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The job market is scary. Should I stay in school?

Tips for people who want Jobs That Matter

The job market is scary. Should I stay in school?

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I get this question from time to time. I have to be careful not to get judgmental with my answer, because, ironically, I am a classic example of someone who stayed in school to avoid the job market, and for whom it worked out great.

I was an anthropology major as an undergrad, and I had a few internship and student leadership experiences in school. I firmly knew that I would probably not fit in the corporate world, and I had a pretty strong idealistic and activist bent. Also, both my parents are college professors, and I grew up thinking everyone had (or should have) the whole summer off from work (though in reality, my dad was and is always working, whether he’s teaching classes or not, because he’s always writing his next book). They always wanted me to focus on my studies; and also, neither of them had been through a “normal” job search–and had last been in the job market in the early 1960′s. So I was fairly shielded from the reality of the job market.

When I graduated from undergrad, I knew I was great at school, but I had absolutely no clue how to get a job. I went to Israel for 6 months and worked on a kibbutz while finishing my honors thesis. When I came home, I looked (weakly) for a job. I had gone to my college career center exactly one time in undergrad, and was too overwhelmed by anxiety to actually meet with a counselor. I had gone to one job fair, and found that most jobs being recruited for wanted someone to do sales or finance–and there were no jobs for “activists” there (funny thing–they also didn’t have any jobs for folksingers or poets. Drat!). I sent out maybe 20 resumes–resumes which were actually in chronological, not reverse chronological order (!)–along with highly personal and naive cover letters, to a number of nonprofits, and never heard back. When I look back on it now, it’s pretty embarrassing–but it also gives me empathy for the many liberal arts majors who didn’t take advantage of their career center. And it’s good for a laugh now and then, considering what I do for a living now!

Anyway, as I mentioned, I knew I was great at being in school. I applied to 6 PhD programs in anthropology and, on a whim–based on an ad in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I think–I applied to the New School for a Master’s in Nonprofit Management. It worked out that none of the PhD programs would offer me funding; and I also researched and found that only 50% of PhDs in anthropology actually got tenure-track professorships anyway (I figured I had a better shot at becoming a famous folksinger, and it wouldn’t cost me 6 years of research and dissertation writing on a topic I wasn’t sure I loved). But I did get accepted to the New School–so I picked up everything and moved to New York City, thinking that, since I’d failed at the job search, I had no other options left. (!)

Two internships and many applied team projects later, I landed my first real job as Associate Director of Development at a women’s nonprofit.

I think maybe I’ve learned a lot since then.

These days, when someone asks me whether they should continue in school in order to avoid a bad job market, I caution them to learn more about the job market and learn how to sell themselves before diving into another degree. If I could go back in time, I think I’d still go for the master’s degree. It has come in handy over and over in my career, and I know I would not have been hired in any of my jobs in higher education without it. However, I am not sure I would have plunged right into the Master’s in Nonprofit Management without getting a little work experience first. And I’m glad I didn’t decide to go on for a second Master’s after I finished the first one just to avoid finding a job.

Here are what I think are some valid reasons to continue your education:

· You want to continue building work experience via internships, which are much easier to obtain when you are a currently enrolled student.

· You have researched the job market for the type of position you want, and have discovered that a specific academic training, language skill, technical expertise, etc., is required, which you will not have from just your existing degree; or that people who obtain the degree you’re considering have many more career prospects, get promoted faster, or have some number of required years of work experience for the job substituted for by the master’s degree.

· After reading the job descriptions for above positions and asking people in the field whether you might be qualified for them, they recommend you get further education.

· You have decided you want to pursue a job where another degree is essential, like a career in academia where a PhD is necessary, or to enter some other profession where a specific license or certification is needed, like an MSW, etc.

· You have some specific reason to believe that the job market you are going to enter is actually going to be better a year from now–so you’re going to hide out in school until then.

Here are some other reasons, which I would question the validity of:

· You haven’t done your homework about the job market you want to enter, and only now when you are about to graduate do you realize you aren’t going to be able to get the job you want when you graduate. So you are procrastinating entering the real world, but aren’t planning to use continued education in a targeted way to achieve specific career goals. Instead, you are just doing it to procrastinate further.

· You are not willing to do the hard work of networking and job searching and so are hoping further education will magically absolve you of that work. It won’t–it will just postpone it until later. If your degree will actually add marketable skills, it, combined with relevant work experience, can make you a better candidate for jobs. But you’ll still have to do the job search at some point. For nearly everyone, it’s as unavoidable as death and taxes.

What do you think? Should you stay in school, or go look for a job?

Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service.

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Terri Jones

I hate to even post this because you reach a point when you want to start your career but…here goes! Before I went to public policy school, I repeatedly applied for state jobs. I had a degree in Economics and Law and could not even get an interview. I enrolled in public policy school, took an internship with a state agency, worked like crazy and I got the very next job they had that opened. So, my suggestion is to look for programs that offer internships so you have a chance to cut through the big pile of resumes and demonstrate your value.And, it provides real experience that you can point to on your resume and interview. I don’t believe that any additional education is bad, but the internship focused my attention and I learned a lot about state government and I decided I LIKED it, which was also an important thing to learn.

Good luck to the job seekers!

Tarryn Reddy

Great Advice. I think it is really important that people weigh all their options before committing to a masters program. There are many programs that have a specific focus that may align more with your career goals. It’s really important to do your research!!

Jeff Ribeira

As a relatively recent grad myself, I can attest to the reality of this struggle. I think your thoughts call attention to some great points, many of which I have considered quite a lot as I tried to make a decision in the context of my own personal experience/interests. I feel furthering your education is always a bonus, especially if you’ve done your homework and know it will help you land your dream job. I knew plenty of people, however, who simply jumped onto the post-grad bandwagon, never even bothering to do any research about themselves or the market they thought they wanted to enter.

No matter what, it’s a tough decision that is going to be different for every individual, and, in an effort to save time, money, and resources, shouldn’t be made on a whim. Education of any kind is about bettering ourselves, and the world around us. It’s not a place to hide out, selfishly waiting and hoping, like you said, that all of the hard work of the real world will magically disappear.

James Ferreira

Let me second Terri’s great comment. I took a class with the mayor and that lead to a personal interview which did not get me into city gov but did set me up on a campaign that helped to launch my career in politics. It is not just about the classes, use every opportunity available. If your political figures hold open office hours, go, introduce yourself, tell them why you are there and what you could do to change things. A job is something anyone can go to, a career is something you are passionate about and would do for free if someone paid the bills.

Peter Sperry

A couple of thoughts

1. Credential inflation is very real. A masters is the base level working credential for many professions today and the situation is getting worse not better. You may not need the education to do the job but you need the degree to land it. I learned this the hard way when government hiring managers encouraged me to apply to their agencies and HR clerks trashed the application for not meeting minimal standards. Went back to school for the degree and got on with life.

2. Tuition costs always seem to rise faster than inflation. If the costs of grad school seem scary now, wait 10 years.

3. The starving student life style is a lot easier at 22 than 32.

4. Yes, you can juggle a job, school and a family; but can you really give your best to all three at once?? Be honest, one of the three is going to be neglected. Married students with jobs bring a dynamic to the classroom the enriches everyone else. But this is a time to focus on YOUR education, not everyone elses. You may find it a bit more advantageous to be on the receiving end of the enrichment.

5. Counterargument – Graduate programs can be a very expensive, time consuming way of discovering a career field is not right for you. At the very least pick one with fairly broad applicability. If you have to choose between MBA, MPA, MHA, MPP, MHCP recognize they become narrower as you move down the list and while the MBA can usually get hired for any of the rest, the reverse is not always true.

6. Further counterargument — A 20 something staying in school to hide from the career world has deeper problems and needs to grow up fast. Extending parental health care coverage to 26 year olds was probably the high water mark for societal tolerance of juvenile lack of self reliance. Future public policy is likely to provide fewer and smaller financial supports to those who cannot or will not support t

Stephen Peteritas

Speaking more generally and less about just gov’t jobs I personally think that master programs and doctoral programs should NOT be taken directly after preliminary school. Getting a taste for the real world can not be under rated. I mean I know this isn’t always the case but some people get into this lifetime academic role yet have no desire to teach. Not tasting the real world with real problems is a major handicap to a lot of people in my generation and going to a masters program isn’t going to remedy that.

Shannon Donelson

Great post Heather! I graduated undergrad back in August and was battling with the same decision for quite a while. For me it worked out that I didn’t go back into school, but I’m glad it did for you! Having a passion for new media/social media, I was in a bind because while getting a Master’s would definitely help me be more competitive, a degree in something that changes every day isn’t really as credible. In the industry i’m working in, it’s more important that a person have working experience than an advanced degree. Now, having both work experience and a Master’s may one day be something that benefits my career, but for now, the working world is where I need to be.

Thanks again for posting!

Candace Riddle

I have a B.A. in Political Science. Graduated in ’05 and quickly realized that I had spent the last 4 years in college to be paid $10.00 stuffing envelopes for an attorney (yuck). I moved on to find a “real” job (surely my education was worthy of such)…I was recruited by a financial firm to do sales…then another..went through the ropes of gettin my Series 7, Series 66, Insurance License and even a Real Estate license…Needless to say, like you, I loved school, and I was good at it. I couldn’t figure out why everything I tried in the “sales” world, I failed at miserably (I am a people person after all…but apprently one with too much of a heart…I felt guilty selling stuff to people that they really couldn’t afford, or for that matter needed). Luckily, the stock market crashed and ended that dreadful 2 year span of being a financial advisor. Not so lucky, I had just closed on my first home and was now facing unemployment for the next 18 months.

I still wanted a job with State Department and apparently the only way to get one was to go back to school…or so I thought.

As it turns out I went back to school for an M.A. in Diplomacy, landed a job at the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, and moved to VA. My job at NIGP focused on State and Local procurement professionals, but I am quickly realizing the value of my M.A. education.

It definately paid of for me…now if only to pay back those student loans 🙁

Allen Sheaprd

Great adivce – “continue building work experience via internships” – test drive a job path before committing.

“Starving student life is easier at 22 than 32” – yes.

Do not be afraid to change courses. I started out in medical research then electrical engineering and now computer science as a DBA. Next stop – back to school for masters. Why? To break the glass ceiling called “credentials” Unless one starts a company, one needs the degree.

I’ll be to busy this time to party like is 1989 🙂 ha ha

Kevin Dubs

I’d encourage students to try their best to get a job in their career of interest before getting a Master’s. I’m in a rotation program and have experienced 6 different “flavors” of business and government within a 2 year period. I also had 4 internships throughout my undergrad experience. If I hadn’t had this breadth of experience at a young age, I would probably be in a career field that isn’t the best fit for me. If I had gotten a Master’s degree in my pre-decided career choice, I would be in that same misguided career with student loans and 2 lost years on top of it.

Many people run into the panic period in undergrad where they realize that it is almost too late to be well qualified for their job of choice. At that point, a Master’s might be a second chance to get their job search in order. If that’s the case, do a lot of research on the degree and talk to people in related fields to determine if that Master’s degree is right for you.

Big Picture Inc

Really great article and comments. I recently graduated with a BA in Anthropology. It seems that all of the work for this type of degree involves either the CIA or traveling abroad. I would love to travel abroad, but I rushed in the final months of undergrad to apply for a Masters in Communication at Johns Hopkins instead. After attending the program for one semester, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I thought the program would emphasize topics like rhetoric and public speaking rather than PR and marketing. I am taking a break starting this semester from school (the first break I’ve ever taken in academia) and am working for Big Picture, Inc. While I feel most comfortable in academia, I still need time to figure out what program really is for me (and to gain work experience). On one hand, I was able to see what topics interested me while I was in school; on the other hand, I had very little time to figure myself out.

Thanks for sharing everyone!