Imagine this: You take out a massive loan to study a highly specified industry, work for a few years, realize that you hate your job (and/or industry altogether), then further realize you’ve sunk in so much time and money into this path that you’re stuck and can’t turn back…
… A bit of a frightening and stressful situation, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, this is what happens to a lot of young adults who dive straight into a Master’s program right after finishing up their Bachelor’s degree. Most of what we learn in school won’t ever be applied in the real world and what we experience while taking notes in guided classrooms is vastly different than what we experience when applying critical thinking and problem-solving in the working world. We don’t fully experience our studied practice until we lace up our boots and enter the field, so why do people choose to dive into a master’s program immediately after undergrad?
Unless you can confidently say that you are one of the rare few who have discovered your true calling in a classroom setting, higher education simply doesn’t serve its full purpose nor will it guarantee you career satisfaction unless you take a few intermediate steps prior to starting your Master’s program:
Finish Your Undergrad
Since you clicked on this article, the assumption here is that you have chosen college as your path. Despite the inefficiencies of traditional schooling, I am a proponent of obtaining an undergraduate degree simply because we live in a credential-based world. Having a diploma to your name gives you credibility and opens up doors to greater opportunity.
If you end up going into business for yourself, your diploma may help support your goals and there is some level of peace of mind in knowing that you are formally educated and can always land a desk job to make ends meet should you fall into a rough spot. If this ends up being your path, think of your college degree as an insurance policy.
Either way, finish up your undergraduate program and get that degree.
Get Your First “Adult” Job
Your first job will be a gamble. Some people get lucky, score their perfect job right out of school, and stay at that company until they retire. Most others work their first job for a few years before moving on to a different company or industry altogether. Understand that it is perfectly okay and normal for your first job out of school to not be a perfect fit for you. Unless the job is absolutely toxic to your overall wellbeing, the important thing is to stick with it for a few years for 5 reasons:
1. Build Experience
It’s tough getting your first job out of school when all entry-level positions somehow require 2-3 years of experience, so when an appealing opportunity presents itself, take it and stick with it for a few years.
As a fresh graduate, you need to absorb as much as you can from any opportunity given to you. No matter what opportunity you are presented with, there will be valuable lessons, skills, and certifications to achieve. As long as there is some overlap between what you studied and the work you are doing, you will find a way to grow your skills and build your resume.
In the grand scheme of things, a couple of years is a small investment for rapid professional growth that will lead to greater opportunities down the road, including a higher probability of getting accepted into your desired Master’s program. Consider this phase “hazing” or “paying your dues.”
2. Build Connections
You’ve heard the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” right? It’s half true. Who you know is very important because your connections will present the doors to new opportunities. However, we can’t neglect the “what you know” because our skillset is what opens those doors.
Depending on your personality type, it may be intimidating to walk around the office introducing yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and do it. Don’t be afraid to talk to your colleagues and ask questions. As long as you aren’t distracting, you’ll find that most working professionals are happy to talk to you, answer your questions, and help you grow. The more people you get to know, the more doors you’ll be presented with as you move forward in your career.
3. Obtain Your Certifications
Once again, we live in a credential-based world… word of mouth alone carries no weight. Employers expect acronyms after your name and powerful certifications which put a spotlight on you as a mature professional, therefore, it’s a great idea to get your certifications taken care of early in your career.
The beauty of working a corporate gig is the abundance of resources available for you to grow yourself. Chances are you’ll have plenty of downtime at your first job in between your mandatory training and your manager finding entry-level work for you to do, so capitalize on that downtime by studying your field, researching credentials that can prove beneficial, and checking company policy to see if any certifications can be completed on company time and/or reimbursed.
Oh yeah… while you’re at it, check to see if your company has any ‘continuing education’ programs in place which offer to partially or fully pay for your Master’s program 😉
4. Identify What You Value
While working your first gig in your studied industry, take time to understand what you like and what you value. This is the time to identify whether or not your current path is bringing you fulfillment and happiness. The simple question to ask yourself is “am I enjoying with I am doing?”
It is also important to note that corporate structures vary across industries. The construction industry offers great field exposure and time away from the computer but comes with rigid work-hours, offering little flexibility and virtually no “work from home” option. In contrast, computer science work tends to be highly flexible, allowing you to set your own hours and work from home, but the vast majority of your work will be spent staring into a screen.
In short, your first job will be a fantastic feeler for your career work and will help form your decision on whether or not to pursue higher education to learn more about your work.
5. Identify What You Don’t Value
Perhaps even more important than identifying things you value is identifying things that you don’t value. Your first job is the opportune time to test the waters. While working your first job, you are being paid to learn and grow, building your bank account and resume at the same time. If you decide this isn’t your path, you move on to something different with your bank account and updated resume in hand.
On the flip side, if you dive straight into a Master’s program and realize half-way through your program that you don’t enjoy what you are studying, you are not only losing all the tuition money you invested up to that point, but you also can’t showboat a “50% completed Master’s degree” on your resume without laughter ensuing. The entire endeavor is simply counted as a loss.
The takeaway is that your first job is the best place to dip your toe in the water to get a true feel for your industry. If you find that you don’t enjoy what you are doing (which is perfectly common and normal), you are still early and broad enough in your career to make a jump to another entry-level position without taking too much damage.
Make a Decision
You’ve done your time, built up your resume, made connections, identified everything you value and don’t value. Now it’s time to make a decision… Decide if what you are doing is something that you can spend the rest of your life doing. If your answer is anything other than a definitive “yes,” it’s probably in your best interest to start exploring other options. The last thing you want to do it settle.
If/when you find something you truly enjoy and something you want to become an expert in, that will be the right time to begin exploring higher education. The main benefits to have waited are:
- Increased Confidence: A few years of industry exposure will shine a spotlight on the Master’s program that is right for you. Your work connections will also be a fantastic resource to help guide your decision.
- Wider Opportunity: Having real-world experience will increase your probability of getting accepted to a higher education program.
- Discounted Education: Many companies are willing to pay for your higher education, which can save you tens of thousands of dollars (if not more). As a disclaimer, be mindful of any clauses the firm may enforce, because you may not want to lock yourself into a time-commitment with the firm in return for their compensation.
- Financial Stability: Pursuing a Master’s degree while working with a firm opens up the option to back off to part-time. The main benefit here is you get to make money while educating yourself, apply what you learn directly, and keep your foot in the door for when you are ready to get back to full-time work.
- Improved Performance: You will have an advantage over your classmates with real-world applications.
Hopefully this article proved to be helpful. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop a comment below.
Good luck and stay safe out there!