The road to a satisfying career is often a long-term, zigzag trip through uncharted terrain, not a fast trip on the interstate after graduation. Do individuals with graduate degrees effortlessly transition to the workplace due to their additional education and maturity? Not necessarily. The pathway to satisfying work is created by the interplay of one’s experiences, education, and circumstances.
To illustrate, I asked three individuals who received their baccalaureate in psychology, and subsequently completed graduate degrees, to share their insights by
• creating a brief bio of showing higher education and current job;
• identifying obstacles encountered in the workplace; and
• sharing advice with students.
Here are the results:
BA: Double major in Psychology and English, Hofstra University, 2006; independent research position at Bellevue Hospital
MA: General Psychology, concentration in Neuropsychology, Queens College, 2008
I did not further pursue neuropsychology because I realized that, though I found the field compelling, I did not foresee enjoying a career in neuropsychology. Instead, I investigated other avenues in which I could use my psychology background in the workplace.
Current Job: Associate Marketing Manager for Psychology & Sociology at Worth Publishers. I enjoy the collaborative and creative environment inherent in the publishing industry and in marketing. My job constantly challenges me to work cooperatively with my editorial and marketing colleagues to find new and innovative ways to market our texts to an academic audience.
Early obstacles: My adjustment to the workplace came gradually as I grew more comfortable in my role and responsibilities. My work environment was very different from the college environment I had grown accustomed to, and the biggest challenge I faced was the lack of feedback I would receive after completing a task at work. My manager was always encouraging, but feedback was neither as consistent nor as elaborative as I had received as a student. I also hadn’t been exposed to much group work during my academic career and needed to learn quickly how to work in a team environment. Over time, working in a team environment became one of the aspects of my job that I appreciate the most. Lastly, I also needed to adjust to having less control over my schedule. I am grateful to have a job that is fairly flexible, but nonetheless, I had to adapt to working an 8-hour day and to completing projects often within tight deadlines.
Advice to students: Learn to write well and expect to apply your writing skills to any job. A graduate social psychology teacher focused heavily on writing, and I’m glad she did. As my job developed, I took on the task of writing an introductory psychology teaching e-newsletter, and my writing skills have proved quite valuable. Even if I hadn’t taken on the e-newsletter, I would still value my writing skills simply for helping me communicate through e-mail with my colleagues and manager in a clear, professional manner.
Take courses that require oral presentations to develop strong speaking skills. My graduate course in clinical assessment taught me to interact, respond, and communicate with diverse individuals.
Expect your company’s organizational culture to be very different from college. Learn how to function in diverse environments and interact with people different from you. Instead of working independently, expect to follow your boss’s schedule and, depending on your particular job, expect that your effort may be judged on team rather than individual performance.
Try to find ways to make your job relevant to you. Make use of the skills and interests you developed in college, whatever they may be, and bring them to your job. Work with your manager to develop ways to apply your strengths or to become involved in projects that capitalize on your interests and strengths. Though the specifics of psychology course content are only important if you are staying in the psychology field, I’ve found other ways to bring my interest in psychology to my day-to-day activities at work. I firmly believe that if you can bring something based on your own interests and skills to your job, you will be more motivated and satisfied in the work you are doing.
AA: Highland Community College, 1994
BS: Psychology, Rockford College, 2000
MS: General Psychology, DePaul University, 2003
PhD: Community Psychology, DePaul University, 2006
Current Job: Director of Institutional Research at Loras College
Early obstacles: My adjustment to the workplace after graduate school was not too difficult because I was a nontraditional student, and as such had plenty of "real world” work experience. Although my past experience helped to frame my graduate work as training for a future career, I did encounter a couple of challenges.
One challenge of joining the workforce was serving in higher education in an administrative capacity instead of as a faculty member. For example, I saw an in/out group develop between faculty and administrators which made it hard for me to initially gain faculty trust. This can be especially challenging because most faculty in graduate school are seen by students as mentors, not potential adversaries.
Another potential challenge is the rate of adaptation to new events or stimuli. Most of the time in graduate school, students adapt to changes that occur around an academic calendar. In the workforce, adaptation is a daily, if not hourly, phenomenon that usually requires immediate action.
Realize you are returning to a competitive environment. Getting to graduate school is competitive, but it dwindles significantly after admission into the program. In the workplace, competition is constant and can affect all areas of the work environment.
Advice to students: Get as much "real world” experience related to your field of study. The practical application of knowledge I gained in the classroom via research teams is invaluable in the workplace.
Learn to write well and often. Scientific writing is very different than other forms of writing, and it is a necessity to work in any type of research field.
If you are not used to constructive criticism then make it a point to receive as much as you can before entering the workforce. I was lucky enough to have a mentor in graduate school who was no stranger to constructive criticism. Some of my fellow students were not so lucky and often expected to be put on a pedestal. This does not happen very often in the workforce, so get used to criticism.
BA: Psychology, Washington University, 1997
MA: Educational Policy and Leadership with concentration in Higher Education, University of Maryland, 2011
Current Job: Research Project Manager for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, the research arm of the Council for Opportunity in Education where I conduct research on the retention and success of low-income, historically underrepresented and academically underprepared students in postsecondary education. Also coauthor (as Abby Wilner) of the bestselling Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, and Quarterlifer’s Companion, a practical follow-up guide. I maintain quarterlifecrisis.com, an online community for twentysomethings.
Early obstacles: What struck me when I graduated from college was the "catch-22” of trying to gain experience without already having experience. I did not put a lot of serious, concrete thought into careers as an undergraduate. Unlike many students do today, I did not take advantage of internship opportunities to build relevant experience.
After graduating, I felt that I did not have enough substantial experience on my resume to give me an edge over any other recent graduate, other than a degree from a highly ranked university—a common commodity in the Washington, D.C. job market.
I began my "real world” experience by temping to get a taste of various jobs while building experience. That allowed me to explore not only different job fields but also different office environments, which helped me narrow down the variety of careers I was willing to try. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to know which career was right for me.
Advice to students: I would advise recent or soon-to-be college graduates to postpone enrollment in graduate school until they have built some "real world” experience and sampled different jobs and career fields. It is often the case that a job is not what we expected based on what we learned in the classroom.
With the increasing loan debts that students now carry, the choice of graduate school program is not a decision to be taken lightly. I did not attend graduate school until more than ten years of changing job fields and figuring out what I wanted to do. In some fields such as medicine—if you are sure that is the right career for you—it may be necessary to attend graduate school immediately.
Personally, however, I am glad that I did not waste the time or money on an advanced degree that I didn’t end up using. My current employer assisted with the majority of my tuition, and I attended part-time while working, so I did not end up in any debt as a result of my graduate degree. I am hopeful that my graduate degree will lead to a promotional opportunity in the very near future!
Summary: Connecting Education With Experience
These three scenarios are but a tiny nonrandom sample of options for following your baccalaureate degree with various combinations of graduate education and experiences. Jennifer’s position as Associate Marketing Manager in publishing is a sharp contrast to her master’s level focus in neuropsychology, but she transferred a great deal of her skills and knowledge and integrated her own interests into a job she enjoys.
Shaun’s prebaccalaureate experiences as a nontraditional student motivated him to complete his BS, MS, and PhD degrees successively, the skills from which he now applies in a nonteaching position as the Director of Institutional Research at a college.
Abby achieved success in writing and educational research with her BA several years before choosing a master’s program that now enables her to seek new opportunities.
Each individual encountered unexpected obstacles that were subsequently surmounted; each shares with you valuable insights and advice that can contribute to your decision regarding graduate education.
What commonalities do these individuals share?
• importance of developing strong and diverse writing skills;
• role of research skills;
• requirement each faced of adapting to organizational cultures that were different from college; and
• interplay of their experiences with their decisions about when to seek graduate education.
Gloria Steinem observed, "We make progress by a constant spiraling back and forth between the inner world and the outer one, the personal and the political, the self and the circumstances. Nature doesn’t move in a straight line, and as part of nature, neither do we.”
Why not discuss the lines, curves, and zigzags represented in the careers of these persons and by others you may know during your next Psi Chi meeting or career event?