To Work or Not to Work

The million-dollar question:

Should I go directly from undergrad to grad school, or should I work first?

If you’re asking yourself this question, rest assured you are not alone. It feels like I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately with juniors and seniors who are grappling with the question of “what’s next?” Of course, the decision for everyone will be personal and will “depend” on many factors. But we hear “it depends” too much already in my opinion, so I thought I’d outline my thoughts around what, exactly, it depends on.

It depends on… the job you want.

When I was considering grad school and what program/course of study would best fit my goals, I found it really helpful to work backwards. I sifted through LinkedIn and Indeed and other job boards to put labels on the types of work in which I was especially interested. Then I looked at the “required and desired qualifications” to see what combination of education and experience I might need to get a foot in the door.

And it depends on… if you are competitive for the job you want.

HR is an attractive field for many reasons: the opportunity for frequent personal interactions, the excitement of varied work and the notion that “no two days will be the same,” the ability to design and improve processes that directly impact employees, for better or for worse. One of my favorite quotes from MHRM senior lecturer John Schaffner: “HR is the ethical heartbeat of the organization.” HR professionals hold power and are expected to wield it humbly and responsibly. All that said, you can imagine why HR is a difficult field to break into with little experience.

Several years ago, there was a trend toward the grad-school-right-away path.  A master’s degree allows you to differentiate yourself against candidates with more work experience. These days, it is much more common to see language like “master’s degree or bachelor’s degree + 3 years work experience” in a job posting. In fact, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that future demand for master’s level degrees is rising. By 2022, the number of jobs requiring a master’s degree is estimated to grow by 18.4%. So, in some companies, a master’s degree is sort of a barrier to entry. You need the degree plus work experience.

It also depends on… the industry and size of the organization you want to work for.

That being said, some organizations–middle market, start-ups, and not-for-profits, for example–may struggle to pay a competitive wage for a master’s-level HR professional, and they specifically target folks with less education and experience whom they may be able to attract with a lower base salary but robust benefits package – like more vacation, flexible/remote working, autonomy. In other words, the size of the organization, type of HR position, and specific industry in which the company competes will greatly influence what level of education and experience is required. Important to note is that these positions may be slightly more difficult to come by, given smaller organizations have much smaller HR departments with fewer openings.

Of course, these are just some strategies I used in my own process. I hope these are helpful thoughts to chew on as you consider what decision is right for you and your career goals–and remember, it’s okay if your path is different. 🙂