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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Hiding Out from Today’s Job Market in Grad School

Good idea or bad idea?

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When the economy is performing poorly (like presently in the U.S.), there is at least one type of office that enjoys significant increases in business. That office is the graduate school admissions office. The number of people applying to graduate school skyrockets when the economy is sluggish and jobs are next to non-existent. It is not just coincidence that other companies associated with admissions also do well. Let's just say, you can bet Educational Testing Service (aka ETS, who has the monopoly on the GRE and other standardized tests) will have a fat goose to roast this holiday season.

When jobs are scarce, many newly minted Bachelors and others who are out of a job come to the conclusion that it may just be the perfect time to pursue a graduate degree. This has been covered extensively in the media in the last couple of years. Journalists refer to it as "weathering the storm," or "hiding out" in graduate school. See these articles, for example: http://tiny.cc/tcwpk, http://tiny.cc/la4ka, http://tiny.cc/i78ie

The rationale of those who decide to hide out in grad school is roughly this: "It's practically impossible to get a job now. I might as well go to grad school to increase my marketability. With all the extra expertise I will have once I graduate, someone will surely hire me." They also secretly believe that by the time they have completed their graduate degree, the economy will have improved to boot, thus, creating oodles of jobs at desirable organizations. Yes, you can hear the post-graduation fantasizing now, "They will be begging me to take their job offers because the economy will be booming and I will have so much education."

Please pardon my sarcasm. While on the surface, it may seem like folks applying to graduate school to weather the storm of a bad job market have the right idea - it seems reasonable enough and, under the right circumstances for some people, it is a good idea. But for others, choosing this path may not lead to the outcomes they are hoping for.

Why? Two reasons. First, when you go to grad school, you often go into debt. If you have to pay tuition, you may have to take out a hefty loan. Even if your tuition is waived and you have an assistantship to help you pay your expenses (as in many Ph.D. programs), the majority of grad students still need to take out loans to get by with life expenses. It's easy to rationalize that taking out loans now is well worth making more money later. And it's true, in the long-term, you will likely make a higher salary if you have a Masters degree or Ph.D. You should be aware, however, that when you are just out of graduate school in psychology, there is rarely a dramatic difference between starting salaries of those with Bachelors degrees and those with Masters degrees or even PhDs. There are exceptions. For instance, in I/O Psychology, those with graduate degrees often see better returns on their educational investment sooner. What's important to keep in mind is that if you have loans to pay back, those payments will cut into your salary. In fact, paying off loans could easily bring your graduate degree-level salary right back down to the starting salary for someone fresh out of college.

Second, assuming that the economy will have improved during your years in graduate school is risky. Think of it this way, those who decided to "hide out" in a Masters degree program starting in fall 2009 (after the recession began in 2008) will be graduating this coming May - just 6 months from now. Will they be coming out of grad school to an improved job market? Maybe, but it's hard to be optimistic. Even if you have better luck than the class for 2011 and the job market does improve while you're completing your graduate degree, remember that there will be a backlog of qualified people available to fill jobs. Every semester new graduates coming out of school are flooding the job market. When the economy is poor, they won't all land jobs. Rather, they will continue to compete with the recent graduates until they do find a job. Then, unfortunately, you're right back where you were before you had a graduate degree - one amongst many qualified candidates with few jobs to compete for, but now with extra debt to pay off.

Ok, enough pessimism for now. What should you take from this post? No, I don't want to dash your hopes of getting a higher degree in psychology. No, I don't think higher degrees in psychology are useless (far from it, actually), but I do want to make three important points. First, ideally, you should go to graduate school because you really want to, not to hide out from a dismal job market. Question your own motives and make sure you're applying for the right reasons. If you're not intrinsically motivated, grad school is going to be a struggle.

Second, before you jump into graduate school to hide out from a lousy job market, think long and hard about your personal financial situation. Find out realistically how much an advanced degree will increase your salary in your area of interest. Calculate your budget. When you have loans to pay from graduate school years down the line, don´t get caught thinking you should have invested in ETS stock, instead of grad school tuition. :)

And, third, regardless of if hiding out in grad school is the right move for you, know that you are facing more difficult graduate school admissions competition than in the past. While applicant pools are getting bigger due to the economy, funds at universities are also getting smaller for the same reason. This may mean fewer students can be admitted (particularly those who are eligible to receive an assistantship). You must make your application stand out. Remember to stay tuned to this blog for tips on how to do this.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.

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About the Author

Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.