, there is nothing wrong with trying before you buy, rather than wasting thousands of dollars on a degree that will not be put to use.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  26. Jill says:

    So I’m looking to break into the Hill and after getting a rejection letter for an internship today, I chanced upon this depressing sentence, for a Scheduler position:

    “Prior Hill and scheduling experience is required.”

    That’s right, at least for one office, Scheduler is not an entry-level position.

    Today is a low day for me, so I’ll say yes, I’m regretting my $100K+ law school debt AND my decision to leave my career 5 years ago to take care of my kids. Ladies, don’t leave your jobs — not for grad school, not for kids, not for anything.

    (I’ll probably feel better tomorrow.)

    April 10, 2013/Reply
    • EK says:

      Don’t know if it’ll make you feel better or not, but in general, Hill scheduling jobs are somewhat different from comparable roles in the private sector and do require something of a different skill set. I worked on the Hill for a few years (policy) and I would be considered unqualified for most, if not all, scheduler positions on the Hill. Keep going! Don’t let it get to you.

      April 10, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Most people consider scheduler a step above Staff Asst., but I would apply for it anyway if you have prior work experience. Esp. if you managed your own calendar.

      Can I ask though, if you’re a lawyer why are you looking for a non-policy position?

      April 10, 2013/Reply
      • Jill says:

        Fair question, Belle. I was just feeling down in the dumps about my job search yesterday. I’m looking for policy positions, but scouring pretty much every ad looking for something suitable. It’s been tough breaking back into work after taking several years off with the kids, and in this job market the competition is stiff.

        April 11, 2013/Reply
        • SC says:

          If you want to get some Hill experience and are willing to do an internship, you’ll be able to find it. In my experience, it won’t be through sending in a resume through a job posting. This is where networking comes in. I’m also a lawyer and was looking to make a career change when I moved here. Friends of friends helped me out, and helped me land a temporary position on the Hill. It wasn’t paid, but the office needed help and I needed experience. I got to do some low-level policy work, learn a ton, and get some great recs which led to my first lobbying job off the Hill. I’m now at a big association and generally love it. So if you want to get up there, get to working any and all contacts you may have!

          April 17, 2013/Reply
    • John says:

      Jill-

      You probably also got rejected for an internship because you had a law degree. In our office, we have a lot of folks with masters, JDs and PhDs applying for internships, and we try to clarify to them that interns mostly lick envelopes and walk stuff to the flag office. In short, you are way over-qualified and we prefer undergrads who are probably too thrilled to be working in a real office to even think about how they might actually be better than the people telling them what to do. I suggest doing what a lot of people do to break into the system: doing fellowships (unpaid, but about 15 micro-steps above internships) and getting experience doing actual legislative work as a “resident expert”. If you look at bradtraverse.com, there are postings now for immigration fellows, defense fellows, even legal fellows.

      April 25, 2013/Reply
  27. Sarah says:

    A few things.

    1) I totally agree. I’m so grateful that I took 2 years off after undergrad to identify my career goals and vision. It changed what I thought wanted to pursue long term.

    I applied and was accepted into a graduate program with a public state univ. so I walk out with 10K in student loans (federal, not private) rather than 60K+ if I attended a grad program at a private university.

    Graduate schools look for candidates who are FOCUSED and have a clear goal and purpose in mind. It doesn’t help them either when applicants aren’t sure how they want to apply their education and training.

    2)As a college career counselor, it’s disheartening that you experienced little to no helpful guidance from your college. Myself nor my colleagues would NEVER advise a student by saying “more education is always a good thing”. It depends on the client’s goals and what they plan to get out of the investment (weigh the pro’s and con’s).

    That being said, I know a mutual friend who has gone back to get her masters degree in journalism (not required in that industry) purely for the networking opportunities and contacts w/a highly respected professional program. When she wants to change jobs, she has a wealth of industry contacts to reach out to make that shift. Different strokes for different folks. To her, it’s worth it (maybe her employer is paying for it…)

    To echo your point, graduate school programs are for the purpose of specialization (opposite of liberal arts education at the undergraduate level). If you don’t know what or why you want to specialize, don’t go to graduate school! Wait and figure that out first. Having a masters degree without relevant work experience still means you’re competing for entry-level positions along with recent college grads).

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  28. Jes says:

    I have been accepted and will receive half-tuition plus a stipend (the max award) for my Master of Science in Applied Economics. I will also finish in a year since my school has a 5 year BA/MSAE track. Thanks to this grad program and the alumni, I landed a paid summer internship and will be able to make up that other half of tuition.

    I would tell people considering grad school to think about the following things:
    1) will you be able to get funding?
    2) will you do it if you weren’t funded?
    3) is a masters degree necessary for your field?
    4) will the benefits of this degree (like a higher salary) outweigh the cost (time, and tuition)?

    for me, all of my answers were Yes and I’m really happy with my decision.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
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  30. Emily says:

    As someone who is currently in grad school… The reason I chose it was because in the field of counseling you have to have a masters to earn state licensure. Thankfully now that I’m in the program I still love the field and am glad to be in school. How I made the decision though was like Belle said. I talked to lots of professionals in the field, did some job shadowing and asked anyone that would answer about their decision to enter school. Money was a big issue in deciding on grad school but I’ve worked as a nanny to pay for my living expenses so my student loans will be manageable. I do think because my program has two internships and a practicum experience it sets me up with great connections as well. Not only is researching your potential degree helpful but the actual program you’re interested in. How many professors have work on the side in the field of your interest or are they all tenured professors? Talk to alumni. And occupational outlook is also a useful website that gives job projections, salaries and job availability in the coming years.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  31. Eliz says:

    Great advice from everyone who already has commented. To throw in my two cents, I went back to grad school last fall. I’m now ten years out from my undergraduate program and with more than 8 years in my current field, qualified for a mid-career graduate program. I don’t *need* the degree to advance in my career but it’s something I wanted to do and I’m using it as an opportunity to decide if I want to stay where am I or make a career shift. Not only do I feel like I’m better prepared now to absorb this education than I would have been straight out of college but I already see how it’s helping me improve my day-to-day work. That said, it’s not for everyone and I worry about some of my younger classmates who while we might share in not knowing what we want to do after a graduate program ends, I at least have a career to fall back on.

    April 10, 2013/Reply
  32. MS says:

    Wow. I have to say, this post really resonated with me. It could not have come at a better time – specifically, when I have a few days until a final graduate school decision must be made.

    All of the things mentioned above, I have to agree with – they’ve been valid concerns of mine for a while. I haven’t made the decision to go to graduate school lightly – I grudgingly applied after working for two years when I realized that if I didn’t go, I won’t be able to actually practice in my intended field. (It’s a professional master’s degree that requires one to be licensed.)

    My question is — how can we make the most of our graduate school experiences, so we can make ourselves the most marketable possible? Any advice on this, Belle, or any of the other commenters, would be appreciated.

    April 11, 2013/Reply
  33. ESDonnelly says:

    As someone who went to graduate school out of undergraduate and had a great experience I thought I would chime in. I work in Higher Education, and although you don’d *need* a Master’s to work in the field most entry level jobs (other than office admin) have it listed in their preferred qualifications.

    When choosing a graduate degree right out of undergrad it’s important to speak to professionals in the field first, as many people have mentioned. This will also let you know what the most well respected programs are, not just the most well ranked. Additionally, look for Graduate Assistantships whenever possible, and contact the programs as you apply. I did a full two years of graduate school for under 20K in loans. I worked 30 hours a week in an office on campus gaining valuable work experience and reduced tuition rates.

    It’s also important to look for programs that provide you with practical work experience so you can build your resume while in school. I worked my GA, and did 700 hours of extra internship time for class credit. Again, researching your programs is important. Make sure they will provide you with practical experience and a close alumni network from your field. Then be sure to network your butt off and attend any alumni events. I got my dream job because an alum from my graduate program put my resume in front of the right people.

    So, yes, consider graduate school carefully. But not all hope is lost if you go right out of undergraduate. My sister did give me one piece of advice “live more frugally than ever before, and take the absolute minimum student loan possible. It’s better to do that when you are surrounded by others doing the same thing, it will be harder to part with that money later paying back loans.”

    April 11, 2013/Reply
  34. Stacy says:

    Well said and all excellent points. I’ve seen so many people my age head straight into grad school after not being able to obtain employment and the amount of debt they have versus the minimal work experience on their resume is staggering. I’ve learned more in my current job (a great job + a boss who truly values continuing education) than I would’ve getting a grad degree; I’m so glad I decided to back burner a masters. Student loan payments feel so far off when you start an educational program, but they hit with a vengeance sooner than one would think.

    April 11, 2013/Reply
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