Where Are All Our Graduates Going?

Dhaval Jani/Flickr

As we move to the end of another school year, we salute our graduating classmates heading off to new endeavours. Yet part of me is perplexed that so many of those students are choosing more school upon graduating rather than less – at least initially.

Many of our peers are pursuing graduate and professional programs directly following their undergraduate diplomas. Are another two, four, or more years really the best solution? Are these students aware that once they’ve completed these programs, they will have spent up to two consecutive decades in school? Talk about academic fatigue.

And it’s just not stress to be wary of. At the conclusion of their programs, these students may be years behind on their careers. Whatever value they find in the new degrees they hold will be largely offset by their dearth of experience compared to those who immediately started working after completing their undergraduate programs.

These students should be aware of their options.

For example, taking a year off one’s studies – known as the abominable “gap year” – was once stigmatized, but is now a common practice among college freshmen. When it includes work experience – either in jobs, internships, or volunteer programs – it gives students early exposure to the real world.

Who among us couldn’t benefit from some more time to mature, build experience and skills, and apply what we’ve learned in the classroom to real problems? Future postgraduate students should consider gap year of sorts – a year of work in their career field after graduation, as opposed to during.

Schools, for their part, should do a better job at making those options available. Some institutions have already realized the growing importance of experience in career development. As a rule, most business schools require previous work experience when evaluating applicants. In terms of other professional schools, Northwestern University School of Law reports that about 90% of its students took one or more years out of school before starting their postgraduate studies. Even medical schools look favourably upon constructive extracurricular activities to gain practical experience.

But some graduate and professional schools don’t go as far to encourage gap years and work experience. As McGill’s Career Planning Service notes, “research graduate programs may be more challenging to get back into if you have spent many years away from the field.” But many fields – including the arts and humanities – offer relevant opportunities within their field for graduating students, so it’s possible to make that time off productive. Taking a year off to work doesn’t mean taking a year off to work anywhere – it means considering work that advances your career. Students need better services to make them aware of these opportunities.

As it stands, many graduating students are left to fend for themselves. It’s a brutal job market; with double-digit youth unemployment, it’s hard to find the right internship or job, if any job at all. But unlike the job market, graduate programs always have a place for more students and students view these programs as one of the last places that will still accept them. However, just because they’re being accepted for something (and paying dearly for it) doesn’t necessarily mean the postgraduate path is a good idea.

We need a cultural shift in universities that prioritizes giving students as much experience as possible, even after graduation, not as much schooling as possible. The job boards and planning services we have today are only part of the way there. Let’s make work experience an integral part of graduation. For all students, but especially for graduating students, we need universities to offer more comprehensive job boards. These revamped listings would give graduating students a better footing for the transition into the next phase of their lives. Basic “student jobs” like tree planting and English tutoring don’t advance any futures – replace these dead ends with actual opportunities, even if they’re only volunteer positions.

Until universities improve their prospects for graduates, or even if they never do, it’s still your responsibility to be both daring and pragmatic regarding your career. Daring in that if you find a good opportunity upon graduation – seize it. School will always be here; the opportunity might not. Pragmatic in that the financial cost of a graduate degree is best justified if you’re certain that’s the field you want to pursue. Neither piece of advice is groundbreaking, but both must be constantly emphasized.

The binary of in-school or out-of-school doesn’t represent all the opportunities out there. But a degree is a great path toward achieving any of them. To those who are receiving their diplomas this spring, congratulations – and good luck!

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.