Should You Work in Industry Before Attending Grad School?

Many undergraduate students who finish their degree with the intention of earning a graduate degree ask a similar question: Should I work before grad school or stay on the academic track? Does work experience help for grad school, or will the time away from academic life just distract me from my long-term goals?

Working provides the opportunity to test out a career before committing more time and money to your education. Yet some students find taking a gap year before grad school is disruptive to the learning process and makes it harder for them to restart their education

Don’t assume that delaying your plans or changing interests is a bad thing. Rushing into a rigorous degree program won’t be advantageous if you aren’t prepared financially or academically. Slowing down to really think about what you want out of your career is beneficial and may help you approach grad school applications with more direction and passion.

To achieve satisfaction in your career, weigh your options to decide whether you should apply for graduate school right away or get work experience first.

Things to consider when choosing between work vs. grad school

1. Professional experience

Bear in mind, graduate school isn’t a magic eight ball that will tell you how and where to find fulfillment in your career. Master’s degree and PhD programs allow you to study the theory and application of concepts that are crucial to your industry, but the research you do will be guided by your professional interests. When you lack hands-on career experience, it can be difficult to know what aspects of the job you will consider most rewarding or which skills you should prioritize in your professional development.

By working in industry before enrolling in a graduate program, you have the opportunity to experience the typical responsibilities and challenges associated with the career path you aspire to. In the process, you may discover that your prospective career path doesn’t fit your personality or skills. If you do still decide that grad school is right for you, learning from seasoned professionals and solving problems in a real work environment will make you better equipped to succeed in your degree program.

2. Career flexibility

Consider what jobs you can do with the undergraduate degree you already have. Does your chosen career path require an advanced degree for entry? Can you gain relevant work experience by taking a job now, or would you have to work in an unrelated industry? You can still get accepted to a grad school program if your prior education and work experience are unrelated, as long as you can demonstrate how your background will aid your academics.

Depending on the type of work you’re pursuing, you may have limited options without completing your graduate education. If your industry is highly competitive and job applicants with advanced degrees are the norm, completing your education sooner may give you the best advantage. On the other hand, if your career goals allow more flexibility and you can find a well-paying job without a graduate degree, it may be more beneficial to gain insight by working in a real-world environment.

3. Grad school applications

Professional resumés are a staple of graduate school applications. Admissions counselors want to see a clear connection between your past accomplishments and desired career, whether this involves a full-time job, volunteering, or professional certifications. Having real-world experience on your grad school resumé is one of the best ways to stand out, and in some programs, this may be a requirement for admission.

For example, competitive MBA programs often favor candidates who have proven success in a professional field. In a survey of 126 full-time MBA programs, the average work experience of admitted students was just over four years, U.S. News reports.

Before making a major decision, research the graduate programs you’re interested in. Speak with admissions counselors to find out exactly what qualities and experience they prioritize in the application process. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule that you must work a specific amount of time, it’s worthwhile to identify any weak points in your resumé and strengthen them before you apply.

4. Opportunity cost

Maybe you don’t have any doubts about starting grad school, and you’re ready to make the leap. What happens if you get enticing job opportunities after earning undergrad degree? Will you walk away from the chance to make meaningful progress in your career right now? Will you experience the same degree of professional growth by moving forward with grad school?

Don’t overlook the opportunity cost of starting graduate school sooner. If you plan to go to school full time without working, remember that your ability to earn and save money will be limited during this time. Even if you already have adequate funds to pay for your education, you could be more vulnerable to financial hardships if any unexpected hurdles arise. Take into account the length of the degree program as well. If best practices in your industry are frequently evolving, you may hinder your growth by being disconnected from the workforce.

5. Your personal and professional goals

Climbing the career ladder isn’t the number one priority for everyone. For many students, a love of scholarship and academic exploration is the driving force behind their decision to go to grad school. Your personal goals may involve teaching as a professor, conducting research to benefit your field, or publishing innovative ideas. In these instances, it may make sense to move forward with your education, especially if you plan to pursue more than one advanced degree.

No matter what your goals are, try not to get tunnel vision by believing there’s only one surefire path to your destination. Keeping your personal, professional, and financial goals in mind, reflect on what you hope to accomplish in the next two years, five years, and ten years. Do you anticipate any major life decisions during these periods that could conflict with your plans? What alternative methods could you use to achieve the same goals? For example, if you choose to work for a few years first, you’re more likely to qualify for accelerated grad school programs that require professional experience.

Should you work before grad school?

Making the choice to get a degree or a job is a personal matter that depends on your academic preparedness, personal passions, and financial position. As long as you know what you want to accomplish in your career, you can use either opportunity to improve your skills and gain relevant knowledge.

Arm yourself with as much information as possible. Contacting an admissions counselor is one of the best ways to get realistic expectations about the benefits a graduate degree program can offer. You should also try to connect with professionals who worked before grad school to find out if this path is appealing to you. By comparing options and learning more about the application process, you can decide if you’re ready to pursue an advanced degree.

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2022. It has since been updated for relevance and accuracy.