Importance of grad school

Blame it on the recession, or a generation of resume-building overachievers, but graduate degrees are becoming ubiquitous. In today’s ultra-competitive job market, graduate school applications are up significantly. Still, while advanced degrees might improve a resume, they are no golden ticket to employment.

Christopher Arterton, a professor and former dean at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), said he has observed some students are “seeking graduate education as a kind of alternative to unemployment.”

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In a poor economy, graduate education applications tend to go up, particularly at institutions that are professionally oriented or applied.

At The George Washington University, applications to graduate programs have increased by 7 percent over last year. The School of Business and the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy have seen increases of 21 and 20 percent, respectively.

“GSPM is seen by some as an entry point for getting into the Washington job scene,” said Arterton, whose students primarily enter the program immediately following their undergraduate schooling. Some of the program’s other students have already entered the Washington workforce but “decide that they want to upgrade their skills to jump their career up a notch.”

Tony Varona, a professor and associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at American University’s Washington College of Law, said he has found some students are heading straight to law school because of the shortage of jobs. “Some think that it is better to ride out the economic downturn within the safe confines of an academic program offering the promise of enhanced career opportunities and earning potential at graduation,” he said.

Varona explained that while the J.D. degree is essential in the field of law, “in other fields, sophisticated work experience, in fact, may trump a graduate degree.”

D. Linda Garcia is an associate professor and former director of the Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) Master’s of Arts program at Georgetown University. She said the students who enroll in the program who were once interested in becoming dot.com moguls have scaled back their ambitions in this economy.

CCT students tend to be creative types who feel they “have reached a dead end and want to expand their horizons,” explained Garcia. “The students that we get now are interested in getting a job, but not so much in ‘making money.’”

Financially speaking, advanced degrees might hold more value than in the past. According to a June 15 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education & the Workforce, the gross lifetime earnings for someone with a professional degree is almost $4.7 million, compared to about $3.4 million for someone who has a bachelor’s.

As a rule, higher education levels tend to correlate with higher wages, but a larger paycheck isn’t necessarily students’ main motivation in pursuing a degree.

Though the recession and lack of available jobs are factors behind the rise in graduate school applications, it also appears to be part of a larger social trend.

Arterton said one indication of this is in the way students talk about advanced degrees. He said he hears a lot of students saying, “So I’m gonna get my master’s degree,” and said that phrase and the kind of “everybody’s gotta have one, and now I’ve got mine” connotation makes him think that there is almost an expectation that postgraduate education is a prerequisite for professional success.

Master’s and professional degrees are taking the place once held by the bachelor’s degree, becoming the new base credential required by many employers. Advanced degrees are increasingly perceived as a requirement for people to prosper in their careers, where, for past generations, a college degree was seen as the terminal degree for entry into professional-level jobs.

No matter what the motivations for working toward a higher degree, it is generally a rewarding experience.

According to Arterton, “Employers are now starting to think, well, somebody who has gotten a graduate degree, even if it’s not in the field that we’re specifically interested in, has shown a degree of initiative and might be a better candidate than someone who just has a bachelor’s.”