Grad School or the Real World?
By Peter Vogt, MonsterTRAK Career Coach
After finishing her journalism undergraduate degree in 2004, 24-year-old Laurie Duffy went straight to graduate school. On the other hand, 33-year-old Carolyn Kaufman worked in information technology for two years after completing her undergraduate degree and then went to grad school. Who made the better decision?
It’s impossible to be certain. Both Duffy, with a master’s degree in corporate communication, and Kaufman, who earned her doctorate in clinical psychology, have landed on their feet from a career perspective: Duffy works in public relations; Kaufman teaches psychology.
Welcome to the haziness surrounding a question many college seniors wrestle with: Should I go to graduate school right after I complete my undergraduate degree, or should I work for awhile first and then go?
While there are no easy answers, there are definitely strong opinions on both sides.
Option 1: Grad School First, Work Later
“Graduate school is difficult and very much not the traditional college experience,” says Duffy, an assistant account executive for the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, office of PR firm Mullen. The workload alone leaves little time for relationships or a career, she says. “So I chose to get my master’s right away, before I had a job I loved and couldn’t leave, or before I had a family to take care of.”
Duffy’s experience illustrates one of the most common arguments for pursuing graduate school sooner versus later. Other commitments can get into the way of furthering your education. And particularly once you start a family, it can be difficult to fit grad school into your life, says Nancy Stamp, dean of the graduate school at Binghamton University.
Other potential advantages of going to graduate school right away include the freedom to relocate in order to pursue the program you really want. It’s also been said that going right to graduate school allows you to simply continue in the school mode you’ve been in for the last 16 years instead of having to kick-start your academic side later.
Option 2: Work First, Grad School Later
But career expert Anna Ivey, author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, doesn’t buy this argument. “Plenty of people go off and work before grad school, and they do wonderfully back in the classroom,” she says. “Bringing real-world experience to the classroom only makes them better grad students.”
That’s exactly what Kaufman experienced. She says she intended to go to graduate school immediately after finishing her undergraduate degree in English and psychology in 1995 but put it off, because she couldn’t decide where to go.
“That was the best thing that could have happened,” says Kaufman, who teaches psychology full-time at Columbus State Community College and part-time at Otterbein College. “Developing my confidence and sense of competence, learning new skills and contemplating whether I really wanted to go back or continue what I was doing…was priceless and has helped me make better decisions after graduate school.”
Other people discover the right path for them by hindsight. For example, 34-year-old Melanie Szlucha participated in a special academic program that allowed her to complete both a bachelor’s degree in management and an MBA in just five years — by the time she was only 24.
Today, after 10 years of hiring experience, she says she probably wouldn’t make the same decision again. “I liken it to giving a 12-year-old a driver’s license,” says Szlucha, president of Red Inc., an interview and presentation coaching firm. “They can learn the mechanics of how to drive the car, but nobody is going to give them the keys to the car.”
Thus, there’s no point in getting married to graduate school right out of college, says Ivey. “Grad school isn’t going anywhere,” she stresses. “Take some time to figure out who you are outside of school.”