The Importance of Work Experience before Graduate School

In recent weeks multiple people have asked me “How important is it to have paid work experience prior to applying for graduate school?”  Interestingly, I have also had numerous health employers go out of their way to tell me that employees or graduate interns who have had meaningful work and life experience prior to graduate school are much more valuable, productive and impactful. In fact many feel so strongly about it that they plan to put even more emphasis on relevant work experience and demonstrated skills in their hiring decisions.  For this and many other reasons, I believe it is critical to have at least 2 and preferably 3-5+ years of paid work experience prior to applying for graduate school. This is particularly important in public health, business or public policy but having relevant work and life experience before medical, nursing, law and other health professions schools is also valuable.

Five other key reasons to get solid work experience before applying to graduate school in the health professions include:

  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 applying.  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.

I know all about the many reasons why many are very motivated to go straight through to graduate school. There are also solid programs that will admit you without experience and even provide you with funding.  However, given the realities of graduate programs and employment today, I feel more strongly than ever in my over 30 years in the health field that work experience prior to graduate school is essential. The conundrum is how to get work experience in the health field without a graduate degree but it is possible and will be the subject of an up-coming My HCN blog and webinar. Stay tuned. I welcome your feedback, particularly from those of you who have gone to graduate school with and without prior experience.


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Comment by Melissa Moreno on July 11, 2013 at 10:26pm

Hello, thanks this is actually very helpful advice. I am currently facing the dilemma of whether to apply to nursing school right out of college or to find work at a community clinic and gain more experience after graduation.  

Comment by Neha Vennekkat on July 12, 2013 at 6:45am

Great Article! This is also something I have struggled with. I know compelling work experience will make me a more suitable candidate for grad schools, but in researching jobs I have found it difficult to find meaningful positions that accept solely a bachelor's degree. The positions I have mostly come across in this regard are more administrative in function and much less hands on.

Comment by Helena Chung on July 12, 2013 at 7:16am

I wholeheartedly agree with the points made. After obtaining my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to work at least a solid two years before even thinking about graduate school. How could I find my authentic career without getting a taste of my likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses through working?

The other benefit of getting experience prior to grad school is being exposed to many post-grad individuals. It's a great opportunity to network with them to hear about their advice and missteps and develop connections with your dream schools. I think the experience will also help you write a more compelling personal statement. You'll have a stories and a deeper understanding that show why you want to go to that specific school.

Also, Neha, in regard to finding meaningful positions, I'd recommend starting by volunteering in organizations in which you're interested or roles that fit your passion. People like to look at experience, not just whether you were paid or unpaid. Sometimes the work will not be challenging at first, but as you meet more people who appreciate your great attitude and hard effort, you can ask for tasks related to what you prefer. I see many bosses and co-workers happily obliging, especially if you always finish the work they already give you. Volunteering or internships often lead to paid positions as well.

Great post!

-Helena Chung, HCC 2010 Alumna (whoooo!)

Comment by Talechia Nicole Sampson on July 12, 2013 at 7:23am

This is really helpful information. I asisted in the structured interviewing panel for job applicants applying to county positions at the Robeson County Health Department this week. Most candidates had qualities admirable for the job needing to be filled but were ineligible because an lack of experience. The assistant health director analyzed the applications noticing if there were any inconsistencies in their work history. The process taught me the importance of  work experience, consistent work history, and communication skills.

Comment by Amani Abdallah on July 12, 2013 at 8:21am

Thanks for this blog post Jeff. I think a lot of us want to go straight to graduate school because we're in "school mode." For me at least, one of my concerns is getting in the work field, getting too comfortable, and losing motivation to go back to school, and then having a difficult time re adjusting to the "student" life again. These are all really important factors to consider and I personally appreciate your honesty.

Comment by Paulina Flores Jimenez on July 12, 2013 at 8:44am

Great advice!  I agree with all that is said in the blog.  I especially agree with key reasons 1 and 2 about knowing what you want to get out of graduate school and the importance of contributing to a graduate program.  I know for sure that I want to be part of a graduate program that offers me the opportunity to get involved in real world projects and experiential learning.  Now my question is can it be any type of work experience, obviously in the field of your choice, but what if it’s work experience completed abroad like from the Peace Corps or let’s say something like Teach for America.

Comment by Catalina Bautista on July 12, 2013 at 9:30am

I agree that paid work experience before applying to graduate school is very important. I have been persistent with seeking out job opportunities within my public health major and as a result have had internships that have given me clinical, research and community health experience. I will also be doing another internship on diabetes management during my last year of school. I have many peers who graduated this year that are having difficulty finding jobs, because of their lack of experience in the public health field. I guess my question is how do we get paid work experience, if we are limited in the opportunities to gain experience as undergraduates. I am a pre-med, but I have a passion for community health and would like to pursue my MPH. I was actually planning on applying to graduate school this year and wonder if the experience I have obtained as an undergrad will be sufficient. If not, what kind of experience and opportunities are available to me, if I am interested in pursuing an MPH in health and social behavior? Any advice, recommendations or ideas would be greatly appreciated.  

Comment by Stephanie Chau on July 12, 2013 at 11:11am

I can definitely agree to that. I've worked in the biotech life sciences corporation for two years after I graduated, and from a seemingly simple production chemist position, I learned through experience and practice, all of the tenets of lean manufacturing. Never did I realize how important creating a culture of continuous improvement would be in the health field. In fact, I can honestly say that I got my internship now because of my experience in lean as a trainer, committee leader, and worker. Also, working implies that eventually the individual will attribute to cross training. Training another individual in itself is a humbling experience that challenges your critical communication skills. It is especially rewarding when training those who do not speak english well or at all, or teaching somebody who is not the same age as you whether older or younger. All of these things makes you a better health care professional that is capable to evolve with time and experience. 

Comment by July M. Merizier on July 15, 2013 at 8:47pm

Thank you so much for the advice! I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I really want to go to graduate school right after college but I have to weight my chances of employment after graduate school. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on pursing an MPH part-time right after college while working at the same time (in a public health environment). Would it be beneficial or is it better to focus on one at a time?

Comment by Jessica Huckabay on July 17, 2013 at 1:58pm

Thank you for this post. For me the transition to grad school right after my bachleor degree makes since because I have had over 10 years of work experiance both in the medical field and finance industry. But many people who are just out of college do not have the same experiance.


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