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The Career Success Debate: Grad school or work?
(full story below)
By Susan Davis-Ali,Patrick O'Brien


“I’m way more scared about leaving college than I ever was about starting college.”

With that simple statement from a college junior, this column began. Support and resources are often stacked in favor of incoming freshman rather than outgoing seniors and this column aims to address that.

Two experts offer recent college grads and current college students actionable, “real” career-oriented advice, based on proven experience, not just academic data.

I plan to graduate next year and I’m wondering if I should go to grad school or work first?
– Mirjam, Class of 2013, St. Norbert College

Patrick O’Brien: Grad school is not an escape hatch

These days, some students still land their dream job out of college. Unfortunately, others don’t. Employers now have the luxury of being highly selective, so while there really are still winners in the process – many end up in a marginal job and look to grad school as their escape hatch.

My perspective: Don’t!

I am a huge believer in pursuing graduate school for one strategic reason – to open a door you can’t open without it.

If you know you want to be a nuclear engineer or banker on Wall Street, go for it – and pursue the most prestigious grad school you can get into and find a way to finance. If you’re still trying to determine what you want to do when you grow up, work 24/7 – well, at least 16/7 – trying to figure that out – before you walk down this road.

So how do you determine your passion?

You get passionate about determining it. You take personality tests. You read What Color is My Parachute. You relentlessly pursue networking breakfasts and lunches, leveraging college relationships, family friends, fellow alums, and former professors.

You do that kind of work for free for not-for-profits, start ups at your local start-up incubator. You Google, Google, and re-Google potential areas of interest and get as much of a free education as you can online. You get more creative than you ever have before to figure out where your passion lies.

Then, after you have confidence that you’re in the right general area, you pursue companies who hire in those areas, and determine what the credentials are for people they hire into those kinds of jobs.

You can learn a great deal from just a job posting on CareerBuilder or Monster in terms of what requirements are for given role in a field of interest. You can also use job boards to understand what types of jobs do exist – and what types of organizations are actually hiring for those positions.

THEN, if you find that you need additional education to move into that field, start looking for graduate programs with strength in that particular subject area.

Susan Davis-Ali, PhD: Grad school is an ideal place to explore your interests

Pat, we’re off to a really great start – already disagreeing. What a great way to introduce the Millennial generation to the concept that the working world is more gray than black and white, and opinions are rarely undisputed.

Since my own career path was a result of interests that I developed while in graduate school and not before, I have to take issue with your advice. I’m a firm believer that graduate school is an ideal place to explore your interests and hone your skills.

What you call an escape hatch I call a rational decision.

Researcher suggests that the Millennial Generation will be the most highly educated generation in history, because many of them will turn to graduate school as a way to legitimately pass the time during their post-graduation, pre-employment “holding pattern years.” Graduate school is among the most socially-acceptable, resume-friendly, legitimate way to spend those years.

Here are my top do’s and don’ts for graduate school to help you determine if it’s the right place for you:

DO: Attend graduate school if you are truly passionate about a field of study. If you want to teach, do research, or be a recognized expert in that field, graduate school is right for you.

DON’T: Attend graduate school if you have a great job offer on the table. Great jobs are hard to come by, and hands-on experience is often as valuable (if not more valuable) than the book learning you gain in graduate school.

DO: Attend graduate school if you want to explore areas of interest to you. There is value in learning for learning sake, and not all graduate degrees need to be with a clear career focus in mind. Advanced degrees create opportunities.

DON’T: Attend graduate school is you already have a significant amount of student debt. Take a good look at your earning potential before you take on more debt. Some companies will pay for employees to go to graduate school while they work. So if you’re already up to your eyeballs in student loans, look for a company with a generous tuition reimbursement plan.

In the end, if graduate school seems right for you, find out the best graduate programs in your chosen field. Set your sites on attending one of these top schools. Where your graduate degree comes from does matter.
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