To Grad School or Not?

by Leah Lundquist
follow me on Twitter: @leahlundquist

Against a lot of people’s better advice, I’m cracking the old textbook spine again. Well, actually, I’m ordering my eTextbooks or searching for open-source options this time around. Wow, how much has changed since I graduated from my undergrad over four years ago! And the changes aren’t just relegated to the logistics of how much we’re willing to pay for a textbook, but the very perception of the value of a graduate degree.

It’s a valid point. Akhila Kolisetty over at Justice for All dubs it our “higher education dependency.” For too long there’s been a sense that education trumps experience, and that the best next step you can take after your undergrad degree is to enroll into a master’s program. We hear: “Do it while you have the motivation!” and “You’re not going to want to do it later.” We do it for more income, to evade the entry-level positions, to get our dream job title, to build our networks, or the potentially worst reason of all–because we just don’t know what we want to do! In 2008, a whole new reason emerged–recession dodging.

I’m here to say that I wouldn’t trade anything for the time I took between my undergrad and now. During my four years in the working world, I’ve found both my voice and my vision. But I’m also excited about this grad program. Working in philanthropy and nonprofit effectiveness, I’ve learned a lot of soft skills (e.g. humility, ethics, and leadership). I’ve also started to develop hard skills like understanding the Form 990 and configuring data management systems. Through this graduate program, I hope to dig even deeper. 

Based on my arduous decision process leading up to enrollment, here’s some advice I have for folks fresh out of undergrad and those considering grad school. 

Advice for those new to the working world:

  1. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Define your vision for the world and then decide what you need to best enact that. The ever brilliant Albert Einstein said, “Try not to be a success; try to be of value.” If you feel that a graduate degree will help bring value to the work you do, great! Just make sure you’re doing it for that reason and not to achieve some elusive notion of “success.”
  2. Remember it’s all about balance. In a recent article in Blue Avocado, the nonprofit thought leader Jan Masaoka suggests, “The strongest leaders have technical as well as soft skills, and have practiced them in the field.” You need both types of skills, so be patient and give yourself the proper time to acquire them.
  3. Volunteer. Volunteer. Volunteer! To get out of the post-college, entry-level/internship slump, try a volunteer program such as Lutheran Volunteer CorpsAmeriCorps or Teach for America. My career (and that of other folks I’ve spoken with) have taken a totally different course or been greatly accelerated by the connections we made through these programs.

Advice for those considering grad school:

  1. Scope the scene. This may be obvious, but make sure you’ve explored other professional development opportunities first.
  2. Putting together the pieces–from wherever they are–is key. The skills we need for a rapidly changing workplace may not be found in a defined grad program, so be willing to connect the dots among different schools of the university and piece together a program that matches the skills you’d like to develop. Maybe it’s not a matter of MBA or MPA, but a little bit of both and a little bit of something else as well?!
  3. Dive in, feet first! Lastly, if you decide to do it, jump in with both feet and find ways to apply what you’re learning. I’m not looking at this as two years with my nose in a book, but two years of experimentation and networking galore. I plan on trying to apply what I’m learning whenever possible within my community.

Are there others out there who have made the decision to go or not go to grad school? What advice do you have? What questions do those considering grad school have? 

As of September 2010, Leah is enrolled as a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Policy. While there, she’ll be exploring ideas around cross-sector leadership at UMN’s Center for Integrative Leadership.

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