Plan your career before starting a master’s degree

Plan your career before starting a master’s degree

I got my BA from a university which attracted the rich daughter of a CEO, who wiggled her manicured toes on my bunkbed, while pretending to study in our group and mostly studying her own fingernails. (Her father had a jet. I assume she’s done quite well for herself.)

The select rich kids were followed by smart kids from the nicer suburbs, who confidently networked with visiting speakers, and, in one case, turned in two honors theses because one wasn’t enough!

But most students at “Ohio Wonderful”** were earnest young men and women from working-class families. They graduated from this private college with heavy student loan debt—and ended up working sales jobs at the local Godiva Chocolates, a pet store, the local movie theatre, and a temp agency.

In other words, a bachelor’s didn’t get them very far.

CC image by Dark Roses, on FlicrThe problem with a master’s is that it can do the same. You may be struggling along with a bachelor’s, finding it hard to land a satisfying job, and not sure what to do next.

But don’t get a master’s just because everyone is leveling up on credentials by borrowing against their future self. That’s a bad game for us all.

I can also attest that engaging work at a living wage isn’t any easier to find after a master’s. Another degree doesn’t fix our lopsided labor market–that market with too few good jobs for ambitious and hardworking people. It doesn’t make it easier to find good work.

What it can do is indenture you to lenders (among other reasons not to go to grad school), with no more money or job security on the other end.

Don’t take that too hard. That’s just your standard wizened old sage on the side of the road: “warning, young person, before you embark on this quest.”

I have two master’s, so obviously I found it worthwhile. I got both fully funded, worked during both, and it was a good experience.

So there are reasons to get a master’s–and you’ll learn a lot about yourself along the way–but before you start looking at specific master’s programs, ask yourself a few questions:

1. What are 5-10 careers that I could see myself doing?

(If you’re stuck, read some career books and ask folks for ideas of work that could fit your interests and situation. Sometimes, distant relatives, mentors, or other tangential friends may broaden your thinking and give you access to different ideas that those circulating in your normal social circle.)

For each of those careers, consider:

– How much does career actually pay newbies, and what’s required to get in? (look at job ads)

– How long are the hours I’d have to work?

– How much is the field growing or shrinking, relative to the number of interested people? How hard is it to get hired, or re-hired in the field?

– How easily can others upstage me? Will a whippersnapper with a portfolio and no degree beat me out for a job? (This is where barriers to entry like a union, certification, or licensing can be helpful to block out others once you’re in (!)).

– How easily can I change locations or flex hours if I need to care for kids, a wife or husband, aging parents, etc.?

– How easily can I cut my hours if I want to build up another calling or passion–or step up hours when my family needs more income?

– Is this work I’d enjoy doing?

– Will I have money, time and energy for things I love outside of work?

If you think you’ve found some paths that fit… stop!  Before you look at specific schools, ask yourself:

2) Can I apprentice, shadow, volunteer, or do informational interviews to learn more?

3) Can I work in an assisting role (library tech, lab tech, pharmacy tech) to get a feel for the flow and environment of work?

4) Can I find 4-5 people currently in the field to talk about what the job is like—before I get the hard sell from a grad program?

5) Can I hear from those who weren’t successful in finding a job after this type of program, and hear why they think it didn’t work?

Once you’ve taken a good look at the career and peoples’ experiences, and found a few interesting programs, check out my next post for pointed questions to ask about the program.


**Pretty sure Ohio Wonderful is what we called our school in our snarky alternative student paper–a cross between The Onion and student grumbling, which we shoved under professors’ doors and tossed on library and café tables. Oh yes.

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