Taking time to master grad school

Going to work before a getting a graduate degree is probably a good idea, business professor says

Students should consider their reasons for going to graduate school before they commit themselves to doing a master’s.
Students should consider their reasons for going to graduate school before they commit themselves to doing a master’s.

During her four years as a biology major, Leah Winters, ArtSci ’08, made it through countless due dates, lectures and exams. Now she faces her toughest assignment yet.

“I haven’t decided what I want to do next. It’s always been on the back of my mind, but now I feel like it’s crunch time,” she said.

Finding a job is one of her options, Winters said, but she’s wary about making the jump from school to the workforce just yet.

“I don’t feel confident that I could get a job, a serious job, with my undergraduate degree. I don’t want just a job, I want a career,” she said. “I need the extra credential to be marketable in the job market.” Allyson Lee, ArtSci ’09—also a biology major—has already ruled out work immediately after her undergraduate degree for the same reason.

“I will probably not be going to work, I don’t know how many applicable skills I have at the moment,” she said. “I’m hoping grad school will give me more credibility. I’m looking into epidemiology, but also law school as well.” Winters and Lee are only a few of the students following the trend to return to graduate school upon completion of their undergraduate degree.

In 2004, more than 31,600 students in Canada received a master’s level qualification, a nine per cent increase from the previous year and the seventh consecutive annual increase. That year, for the first time, master’s level qualifications represented more than 15 per cent of all qualifications awarded.

This is good news for Shelly Aylesworth-Spink, the director of the office of Dean in the School of Queen’s Graduate Studies and Research. She hopes to see Queen’s program grow.

“There is no question that strength of graduate program is linked to faculty strength and recruitment. Excellent faculties will stay at universities where there’s excellent students to work with,” she said.

Aylesworth-Spink said Canada’s move toward becoming a knowledge-based economy is one reason for a heightened interest in graduate programs.

“In Canada, there’s a recognition that we need [a] more well-educated population,” she said. “For some professions and entry level careers, having a master’s degree is certainly going to help students get ahead faster and or to be more prepared for the job.”

Jonathan Peerce said the desire for a leg-up in the career world is what brought him to Queen’s after finishing his undergraduate degree at Wilfid Laurier. He is now finishing the second year of his master’s in international relations.

“I just didn’t want to be working in more or less a dead end job. But I was interested in what I was learning,” he said.

Although Peerce said he’s enjoying his studies, he’s not sure how much of an extra edge having a master’s degree will give him.

“The pool of people that decide to go into graduate school is small [enough] that hopefully it would give me an advantage. But I don’t know how much that advantage actually plays out,” he said.

A 2004 Statistics Canada study published in the Education Quarterly Review found that, on average, someone with a master’s degree makes about $9000 more annually than those with just an undergraduate degree, although the number varies from one discipline to another. In the a study done by the journal in 2003, 47 per cent of master’s graduates indicated that in their jobs they used the skills acquired in their master’s programs to a great extent, compared to 31 per cent of those with an undergraduate degree. Jane Goode, a Career Services counsellor, said a master’s degree can definitely help someone find an satisfying career, but only if that person goes to grad school for the right reasons. She said at the moment, students lack the right information to be able to make that decision.

“Grad school might definitely be a link in many cases [between you and work]. But it’s coming to understand the relationship that that particular program has to some of what’s out there. And I think that’s the information gap,” she said.

Goode also said not all master’s degrees will guarantee a more successful career.

“If a person has a master’s, that could be a conversation starter. Where the conversation falls flat is when the student assumes that the degree itself alone will give them the next step.” she said. “It’s what the person can contribute based on the experience of that degree.”

Goode said students should do more research before deciding between finding a job and going to graduate school.

“The question is, have you talked to enough people who are in the field you’re thinking of, to see a value of a particular program,” she said.

School of Business professor Peggy Cunningham said she thinks students should get a job before going to graduate school.

“You’re going to look at graduate school through very different lens with few years of work behind you,” she said.

Nick Hardy can testify to that view. Before coming to Queen’s for his Ph.D in sociology, Hardy spent six years working for research think-tanks in England, during which time he realized he enjoyed the academic freedom he had at school much more than working.

“I think I turned out to be more academic in my mindset than I realized. Doing quick, dirty research was not my thing. I wanted to be much more in-depth, I wanted to be much more objective. At the end, I didn’t enjoy working,” he said.

Hardy said his work experience gave him the confidence, people skills and discipline required to go into a Ph.D.

“The worst thing about going from undergrad to work is that all of sudden you have to work from 9 to 5 or 8:30 to 4:30, and it is terrible, because there’s no ‘I’ll do it tonight’,” he said. “Now I can just sit down and work, and some of my peers, who have only been in school, don’t have that ability.” Hardy—who did his master’s in ethics, politics and public policy—said looking back, he’s very satisfied with his master’s experience.

“My master’s definitely raised the way you think and how you interact with things. It was fundamental for me, changing the way I looked at things. Also, the professors treat you differently. You’re someone that chose to come back, you get much more,” he said. “And afterwards, I don’t think I would have got the jobs I got without my master’s.”

Hardy said he thinks that to make the right decision, you need to take some time to reflect on your own experience.

“If you didn’t enjoy your fourth year of undergrad, then you probably won’t enjoy [a master’s]. However, you need to look at why you didn’t like your fourth year. In grad school, the environment changes, and the people change. It’s a different experience,” he said.

“Some people are just not cut out for grad school. They’re much more physical in what they want to do. They want to go out and create things. If someone is interested in grad school, it means they’ve got a certain mind-set in the first place,” Hardy said.

Kathy Harris, owner of career consulting firm Jobmatics, has spoken to students and corporations for the past 33 years. She sees problems with how some students make their decisions. “Some students I talk to are genuinely after [a] master’s because it’s required for what they want to do, but many others simply don’t know,” she said.

Harris said the real problem isn’t that students feel unprepared for a career, but that they don’t know what career they want to pursue. For them, more school is just a way of deferring the decision-making process.

“I talk to students, when they’re headed off to do a master’s program, and large numbers of them often don’t even know which one. What I often hear is ‘I know I need to have this,’ and I ask why, and they don’t know,” she said. “Going into master’s just to have a master’s is avoiding the real issue, which ultimately is that you don’t know where you should go.”

Students who don’t have any clear directions become “over-engaged” with school, Harris said.

“There are around 25 to 30 per cent of students who seem to have it figured out, another 25 to 30 per cent that disengage from school very early, and then there is the large group in the middle who are drastically over-engaged. They don’t know what to choose, and their answer is often a double degree, or go do a master’s program and just keep hanging in there. It’s just a way to put the decision making on hold, to put their life on hold,” she said.

Harris said although having a master’s degree can’t hurt, success still requires that you know what you want to do.

“[Your] career starts the moment when you start doing any meaningful work.”

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