Intro: Understanding the Question

When considering making the transition into graduate studies, myriad factors and questions arise. Some questions are purely “academic” like, “What is the nature of the field I am thinking of continuing?” Others are very personal: “How will this graduate degree enrich my own life and help others?” Other questions are very practical, such as, “Will I be able to afford to do this graduate degree program?” Or, “Can I even get a job after finishing this graduate degree that will make all the effort of the degree worthwhile?” There are, of course, many, many more questions of this sort that bombard the mind and emotions of aspiring graduate students. But, you get the picture.

Another question that is becoming more and more important to consider, how much graduate school admissions care about work experience. Let’s face it. Graduate school is a difficult undertaking, requiring time and financial commitments, and resources. Admission to a graduate degree program can also be quite competitive. This means that preparation before graduate school–one’s resume, education, experience, references, and relationships–must be carefully planned out and efficiently implemented even before filling in that first line of your graduate school application. Having a good idea of what graduate schools look for in applicants and how the specific field of your interests frames the notion of a high-quality graduate school applicant will largely determine the scope of your preparation for graduate school beforehand as well as the success of your application to that choice graduate degree program.

This FAQ looks at the question of Work Experience in terms of its effects and importance when applying to a graduate degree program. We will discover that work experience is, in fact, a requirement for some graduate degree programs, while it is not as important for others. Work experience requirements, it will be noted, are largely determined by the field of the graduate degree program. Throughout this article, we will clarify terms clarified, distinguish between more academic and professional fields, and note some of the risks and benefits of entering the workforce in between earning your bachelor’s degree and applying to a graduate degree program.

Understanding your Application

Every graduate degree program admissions committee wants to see a strong application. Depending upon the field, certain elements of an application will receive more scrutiny and be weighted more heavily than others. This is true across the spectrum: from the sciences to law, to business, to the humanities, all the subdisciplines that populate these fields of study, professions, and applications.

The basics of a good application are good to excellent grades in previous college education. The common bottom threshold for admission to a graduate program is an overall undergraduate GPA of 3.00. Most prefer a cumulative GPA that is closer to 3.5 or above.

The next key factor in producing a great application to a graduate degree program is excellent references-recommendations, attesting to your character, aptitude, and potential in the field, work ethic, and personal experience with you in academic and/or professional settings. Seek references from professors and colleagues who know you, and with whom you have developed a good rapport and a strong relationship of trust. Also, when requesting a reference or recommendation, be sure that the person doing you this service will, indeed, provide a positive assessment of you to the degree programs you are applying to. Often, the references-recommendations can be specifically tailored to the particular graduate degree program.

At this point, the differences between the fields of study make an important difference in how you should select potential recommenders. More academically oriented disciplines will want academic recommendations. So, graduate degree programs in the humanities or the research sciences will more carefully look at recommendations from former or current professors and instructors who teach and research in the field of your own desired graduate degree programs. Professional and applied degree programs will be more interested in your background beyond the classroom or the lab. Admissions committees for these programs will be interested in how you relate to others, collaborate, handle leadership positions, among many other practical and professional factors. This means that recommendations from employers, managers, mentors, and other people of influence and impact upon you personally, professionally, and academically will be of great importance to potential graduate degree admissions committees.

This brings us to a crucial difference between types of graduate degree programs. Some graduate degree programs, such as elementary and secondary education, medical professions, and, almost universally, managerial fields, will, not only desire, but require previous work experience beyond academic qualifications. Virtually, any business or medical management degree program will require five or more years of professional experience in leadership and/or management capacities in order to be considered for admission to their graduate degree program. This means you need to understand the expectations of graduate degree programs, dictated by the purpose of the field and desired professional outcomes of the graduate degree programs you are considering. Prepare ahead of time, because securing stellar recommendations from employers and colleagues requires years of building trust and confidence between you and those you work with and is a good indication of your likelihood of success, both in heading back to the classroom and as you continue your professional journey.

The next aspect to consider standardized tests that graduate schools use to help identify good candidates for their degree programs. These include the GRE (Graduate Record Examination for application to programs in the humanities), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test for graduate business degree programs), LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). Look at the test that pertains to your desired graduate degree program to determine a good score and compare this to the requirements of the schools where you are looking to apply. Here, as will most areas of academic success, early preparation for your test will be a great help in earning the score you need and want. Also, take advantage of the excellent prep tools and publications that are available. The following are some of the most reputable graduate test preparation vendors:

These important resources will help you get ready for your big test!

Weighing the Benefits

It is clear that graduate business and certain medical professional degrees require work experience. What about other fields? Here one must do a cost-benefit analysis in relation to timing, finances, preparation, and degree opportunities. For programs that do not require or do not recommend work experience prior to submitting an application, what you do with your time between graduation and application for graduate studies will be considered. In the Humanities, for example, one might take a job such as teaching or working for a research institution or simply volunteering. This productive time spent will likely be very well received by a graduate admissions committee. This kind of work may even become a career. Should you desire to arise to change careers, or should the need arise within your current career for you to attain additional academic qualifications, all the experience gained in the working world will be a feather in your cap.

College graduates often take a year or two off of school in order to recharge and reassess their goals and opportunities. Students can feel burned out, and just need to give formal study, assignments, and deadlines a rest for a while. This is quite common, and graduate admissions committees will not look negatively on the decision to step away from academia for a short time. Volunteer work and/or employment in a field related to your future graduate studies during this time can actually be a great benefit.

Many times recent college graduates will have come to the end of their funding. This, coupled with debt, can dissuade them from going immediately on to graduate studies. This is true especially when costs and potential debt incurred are high and decent-paying jobs are available. In such situations, taking some time off, gaining experience, and saving up for graduate studies can be a great idea.

In other situations, funding is immediately available in terms of scholarships and/or living expenses stipends to outstanding applicants. In these situations, making the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies is the best idea. It is paid for, one is still in the “academic” mode of living and working, and your path for the next few to several years is clearly laid out. Foregoing work experience for a graduate degree makes even more sense if there are no good job opportunities at the time of your graduation. You gain time and credentials to find a job and make yourself a more attractive candidate upon earning your graduate degree. If the career path you ultimately want to take requires a graduate degree and/or a terminal degree and funding is available, driving straight ahead into a graduate program becomes almost a “no-brainer”!

Can a Career Become a Distraction?

Will getting a job instead of entering directly into a graduate degree program take away the desire to ever get a graduate degree? This is a difficult question and there are many opinions about what is the most likely outcome of initially choosing work over further study. Rather than try the impossible task of providing and responding to the multitude of voices, we will try to draw some distinctions that will shed more light on the question.

As mentioned already, some graduate degree programs, such as management and certain medical professions, require work experience. Others, such as teaching or law or the arts will benefit from real-world and work environment experience. In these fields the decision, once and if you find yourself in a satisfying and adequately-paying job, will be a question of “How much do I want this degree and how will it improve or advance my current career”? In this scenario, work experience, or a “career” before graduate studies will not be so much a “distraction” but a process of self-discovery and clarification.

Other more academic or research-based fields are a slightly different story. Often in these fields, graduate degrees and/or terminal degrees are required for the career or position itself. Professional degrees, such and Law or Medicine, are similar because there are lucrative careers in the medical and legal professions that require only a bachelor’s degree and/or additional certifications. It may be that those whose initial ambitions were to directed towards earning an MD or JD find that their current work pays enough and is personally rewarding enough to quell academic ambitions. In such cases, however, one should not speak or think of your career as a distraction. Rather, the experience of life and its changing circumstances and demands made clear your deeper ambitions!

Competitive Admissions Process

Work experience can help out your graduate school application in many situations. However, real-life know-how can set yours apart from other applications when spots in the graduate degree program are few. Let’s face it, young people, just out of college can be, at times, unpredictable and not entirely settled in their career decisions. An applicant with a solid track record of quality work experience, coupled with excellent references, will show graduate degree programs that not only do you bring valuable experience to a graduate degree program but that you also have shown yourself to be possessed of a reliable character with the grit to finish a graduate degree.

Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

In any final appraisal of the benefits, costs, risks, and rewards of gaining work experience before graduate school, the best conclusion is that there is no absolute wrong or right answer to this question. It is a highly complex and personal decision that involves factors that cannot be accounted for in a one-size-fits-all solution. The best advice we can give you is to give yourself the needed time to think about the many angles of this question in relation to your own situation, means, and goals. Check with the particular programs you’re considering about how they view work experience. Get to know the stats about acceptance rates for the graduate degree program you’re interested in and the job stats in your desired field or profession. Weigh the knowledge you gain against the possible benefits of gaining work experience. Outside of your own careful study and reflection, the last piece of advice we will give is to consult the wisdom and experience of others who have walked a similar path that you’re considering. They may just give you the nudge in the right direction for you that you’ve been looking for.