Why Not to Go to Graduate School (Yet)

by Peter Stokes

Since I’m glad to have been to graduate school myself, and I’m now pleased to be able to counsel students as they make their graduate or professional school plans, I would have a hard time arguing here that grad school stinks and you should avoid it like the plague.  Nevertheless, I do think that grad school represents a serious commitment, and that what you should avoid is using grad school as a default option, casually and without due diligence.

If you’d prefer just to stay in school rather than even think about the tough job market, well, I do have some sympathy.  By all means take this moment to climb back into bed, pull the covers over your head, and let out a self-pitying groan.  (I’d like to say this is a strategy I am unfamiliar with.)

Assuming that you’ve now pulled yourself together and are reading again, however, consider that grad school may not in fact be such an ideal place to be, just yet.  Grad school demands sacrifices of time, effort, and usually money.  Your position will seem even less rosy if after making those sacrifices and earning that advanced degree, you find that your job prospects are limited because you lack experience in the field, or that you have an unnecessary or the wrong degree for what you really want to do.

If you love research—and are sure you will still love it after several years of working on a narrow topic—a Ph.D. might well be for you.  Or if you’ve got a very good idea of what profession you want to go into, and you’ve done your research and know that there is an advanced degree you need for it now—by all means get that application together.

What does doing your research mean here?  Well, you should know what grad school entails, how it will help you in your profession, and what it costs (both in real terms and in lost income)—and you should have done this preferably at least in part by speaking with people in the field you want to work in, who have made decisions like this themselves and are in a great position to advise you.

However, if you’re not sure yet what profession is for you, or if you’re unsure at this point if you’ll be able to sustain an interest in academic work, or if the kind of grad school you have in mind usually expects full-time work experience—then you should probably wait.  It is rarely a bad idea to take some time before going to grad school.  That time gives you a chance to find out more about your career options, and what kind of grad school might be appropriate.  Make sure you explore all your options for what to do after school.

You can do some preparation for graduate school while an undergraduate without applying.  You can take the appropriate standardized test (GRE, GMAT, etc.), and talk with potential recommenders (you might use Interfolio).  But if you’re worried that you’ll lose your motivation for grad school if you take some time before you go, don’t.  In my experience, and that of many others, you’ll find if you take some time to be something other than a student, that when you return, you’re all the more focused and ready and able to take advantage of the opportunity that graduate school can represent.

But I Just Got Here… Career Planning and One-Year Degrees

by Sharon Fleshman

Back when I used to advise mostly undergraduate students, I would encourage first-year students to get settled academically and socially and to take advantage of the numerous extracurricular and student leadership opportunities at Penn.  For the most part, there was no need for them to be preoccupied about career decisions at that early stage.  However, I now find myself working with a lot of graduate students who are in one-year master’s programs. In other words, students who are in their first year are also in their last year.  If you are one of those students, it can be a challenge to juggle your coursework, field placements/internships (in some cases) and the job search.

As you’ve likely discovered, your time at Penn will feel like a sprint.  In a race, pacing is critical.  On one hand, you do not want to exhaust yourself by starting out too quickly.  Don’t immerse yourself in career planning to the neglect of your studies or building relationships with classmates.  On the other hand, it is not a good idea to have such a slow pace to start that you wait too long to pick up speed.

To get started, I would strongly suggest getting familiar with the Career Services website, which has many resources that you can access at any time.  Here are some other tips that I hope will help you to make the most of your fall semester:

Join a Career Services graduate student distribution list so that you receive timely e-mails about programs, events and job opportunities related to your career goals.

Make sure that you are aware of the timetables of various industries as it relates to hiring. While many organizations hire on a just-in-time, as needed basis in the spring, others may begin their recruiting process in the fall.  For instance, many business and technical companies use On-Campus Recruiting in the fall.  As you can see from the most recent blogs, a number of career fairs are held in the fall as well.  Government agencies often have structured programs that may require early application. See our Make an Impact webpage for more information on opportunities in the federal government.

Tweak your resume so that it will be easy to update and ready when you start applying for jobs. The Career Services website has useful advice on resumes as well as resume samples based on your academic program or career interest.

Start researching career options and develop a list of preferred employers and job functions. Check out the Career Exploration section of our website. Sometimes it can also be helpful to look at job descriptions to determine what is ideal to you.  To help you with this, the Career Services website lists links to job listing and company/organization websites, classified by career field.  Attend career services programs that are relevant to careers that interest you.  The Fall 2010 program calendar for graduate students is available here.

Start building your network. As you begin to get a sense for the careers that you want to pursue, you should make plans to speak with people who are in those careers and can provide perspective and guidance. The Penn Alumni Career Network and LinkedIn are two great places to start, particularly with informational interviewing.

Start planning for recommendation letters as necessary. While many employers request contacts for references by phone, there are some fields, such as K-12 teaching, that require letters of recommendation.  If your chosen career field requires a letter of recommendation or you anticipate pursuing doctoral studies at some point, start thinking about potential recommenders, including professors or field supervisors who you will encounter this fall.  Advice on requesting letters is available on our website. For online storage of confidential recommendation letters, Career Services has partnered with Interfolio. If you plan on applying for additional graduate school in the near future, speak with one of our Pre-Grad Advisors.

Get Organized. Even what I’ve mentioned above may seem overwhelming in terms of getting started.  Try to schedule your career planning so that you can be sure it’s not taking up too much (or too little) space on your calendar. Have some kind of system in place based on what works best for you.  For example, you might decide to dedicate a couple of hours each week to researching career options and conduct at least two information interviews per month.

Talk to a Career Services advisor.  It is often helpful to have a listening ear as you brainstorm about career options and networking/job search strategies, or make decisions about job offers. It is always necessary to have a second pair of eyes as you put the finishing touches on that resume. Perhaps you just need some assistance in getting organized. Wherever you find yourself in the career planning process, be assured that Career Services counselors are available to help you as you prepare to cross the finish line into next phase of your career.

Two years later….

by Patrica Rose

About this time in 2008 we saw the economy implode.  Recruiting just about froze in place. Those who had summer offers were lucky: the employers honored them, and we urged students to accept them.   Other students were in for a hard time.  Even so, the class of 2009 landed on their feet.  They worked hard to get jobs or get into graduate programs.  Some ended up in positions that were not their first choice, but they are doing well nonetheless.  Others were liberated from the specter of more traditional employment and struck out on their own, to pursue a dream.  By the fall of 2009, only 11% of the class was still seeking employment.

A year ago this time things were a little better.  Employer activity on campus was more palpable.  The recruiters who came were serious about hiring, and not just going through the motions.  During the spring semester of 2010 things really took off.  Spring career fairs had an uptick in employer attendance.  Some employers who didn’t recruit in the fall returned to campus, with unexpected positions to fill.  On it went throughout the late spring and this summer, when we saw strong signups for fall career fairs and on-campus recruiting.  We breathed a sigh of relief:  things would be almost normal for the class of 2011.

But not so fast.  Over the past week or two there have ominous financial reports.  In particular, sales of existing homes were off 27%, and the number of first time filers for unemployment benefits was higher than expected.  More commentators are talking about a double dip: having emerged from the last recession, perhaps we are going to fall back into a second.  Something called the Hindenburg Omen may presage a stock market collapse.  Will the class of 2011 actually have an experience closer to that of the class of 2009?  If I could answer this question with any authority I would be in a different line of work.

If you are going to be graduating this spring (or before), what should you do?  First, you can’t control the economic forces swirling around us.  And we remain hopeful, after all, that all the employers visiting campus this fall will not just be going through the motions.  But if things do slow down, focus on the things you can control.  Take a leaf from the pages of the 2009 book.  Think seriously about what you want to do in your first post-Penn job.  If you need help figuring that out, see a counselor here at Career Services.  Make sure your supporting documents (resume, cover letter drafts) are ready to go.  For those of you interested in the large employers who recruit on campus, the year starts today, August 30, the first day you can submit resumes.  Employer information sessions begin the day before classes start.  The large career days are the second week of classes.  Recruiting starts September 28.  Those who get a slow start will miss out on real opportunities.

If you are applying to graduate or professional school, consult early with one of our pre-professional advisors.  Attend graduate school information sessions, beginning in September.  Be realistic about the schools on your list (our advisors can help with that too).   Ask for recommendations in plenty of time.  Make sure your applications are ready to go early.

Is all this making you nervous?  It’s still August, you say, and you’re right.  So sit back and enjoy this final week of summer.  Be confident.  You are at Penn, which will help, believe me.  Take advantage of all the resources that come with being a Quaker, especially those here in Career Services.  We look forward to working with you in the year ahead.  Here’s to the class of 2011!

“Makes ‘Em Laugh:” A Comic Strip a Day Gets the Dissertation Written

by Julie Vick

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

Are you deep in the middle of writing your dissertation and feel you are far removed from normal life?   Or might you be an undergrad wondering what graduate school is really like (or at least want to appreciate the funny side of academic endeavors)?  If so, take a break and have a laugh with Piled Higher and Deeper, a comic strip written about life in the trenches of graduate student-hood.  Jorge Cham, the author of Piled Higher and Deeper got his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was a full-time Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 2003-2005.    His strips have been collected into three published books and a fourth is due out soon.  Jorge spoke at Penn last year to an overflowing room of more than 200 people.

If you’re a first-time reader, there’s a page to check where you can find out about the characters and link to the most popular strips.

Not only are the comics themselves great to read but so is the fan mail:

“Oh God, it hurts! It’s all so true, and so evil! I can’t tell whether I should be laughing or crying in sympathy” -Chemistry grad from Caltech

“Your comic strip rocks. I’ve decided not to go to grad school.” -Elect. Eng. undergrad from Yale U.

“Everybody in my lab loves your work. The songs help soothe the hurt when my experiments fail and I think about the next 6 yrs here” -Microbiology grad from NYU

Give yourself the gift of laughter and spend a little time with PHD!