1. We may not be the place to hide out in a slow economy.
WITH THE unemployment rate hovering at around 10 percent, many college graduates are seeking an advanced degree both to enhance their employment opportunities and to bide their time in a tough hiring climate.
I figure that by the time I get out, the job market should be better, says Regina Pencile, a 2010 Clemson grad heading to the University of Virginia to study urban and environmental planning. A survey of her fellow Clemson classmates found that 36 percent up from 25 percent in the 2002 recession are also taking the graduate school route.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that a master s degree increases annual income by roughly $12,000 over a B.A. But that statistic doesn t take into account today s shifting employment climate, where some fields, like journalism and law, offer limited prospects at best. Right now it s pretty grim out there for lawyers, says a spokesperson for the Law School Admission Council. A backlog of grads may not be absorbed for years. But not all fields are so closed to new hires. Among the best options: biochemistry, physical therapy and industrial psychology.
2. We re not just about the numbers.
TIME WAS, a strong GPA and top scores on the Graduate Record Exam would translate to near automatic admission. Now many grad schools expect more. MBA programs want candidates with a couple years experience in their chosen specialty, say, finance or marketing, while Harvard s John F. Kennedy School of Government requires candidates for a master s in public administration to have three years of full-time experience. But sometimes a summer internship or volunteer job can smooth the way. Jennifer Bolton, an animal behavior major at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, won a summer internship working on a rat obesity project at Duke University. Says Bolton, I think the internship had a great deal to do with my acceptance and a generous financial-aid package.
Top schools also want people with passion, says Evan Forster, author of The MBA Reality Check. To show it, applicants must produce a statement of purpose. But saying you want an MBA to make money won t cut it, says Forster. You have to show that you re a visionary with plans to, say, transform the energy sector, he says.
3. You ll be competing with the whole world to get in.
OTHER JOB-MARKET refugees aren t the only competition today s applicant faces. Though enrollment of first-year grad students from overseas remained flat, at about 18 percent during 2008 and 2009, their presence is significant in many fields. Foreign students make up 23 percent of those in business school, 46 percent of those in the physical sciences and 53 percent of those in engineering. And they re for-midable competitors: While their mean GRE verbal scores are understandably lower than those of U.S. test takers (418 versus 481), their math scores are stratospheric (667 versus 548).
But foreign students aren t exactly displacing their U.S. counterparts; there simply aren t enough applicants in the fields in which they concentrate, namely science and engineering, says a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Schools, a group of more than 500 universities offering graduate education. However, many top grad schools actively recruit foreigners. Rosemaria Martinelli, director of admissions for the University of Chicago s Booth School of Business, says she travels several times a year for that purpose. The result: 35 percent of Booth s students come from abroad.
4. Our second-tier status may hamper your career.
Jay Sa-Aadu, associate dean at Tippie, says according to the school s survey, median salaries for
Since not everybody can get in to a brand-name school, Robert H. Miller, author of Law School Confidential, suggests a strategy for targeting other law programs that might work in any field: Decide where you want to live, and look for a good local school. Firms hire from the schools they know, he says. To find the right one, research the background of people at major firms in the area to see which alma maters are well represented.
5. A fellowship? Don t count on it.
THE 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study declares that nearly three-quarters of master s-level students and 86 percent of doctoral students receive financial aid a huge portion of which comes in the form of loans. As for actual aid packages doled out by universities, doctoral students get the lion s share: on average, about $19,000 a year. A typical package may include a grant, a tuition waiver and a job a teaching assistantship or a research position that could add, on average, anywhere from $9,000 to $30,000 a year.
At Cornell University, 97 percent of doctoral candidates get aid, versus 37 percent of those seeking a master s, according to Sarah Hale, associate dean of student services. For the latter, great recommendations and an imaginative statement of purpose are crucial. Pencile, who said in her statement that she wanted to focus on planning, developing sustainable communities and helping underserved ones, received a fellowship and a scholarship totaling $22,000, along with health insurance and a work-study grant, from the University of Virginia. Her strategy: shopping for the school that offered the most. I didn t want to go into debt, she says.
6. Graduating with big debts is your problem not ours.
DEBT, ACCORDING to Martinelli, isn t such a big deal for students of the University of Chicago s business school, where expenses run about $165,000 for the two-year program. With the large salaries the school s grads earn a median of $100,000 annually she says, even if they borrow the entire amount, they can repay in five years. But David E. Drew, education professor at Claremont Graduate University, says grad students in general should be careful not to take on too much
debt. It can cripple them financially for life, he says.
Before enrolling, applicants should figure out whether their future salary will support their debt; loan payments shouldn t exceed 20 percent of gross income, according to the College Board. With the passage of student-aid reform this summer, grad students can borrow directly from the government: first, a Stafford loan of up to $20,500 a year at a 6.8 percent interest rate, then as much as they need from the PLUS program at 8.5 percent. And grads who serve in volunteer programs like the Peace Corps or teach in low-income areas may earn forgiveness of a small portion of government loans.
7. This isn t just an extension of college.
SOME GRAD SCHOOL curricula are pretty cut and dried, with a standard fare of required courses. All law schools, for example, include classes on torts, property and contracts, while most MBA programs cover accounting, marketing and finance. Electives or self-generated projects don t generally come until the second year. But many grad schools these days prod students into specialties. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health offers various master s and doctoral degrees, but they require specialization in one or more of the school s 10 concentrations, which include biostatistics, health policy and management, and population and reproductive health. In the field of public affairs, the University of Kansas and Harvard offer a master s in public administration. But the former emphasizes city and county government, while Harvard s premier program is public policy.
In short: You really have to know what you want to do before you enroll, says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. It s important to be an active consumer.
8. Not everybody finishes.
AFTER SINKING years and thousands of dollars into postgraduate education, a startling number of students drop out before getting a degree. A study by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service this year reported some 40 to 50 percent of doctoral students leave early. The reason: the time it takes to complete degrees, sometimes as long as 10 years. Fewer than 25 percent finished their degrees within five years, and just 45 percent within seven years.
You d think master s programs, which generally last only one to two years, would have much lower dropout rates. But a preliminary study the council kicked off this spring found 20 to 40 percent of master s students quit before receiving their degree.
9. It s not our job to get you a job...
WHEN IT COMES to career counseling and job placement, most of our efforts go to undergrads, says Richard White, director of career services at Rutgers University s New Brunswick campus. Nevertheless, his office has created 10 to 12 programs geared to graduate students, including CV-writing workshops, job-search seminars, counseling and job fairs.
He adds, however, that grad students who have attended the fairs say employers are mostly offering entry-level positions.
At the largest schools, many graduate programs for engineering, business and so on have their own placement offices that bring recruiters to campus. Before the recession, they hired students in droves months before they graduated; now their visits are sparser, and hiring is down, according to Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a group of 5,200 college career-placement specialists.
In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 20 percent of employers said they had hired the holder of an advanced degree within the past three months, down from 29 percent in 2004. Students often have the misconception that their school will find them a job, says Dan Bauer, founder of consultancy The MBA Exchange.
10. ...and we kind of fudge the stats on students who get jobs.
NOT ALL GRAD schools survey their newest alumni to find out whether they re gainfully employed. Those that do tend to trumpet claims of 75 percent or even all of their new degree holders landing a job within three or six months. Another source of data: Professional associations like the National Association of Social Workers and the American Institute of Physics often track the earnings of the newest graduates. Would-be grad students shopping for a school on the basis of such surveys should nonetheless be wary, because the numbers can get pretty squishy, according to Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis for PayScale.
The surveys generally don t reveal response rates, for example, and there is no analysis of whether graduates who don t answer questions about salaries are different from those who do, he says. Another chunk of students about 54 percent of those seeking a master s degree are already employed, according to the federal government, and when they graduate, they often stay on at the company they came from. If all else fails and a new grad can t find a job, the school itself may hire him to do research or other department work, says Bauer and may count his employment when calculating its stats. A spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Students says it has no position or standards on job-placement surveys, though it does encourage universities and businesses to collaborate to better clarify nonacademic career pathways.