The Importance of Paid Work Experience Before Graduate School

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:

  1. Greater exposure and experience will help you be more clear and certain about what you want to do and what you need out of graduate school to do it. This is invaluable when choosing the degree, program and school the best suit you.

  2. Most of the strongest MPH, MHA, MPP and MBA programs now require at least 2 or more years of paid post bachelor’s work experience before matriculating.  Greater experience will not only help you meet the requirement but you will be a more competitive applicant. Work and life experience can also help differentiate you for medical school and other health professions school admission.  Going to the best possible school that also fits you and your goals makes a huge difference in your education, network, career opportunities and return on investment.

  3. Given the high and rising costs of graduate programs and medical school, you need to do be sure you make the right career path and corresponding graduate school and program choice.

  4. You will have more to contribute in graduate school and will get more out of it. In addition to having smaller courses with class participation being a major factor, many graduate programs are increasingly using case studies, interdisciplinary team work, real world projects and experiential learning that draw heavily on students’ prior experience and skills. The more experience you have the more you will be able to fully contribute with confidence. You will feel more comfortable with fellow students who have experience.  You will also be able to better choose courses and qualify for unique program opportunities with more experience and overall have a more well-rounded, enjoyable experience.

  5. You will be more competitive for internships, fellowships and jobs that you really want and will be better able to hit the ground running from the start. You will likely be able to get a better job with more responsibility and higher compensation.

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.

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Comment by Neha Shah on July 27, 2016 at 8:54am

Thanks for sharing this, Jeff! 

I agree wholeheartedly with you on the importance of post-undergraduate experience. However, I have only recently finished my Bachelor's and can't comment yet on how the work I'm doing now will enhance my graduate and/or post-graduate opportunities.

Nevertheless, I can say that experiencing different positions before applying to graduate school is helping me identify what I love to do, what skills are required for this, and which graduate programs can help me bridge the gap between my current qualifications and those I need to be successful in my health career. As you mentioned, there is an opportunity cost associated with graduate school and taking the time to pinpoint what programs I can gain the most from, while also contributing to, will be the best way for me to move forward.

One thing I'll add that I'd love your opinion on--how can post-undergraduate professionals balance the desire to experience many positions and organization types while also showing enough commitment to not alarm future employers? For instance, I hope to have at least 2 jobs before applying to graduate school, but these may only be positions I have for 8-12 months as I hope to return to school within 2-3 years. I have heard that having many short-term positions can reflect poorly on job applicants for several reasons (example: http://www.jobsite.co.uk/worklife/moving-jobs-how-often-19931/). At the same time, working in different roles is key to me finding my authentic health career and what graduate program can lead me there. 

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on finding this balance and what the ideal time is, if one exists, to stay in an entry-level position (1 year? more or less?). And if one does leave a position "too soon", what are the appropriate reasons to do so? How can this be framed in future job applications?

Comment by Gabriella Rivera on July 27, 2016 at 9:49am

Great advice!! Thanks for the share!

Comment by Beverly Bares on July 27, 2016 at 10:47am

Hi Jeff,

Thank you for this post. I recently graduated from San Jose State University (plan on going to grad school) and I have never work in my entire life; thus, no paid work experience but I have numerous volunteer and intern experiences. This post made understand the importance of having paid work experience and not to just dive in to graduate school without fully knowing what I really want to do. Thank you! 

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