The job market is scary. Should I stay in school?

I get this question from time to time. I have to be careful not to get judgmental with my answer, because, ironically, I am a classic example of someone who stayed in school to avoid the job market, and for whom it worked out great.

I was an anthropology major as an undergrad, and I had a few internship and student leadership experiences in school. I firmly knew that I would probably not fit in the corporate world, and I had a pretty strong idealistic and activist bent. Also, both my parents are college professors, and I grew up thinking everyone had (or should have) the whole summer off from work (though in reality, my dad was and is always working, whether he’s teaching classes or not, because he’s always writing his next book). They always wanted me to focus on my studies; and also, neither of them had been through a “normal” job search–and had last been in the job market in the early 1960’s. So I was fairly shielded from the reality of the job market.

When I graduated from undergrad, I knew I was great at school, but I had absolutely no clue how to get a job. I went to Israel for 6 months and worked on a kibbutz while finishing my honors thesis. When I came home, I looked (weakly) for a job. I had gone to my college career center exactly one time in undergrad, and was too overwhelmed by anxiety to actually meet with a counselor. I had gone to one job fair, and found that most jobs being recruited for wanted someone to do sales or finance–and there were no jobs for “activists” there (funny thing–they also didn’t have any jobs for folksingers or poets. Drat!). I sent out maybe 20 resumes–resumes which were actually in chronological, not reverse chronological order (!)–along with highly personal and naive cover letters, to a number of nonprofits, and never heard back. When I look back on it now, it’s pretty embarrassing–but it also gives me empathy for the many liberal arts majors who didn’t take advantage of their career center. And it’s good for a laugh now and then, considering what I do for a living now!

Anyway, as I mentioned, I knew I was great at being in school. I applied to 6 PhD programs in anthropology and, on a whim–based on an ad in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I think–I applied to the New School for a Master’s in Nonprofit Management. It worked out that none of the PhD programs would offer me funding; and I also researched and found that only 50% of PhDs in anthropology actually got tenure-track professorships anyway (I figured I had a better shot at becoming a famous folksinger, and it wouldn’t cost me 6 years of research and dissertation writing on a topic I wasn’t sure I loved). But I did get accepted to the New School–so I picked up everything and moved to New York City, thinking that, since I’d failed at the job search, I had no other options left. (!)

Two internships and many applied team projects later, I landed my first real job as Associate Director of Development at a women’s nonprofit.

I think maybe I’ve learned a lot since then.

These days, when someone asks me whether they should continue in school in order to avoid a bad job market, I caution them to learn more about the job market and learn how to sell themselves before diving into another degree. If I could go back in time, I think I’d still go for the master’s degree. It has come in handy over and over in my career, and I know I would not have been hired in any of my jobs in higher education without it. However, I am not sure I would have plunged right into the Master’s in Nonprofit Management without getting a little work experience first. And I’m glad I didn’t decide to go on for a second Master’s after I finished the first one just to avoid finding a job.

Here are what I think are some valid reasons to continue your education:

· You want to continue building work experience via internships, which are much easier to obtain when you are a currently enrolled student.

· You have researched the job market for the type of position you want, and have discovered that a specific academic training, language skill, technical expertise, etc., is required, which you will not have from just your existing degree; or that people who obtain the degree you’re considering have many more career prospects, get promoted faster, or have some number of required years of work experience for the job substituted for by the master’s degree.

· After reading the job descriptions for above positions and asking people in the field whether you might be qualified for them,  they recommend you get further education.

· You have decided you want to pursue a job where another degree is essential, like a career in academia where a PhD is necessary, or to enter some other profession where a specific license or certification is needed, like an MSW, etc.

· You have some specific reason to believe that the job market you are going to enter is actually going to be better a year from now–so you’re going to hide out in school until then.

Here are some other reasons, which I would question the validity of:

· You haven’t done your homework about the job market you want to enter, and only now when you are about to graduate do you realize you aren’t going to be able to get the job you want when you graduate. So you are procrastinating entering the real world, but aren’t planning to use continued education in a targeted way to achieve specific career goals. Instead, you are just doing it to procrastinate further.

· You are not willing to do the hard work of networking and job searching and so are hoping further education will magically absolve you of that work. It won’t–it will just postpone it until later. If your degree will actually add marketable skills, it, combined with relevant work experience, can make you a better candidate for jobs. But you’ll still have to do the job search at some point. For nearly everyone, it’s as unavoidable as death and taxes.

What do you think? Should you stay in school, or go look for a job?

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