Should You Work Before Going to Grad School

In many disciplines, working for a year or two before going to graduate school is a big plus.  Often times, the habits developed in the workplace make for a graduate student who completes the degree faster, deals better with procrastination, and has self-respect gained from real-world accomplishments that helps to deal with the insecurities of the graduate environment.  Also, having a real-world frame of reference can help in understanding concepts and completing assignments more effectively.


Reason A:  Recharge Your Batteries
Often times, students make it into graduate school immediately after completing their undergraduate degree, then hit a serious slump because they are out of energy.  Wait to start graduate school until you are highly motivated so that you can begin earning yourself a good reputation from your first day.

Reason B:  Learn the Skills They Didn’t Teach You in College
In a full-time job, you learn the importance of careful planning to meet deadlines and to develop long-term projects.  You realize that what seemed like a lot of work when you were an undergraduate was not a great deal when measured against the amount you can do with constant daily application.  You can also acquire or improve specific work skills.

Reason C:  Develop Confidence
The competency and confidence you gain on the job will provide you with an adult perspective that will be vital for successfully navigating graduate school.  You will know that if you don’t like graduate school, you can leave and still survive.  Perhaps you will find that you like work so much that you don’t want to go back to school after all.

Reason D:  Investigate a Field That Interests You
Working in your field can help you determine whether the area really interests you.  Taking a job related to your academic field may help you get into graduate school more easily than someone else who took an unrelated job.  While you are working, keep your eyes open for areas of thesis research.  You stand a much better chance of excelling in graduate school if you come ready to work on topics you have discovered on the job.

Reason E:  Develop Motivation
Many people return to school because they need the degree for further career advancement.  The contacts they have made in the professional world help them with graduate school.  

Do you have to work first?  Certainly not.  If you’re absolutely gung ho, then go immediately to graduate school.  If you have any hesitation, take off one to two years.  In programs that will almost certainly lead to academic jobs, usually a couple of years is acceptable, especially if you’ve been working in a related field.  Any more than that is risky.  In other fields, particularly in applied fields where students may be returning for additional training or credentials, students who have worked for a significant period of time may have little or no handicap.  Given this disparity between fields, check with professors or graduate school departments about their admissions policies before you stay away too long.

As a final word, if you do plan to take time off, you should ask your professors to write recommendations before or shortly after you graduate, before they have forgotten you.

Source:  “Getting What You Came For,” Robert L. Peters, Ph.D., Noonday Press, 1997.