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Going to Graduate School vs. Gaining Work Experience After Undergrad

An MBA student takes a break from his office job.

By Nellie, IvyWise Graduate Admissions Counselor

As your college experience is nearing its end, you may be wondering about the next steps for your career. Should you apply to graduate school immediately following your undergraduate studies, or would it be better to seek full-time employment? Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, what you do after graduation is a very personal decision that depends upon well-defined career goals.

Graduate school is an excellent option for students who have completed their undergraduate program. According to the National Center for Education, the median earnings of those with a master’s or doctorate was 21% higher than the earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree. Graduate school offers several advantages including specialized academic studies, more career opportunities, a potentially higher salary, and opportunities for networking.

Attending Grad School  

Immediately enrolling in a graduate program has its advantages. Many careers require a more advanced degree. For example, if you aspire to be a doctor, lawyer, or professor, you will need graduate credentials, and it makes sense to start right away. You will be able to get a head start on your career trajectory. Continuing your education immediately following your undergraduate studies allows you to remain in a school mindset of attending class, studying for exams, and completing coursework.

A graduate degree can show future employers that you are committed to a specific field, as you will receive more training and advanced knowledge. Gaining specialized knowledge in your field will make you a more valuable employee — you will be seen as an expert in your field and can help to train others. Some master’s programs also include hands-on training, which is extremely valuable to your current and/or future employer.

You will need an advanced degree to move up the career ladder or to be promoted to leadership positions in some industries. It is important to research how advancement works in the field you would like to pursue and weigh the extra earning potential against the cost of attending graduate school. An advanced degree can help your resume stand out among other applicants and gives you different experiences to discuss during your interviews. One of the most common reasons students go to graduate school is because of the opportunity to make more money and have a higher salary.

If you are unsure of your career goals, taking time off from school will allow you time for self-reflection to figure out what you are most passionate about. Consider what jobs you can pursue with your undergraduate degree. Some questions you should ask yourself when considering going into a graduate program are:

  • Why do I want a graduate degree?
  • What kind of career do I want to have?
  • How will a graduate degree help me achieve my goals?
  • Is a degree necessary for my career goals?

Depending on your undergraduate major, you may have limited career options without a graduate degree.

Gaining Work Experience 

There are advantages to working in the field for a few years prior to applying to graduate schools, as it can give you a better understanding of yourself and if the field is a good fit. You can experience the responsibilities and challenges associated with your industry/career. It also allows you to contribute your professional experiences in the classroom. Some employers will even pay for your graduate school!

It is important to understand if the graduate program you are interested in recommends prior work experience before applying. For example, MBA admissions committees often like you to have some professional work experience to be considered a competitive applicant. Advertising and communications programs want to see a clear connection from your previous accomplishments to your future career goals.

Work experience doubles as an indicator of preparation to study advanced topics, as well as a gauge of how a master’s degree will help a candidate attain future goals. Beyond assessing your preparation and knowing how a graduate degree will help you, admissions officers are also concerned with an applicant’s employability once they graduate. Admissions officers select candidates who show a record of accomplishment of employability — it is easier to get a job when you have work experience, after all.

Furthermore, graduate school offers a great deal of flexibility. Therefore, you will need to have maturity and skills to maximize your graduate school experience, from balancing academics to conducting research to attending conferences and presentations — all while making sure you are working toward achieving your goals.

Both Options Have Pros and Cons  

Not surprisingly, money plays an important role. Higher education is expensive. According to the College Board, the average loan debt for a bachelor’s degree among the class of 2020 was $28,400. If you took out financial aid to help cover the cost of your undergraduate education, going to graduate school could increase your overall debt. You should consider the return on investment for your graduate degree program. This may include researching the average salary in your field with a master’s degree. You may also consider taking time off to pay off previous loans before taking on additional graduate school costs.  It should be noted that if you do plan to attend graduate school right away, it is possible to defer your undergraduate student loan repayments.

If you wait to attend graduate school, you may put it off several years or not attend at all. Family responsibilities and career opportunities may get in the way. You could have a better chance of completing your degree if you start right away. Some individuals find it more difficult to transition to graduate school after taking many years off.

To help aid in your decision-making process, we recommend speaking with others in your field of interest who attended graduate school right away and others who waited to pursue their advanced education — but make sure the choice is yours! You should consider all the pros and cons in relation to your personal situation, from the state of your finances and your area of professional interest to your instincts, to make the best decision. Additionally, IvyWise offers graduate admissions counseling to help you define your goals and clarify if going to grad school immediately is right for you, or if it’s best to wait and gain work experience.

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