Last week I had the privilege of leading life-career workshops for almost 300 Health Career Connection (HCC) Interns in Oakland, Boston and Washington DC. One of the most popular discussion topics was the question “How important is it to have paid work experience prior to applying for graduate school?” I was struck by the large number of students who felt the need to go to graduate school without gaining sufficient post-undergraduate experience. More surprising was that over 50% were getting pressure from their parents to go straight through to graduate school.
While I can understand where students and parents are coming from, I am concerned that their perspective is misaligned with the views and practices of most health employers and graduate health professions programs. In my over 25 years of empowering students to pursue health careers and graduate education, paid post-undergraduate work experience has never been more valuable and practical than it is now.
The Center I run at U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health places hundreds of graduate students in internships and jobs each year. I also place over 350 Health Career Connection (HCC) Interns each year and advise hundreds of HCC alumni and My Health Career Navigator members on their job and graduate school choices. I wish I had a dollar for every time a health employer has made a comment to me that went something like "Thanks for sending us a student with such solid pre-graduate program work experience. It enabled her to quickly understand how to navigate our culture, work independently and utilize proven skills to make significant contributions. We would not have hired her nor would she have been as successful without significant previous experience". The bottom line is that health employers increasingly want to hire candidates who have solid paid work experience for jobs and even internships. I have found that the more pre-graduate school experience that candidates have, the better the position and greater pay they can secure and the more effective they are in their positions. It breaks my heart to see smart, talented students with less experience being passed over and struggling to get jobs and internships after devoting significant time and money for their graduate education.
I also engage regularly with admissions directors and faculty at dozens of top schools of public health, medicine, business, public policy and social work. While there are still good schools and programs that will accept students with strong academic credentials and high test scores that do not have experience, many are increasing the value they place on paid post undergraduate work and life experience. This is partly in response to employer expectations but also based on their experience with what makes successful graduate students and a desire to create a cohort of students who can learn from and contribute to each other and to the quality of the program.
While medicine, law and public health programs like epidemiology and biostatistics, may place have less of an emphasis on previous experience, there are many reasons why candidates for those and all programs would still benefit. It has become more common for students to have gap years and work experience before medical school. The average age of medical school matriculants is now over 24.
The five key reasons to get solid work experience before applying to graduate school that I wrote about in my July 11, 2013 blog are more relevant than ever so I have listed them again below:
One other important consideration is whether you have the energy and the qualifications to be a competitive applicant and succeed in demanding, rigorous graduate programs. Taking a break to strengthen your preparation and readiness as you gain relevant experience can also be very beneficial.
The conundrum is how to get work relevant experience in the health field without a graduate degree but it is very possible and there are more solid options than ever. It will be the subject of an up-coming My HCN blog. Stay tuned.
Ultimately I want all of you to choose and successfully pursue the graduate education and health career that best suit you so that you can have the life and impact you want to have. Your graduate education is an important part of the journey and investment. Get the experience you need to make well informed decisions, get into the best fit school and succeed in the program and beyond.
I encourage you to share your perspectives and experience; particularly from those of you who have gone to graduate school with and without prior experience.