My College:
Career Prep

Postponing Graduate School

Marlene Kern Fischer

If your student is thinking about going to graduate school straight after college, there are some things they might want to consider. Taking time off between college and graduate school has been a growing trend.

When I was a student 30+ years ago, completing your education in one shot was the norm (outside of the top MBA programs). Some of my friends had a true interest in the graduate program they chose. However, I had many friends who went as a default option because they didn’t know what else to do and applying to grad school gave them a concrete plan for post-college life. Several later realized they hadn’t put enough thought into the decision and wished they’d spent time exploring other career options which might have suited them better.

Today’s students seem wiser about their futures and are comfortable with the concept of taking time to figure things out.

With the rising costs of education, it makes sense to be sure before investing money in an advanced degree. In some fields, without excellent grades from a top graduate program, it may be challenging to get a job after graduation, making loan repayment difficult. It's essential that your student research job placement from the graduate schools they’re considering to improve the likelihood of achieving a return on their investment. In the field of law, for those hoping to work in large, prestigious, big city firms, pedigree does matter and it can make sense to pay full fare at a higher ranked school rather than attend a program that offers scholarship money.

Some graduate programs encourage potential applicants to take time off by limiting spots available to new college grads. A gap year or two can provide more time to study for and take (or retake) entrance exams, write essays and complete applications, visit schools and schedule interviews — all of which might help your student get accepted at a higher ranked school. Medical school applications are an especially time-consuming and involved process.

More Advantages to Waiting

  • Doing research or getting a job in the field they’re considering is a good way to see if graduate school is really the best course. My husband spent a year working as a paralegal before deciding he definitely wanted to be a lawyer.
  • Time off is an opportunity to explore alternate professions.
  • Save money!
  • Recharge before resuming academic life.
  • Have an adventure which might be hard to fit in later, like joining the Peace Corps, traveling or working in another country.

Another consideration: There are companies with excellent education benefits that will cover part or even all of the cost of night classes at nearby university or an online program. It will take longer to complete a degree this way, but the money saved may be worth it.

Once out in the real world — which has its own benefits like a paycheck and a less-sheltered environment — the life of a student (papers and exams, food service meals, campus housing, endless studying) may lose its appeal. A friend’s son, accepted at a top law school, decided to defer for a year and work at a start-up company. He liked his job so much that he decided to forgo law school altogether.

Of course, sometimes going to graduate school straight out of college makes the most sense. For a student who is in an academic groove, taking a few years off could cause a loss of momentum.

The economy and job market can also play a part. During economic slowdowns (like the current pandemic or the Great Recession that began in 2008), graduate school can keep a student meaningfully occupied until the job market improves while simultaneously giving them a chance to enhance themselves as job candidates. There was indeed a pandemic spike in applications this past year to business, law and medical schools, as well as some programs in psychology, economics and philosophy.

My oldest son decided to buck the “wait a year or two” trend. My husband and I weren’t sure he was ready for the rigors of law school and suggested he take some time off. Despite our advice, he was certain he was prepared and started law school just a few months after his college commencement. At 21, he was the second youngest in his class of 400 — the average age of first-year students was 24.

His conviction that he was on the right path shaped his experience. He enjoyed his time in law school, did well and landed a job at the firm where he had hoped to work. In contrast, he observed that his classmates who were ambivalent about pursuing a law degree did not perform as well as those who knew it was what they wanted, and this affected their job prospects after graduation.

You can help your own college student make an informed decision about graduate school by recommending that they consult with campus career counselors, alumni networks, friends’ parents and family members. If they’re still unsure, this may be a sign that waiting to apply, or deferring matriculation if they’ve already been accepted, is a good idea.

In the end, there’s no right or wrong approach. The decision about when and whether to pursue an advanced degree is highly personal. By doing their research — and soul search, too — your student should find themselves on a path that makes sense and feels right.

Photo by Danielle Clemons

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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