Should I gain work experience before graduate school?
August 22, 2019 5:54 AM   Subscribe

I am wanting to go to grad school, but I do not have much professional experience -- I will be doing an academic internship next year, but that will be all the professional experience I will have in my fourth year undergraduate degree.

I am wanting to go to McGill University (in Montreal, for graduate school), but I am worried having only scant work experience will be difficult to land a good job in government/NGO's/non-profit work. (I originally planned to pursue an MA in English, but now focusing on Political Science/Public Policy). The McGill Master's program I wish to do does offer a twelve week + internship, which is pretty sweet. As well as research assistant opportunities. Yet, I am worried it might still put a damper on landing a good job after academia? Should I take a year or two off and attempt to find professional work experience? McGill is one of the best universities in Canada, and I thought having the name on paper might give it some weight for opening doors to careers, but I am not sure if that is enough. It is so difficult to find a solid job without internships. I could pursue a doctorate after, but I am not sure if the doctorate route is for me right now -- maybe in the future. I am also keen on law school, but the amount of debt and stress and depression a lot lawyers face is not all appealing to me either. There is too much competition in academia and tenure is mighty difficult to achieve these days. I do not mind working in the government/NGO sector - something in public policy. I could use some advice. Thanks in advance.
posted by RearWindow to Education (13 answers total)
I would flip it and say that you’ll get more out of grad school if you have professional experience. (Currently in grad school and happy for the professional experience I had coming in).
posted by raccoon409 at 6:04 AM on August 22 [15 favorites]

I would apply for grad school and jobs concurrently, see what offers you get, and go from there. Although the economy was different then, a lot of people in my grad program were there because they couldn't get a full-time job straight out of college, but the grad school experience + excellent internship opportunities led to exactly the jobs we wanted out of grad school.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:11 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]

Until I had worked full-time for a while I really didn’t know what I did and didn’t want from a job in terms of things like autonomy, solitary work, meetings, relationships with coworkers, travel, etc. since working a job in your intended field can generate so much important data for setting career goals, I think working a professional job before grad school is a great idea.
posted by ElizaMain at 6:13 AM on August 22 [8 favorites]

The standard advice for public policy grad school (at least based on my experience in the U.S.) is to get 1-3 years of experience, and the vast majority of people who go to public policy programs do. I think that's excellent advice. I know no one who regretted doing so and some people who regretted not working before starting a grad program.

I agree with raccoon: Don't think about making yourself more attractive to employers and schools, think about it as an essential part of your education. I'd add that you should look for something that's significantly different than your expected future career. You mention academia: You would likely benefit more from working out in the field you're interested in rather than in an academic setting or research organization. E.g., if you're interested in education policy, try to work in a school. If you're interested in social policy, try to work in a government office that directly serves clients.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:14 AM on August 22 [5 favorites]

We are in different fields (I am in the hard sciences), but I wish I had gotten some job experience outside of academia before going to grad school. It would have given me a broader experience base to make career decisions on post-PhD.
posted by fiddler at 6:35 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]

Data point: I started a grad programme before gaining much in terms of non-academic work experience and didn't finish the Phd.

I wouldn't exactly say that I regret the experience - it defnitely makes me appreciate my current job more, and it was a great, somewhat time-sensitive opportunity (my prof recommended me to a colleague with good funding who was looking to fill a position and would have been willing to invest quite a bit in me), definitely worth an attempt. I concluded academia wasn't for me after all (requires too much writing - writing makes me neurotic), and assume that I would have come to the same conclusion if I had gained work experience before. But intense ivory-tower-claustrophobia was definitely a contributing factor and that one could probably be mitigated by exploring other options first.
posted by sohalt at 6:42 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]

Yes, definitely spend a few years (or just one! but at least one) working before you go back to school. For me, it really helped me figure out what I wanted from my work, what some of my strengths are, and it was also just good life experience.

And--just as a data point--now that I'm on the other side, I prefer to hire people who take time to work between degrees. If a candidate goes directly into their Masters work after undergrad, I give their CV a little side-eye and question whether they have the perspectives and context necessary to do the job well.
posted by witchen at 6:44 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]

As a professor, I can say that grad students that come in with some post bachelor real world experience have a much better idea of what they want out of the grad school experience— which IMHO is a key piece of success.
posted by u2604ab at 6:45 AM on August 22 [5 favorites]

Job experience also makes grad school better. You'll be better at organizing your time, the assignments will seem much easier and, in general, you'll have greater appreciation of the privilege of being there and using your brain to your own ends instead of renting it out to others.
posted by carmicha at 6:47 AM on August 22 [5 favorites]

I am a professor who worked for five years in my professional field (design) before returning to graduate school and getting my terminal degree in that field to teach.

I agree with those who suggest you look at work experience as something that will better prepare you for the graduate experience itself. I completed a ranked art and design interdisciplinary graduate program at a competitive US institution. The professors' attitudes towards grad students were quite different than their approach to undergrad students. My fellow grad students who had come straight from undergrad programs thought that grad school would be like undergrad only cooler and with more personal time with professors. They were in for a rude awakening. The grad school experience, at least in art and design, is about dialing up the pressure as much as possible and only amplifies the subjective nature of aesthetic evaluation and criticism. In other words, professors felt little to no need to pull punches when evaluating student creative work and let loose with highly critical comments whether they were on-target or not. Additionally, there is more of a culture of mentor/mentee in grad school, which sounds good, but in practice can sometimes mean that professors want grad students to enhance their own personal agenda and fame. Because I had five years of experience working in agencies with clients, I was experienced with developing and navigating an attitude of cooperation without being subsumed into the goals of my graduate advisors. I was also used to hearing very pointed criticism, and even pointed criticism that was clearly nonsensical, and still having to have some kind of reasoned response to it. The people who have had the most success from my program (I graduated 15 years ago) were people who came in with a few years of professional experience in some kind of creative work.
posted by Slothrop at 6:58 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]

once I tasted the sweet lucre of private industry, I gave up any plans of grad school.
posted by evilmonk at 10:24 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]

I'm in the natural sciences on the policy side. I wish, oh I wish, I'd had more professional experience before graduate school. That kind of experience give you a fuller grasp of the daily tasks and problems at play in your chosen field, the bluntly practical grounding that forms a very sturdy foundation for expanding your expertise. It can give you a significant advantage in terms of recognizing unmet needs and finding your niche. I entered graduate school on the laboratory side, but only realized after entering the job force that the nuts and bolts of the lab didn't feel good (no matter how thrilling the material was). I'd worked part time in a number of labs over the years, but I hadn't *fully* committed myself to that work full time. Had I done that I would have learned years before that the policy side of science is where my career and interests overlap perfectly.

By all means, apply to jobs and schools in parallel. There's no wrong answer to your question. They are all paths to discovery.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:41 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]

Most people are giving good advice about what grad school is like and that its useful to have real world experience (true!), but I think you are more asking whether you'll be better/worse able to get a job after getting an MA?

I don't think it hurts your chances, but I don't think it helps much. Non-profits will see you as a college graduate, Masters and all - someone with great potential that they will hire for an entry level position.

Its a little different if your Masters gives you a very specific technical skill (like say GIS, or coding) but English, Public Policy, etc., usually will not make any difference either way in getting hired after graduation.
posted by RajahKing at 1:08 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]

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