Graduate School and Career Exploration

As an advisor working with students and alumni considering master’s degrees and doctorates in science and engineering, I frequently encourage advisees to schedule an appointment with one of my colleagues on the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences career counseling teams. Careful career exploration should precede and accompany graduate school consideration, and it is helpful to view graduate school not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Before you decide to attend graduate school, you should be as clear as possible about why and how it fits into your career plans. While what you study as an undergraduate can have little relationship to your career, your graduate course of study can have a more direct impact on your career progression. The connection between career and graduate degree is clear for certain degrees (e.g., MD and JD). It is perhaps less clear for non-professional master’s degrees (MA and MS as opposed to MBA, MPH, etc.) as well as doctorates, which can seem merely like an extension and deepening of your undergraduate course of study, but are designed to prepare you for a career in research.

The first question to ask yourself if you are considering a master’s or PhD is what type of position you envision yourself in after you complete the degree. If you are looking for an academic research position, talk extensively with your faculty advisors, who are in the best position to help you choose a graduate program and navigate your nascent academic career. If you are considering a career outside the academy, engage in extensive career exploration by working with our career counselors and talking to Penn alumni who are employed in fields you want to pursue. Career exploration is essential for helping you determine if, when, and what type of graduate program makes sense for you. For many of the students I advise who are interested in careers in biomedical sciences, engineering, or computer science, a master’s or PhD, especially immediately following the completion of your undergraduate degree, might not be the most straightforward path to the career you desire. It can be more strategic to work in industry for a period of time before pursuing graduate work, in part so that you can gain confidence in your chosen career trajectory. Moreover, the decision to attend graduate school can have significant financial implications—even though most doctoral programs in STEM fields provide tuition scholarships and stipends, for example, they can still influence your finances in terms of lost wages and deferred career progression. Career Services can help you explore these considerations.

Your career goals and professional ambitions can and should change and develop throughout your working life, and even the most clearly professionally-focused graduate degrees do not limit you to a single career or even a narrow career trajectory. You certainly do not need to have everything figured out before you attend graduate school, but in most cases it is a mistake to view the decision to pursue graduate study outside of larger professional or career considerations. So take advantage of the resources available to you and fully explore graduate school as part of your more holistic career development plan. There is a reason the Graduate and Professional School Advising team is housed in Career Services!