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Unique Job Search Concerns of Graduate Students

Unique Job Search Concerns of Graduate Students

Earning a graduate degree is a big accomplishment -- one many students hope will clear a path to a great job. But grad students typically confront unique barriers to job search success, especially if they're seeking opportunities outside academia.

Be ready to work around these internal and external roadblocks, either alone or with the help of a school career counselor, with this guide.

Internal Barriers

  • Overconfidence or Underconfidence: You might feel your graduate degree is a ticket to a job with a great salary and outstanding benefits and perks. Unfortunately, your undergraduate degree offered no guarantees, and neither does your grad degree.

    Conversely, you may feel you have little to offer a prospective employer, or that your academic experiences have no value in the workplace. And you may lack confidence in performing basic but critical job search tasks like writing resumes and cover letters and interviewing, especially if you went straight from your undergrad days to a graduate program.

  • Hazy Career Goals: "Some graduate students lack a clear career focus," says Sharon Goodyear, assistant director of career development at the William Mitchell College of Law and former director of career services at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "I am continually surprised when I meet law students who don't know what they want to do with the degree, but they think that a law degree would be useful even if they're not sure they want to practice law."

  • Difficulty Identifying and Selling Transferable Skills: If you're like many grad students, you may not know you have probably developed valuable skills in research, analysis, writing and verbal communication that transfer nicely to the workplace.

    You might also be prone to giving prospective employers too much detail about a topic you've studied in depth instead of highlighting the important skills you developed along the way.

    "Many employers...are not as interested in the details of a project as they are that job candidates possess the skills that enable one to complete an independent project -- research, writing, curiosity, collaboration, persistence, persuasion, self-motivation, etc.," says Briana Keller, PhD, a career counselor at the University of Washington who works frequently with graduate students.

External Barriers

  • Student Loan Debt: Nellie Mae's 2002 "National Student Loan Survey" reveals that the average graduate school debt rose from $21,000 in 1997 to $31,700 in 2002. According to the survey, student loan debt prompted nearly one in five college and professional school graduates to change career plans.

    In short: It's tough to come up with a $600 monthly student loan installment on a $28,000-a-year salary.

  • Tough Competition: Goodyear recently chatted with a third-year law student who said she'd never been turned down for a job until now, when she's about to complete her law degree.

    You may have had similar success throughout your academic and working career. But you're up against stiffer competition from your peers, not to mention higher expectations from employers.

    "Sometimes graduate students think that having an advanced degree should be enough to get them a fabulous job," Keller says. "Grad students interested in the business, nonprofit or government worlds still need to make sure they supplement book learning with real-world experience."

  • Employer Perceptions: Some hiring managers -- although not all, Keller stresses -- have negative attitudes about graduate students. You may be viewed as everything from elitist and flaky to out of touch and ignorant about the world of work.

    But if you demonstrate you possess the opposite traits -- and more -- thanks to grad school, you'll position yourself to be hired as the serious, capable candidate you are.

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