Employment Guide: Job experience more important than higher degree

By Nick Stamatakis

Hello, seniors. Thank goodness I’m not one of you yet. Hello, seniors. Thank goodness I’m not one of you yet.

Things are looking pretty bleak out there: Some of you will probably have to settle for jobs for which you are over-qualified. It’s little wonder, then, that many are electing to forgo that journey for now and instead plunge straight into graduate school, in an effort to better their chances.

But to all you about to make this decision, I say: stop.

Unless you are seeking a life in academia (which, on an unrelated note, I would too suggest avoiding) or going to a professional school for medicine or law, you have very few reasons to jump immediately into more schooling — the additional years right after graduation might do little to increase your income and employment prospects in the future.

To begin the argument against jumping right into things, I start with the opposing argument that’s for jumping right into things — that argument being that degrees signal to employers your ability to excel at work. This rationale approaches a degree as evidence for potential employers that you aren’t a schmuck.

Thus, some will argue, rushing to get a graduate degree simply means rushing to show the world that you are competent and deserve more money. Go to school now, and the signal is sent out earlier, and you are one step closer to your gold-encrusted bathroom. After all, when offered the choice between somebody with a master’s and somebody with a lesser degree, employers will decide that the former is the less schmucky one.

However, the signaling capability of a master’s degree very quickly declines as employers decide for themselves how talented of a worker you are. Your ability to think critically and contribute value to your organization, as well as your ability to make meetings on time, drastically overshadows the signaling ability of degrees.

The statistics profession, fittingly enough, provides data showing this to be the case, through the form of an annual survey prepared by the American Statistical Association. In this field, master’s-degree holders earn more on average, but mainly because their incomes have a wider range than those with bachelor’s. Nevertheless, the data shows that those with bachelor’s degrees still earn way more than those with master’s — the 50th percentile salary for the former, in fact, is more than the 50th percentile salary for the latter.

Who knows if this holds true for other professions. But whether or not it does, it shows that you don’t necessarily add income to your prospects with an advanced degree. Instead, your actual performance determines your income: The difference between a “bad”  (lowly paid) and “good” (highly paid) statistician, after all, was over $100,000 a year.

This now returns us to the question at hand: whether graduate school should come directly after your undergraduate education. Given that the signaling aspect of a quickly-pursued master’s is weak at best, the real question is if more education right now will really add more to your value as a worker than acquiring it after a few years off.

To understand how we add value to ourselves, we have to understand how we learn. One specific view, the constructionist theory, holds that we learn by mixing past experiences with new knowledge. New facts and ways of thinking only make us “smarter” if they can be placed into some kind of context that we already understand.

Drop a Viking and a 21st century college student into a lesson on ax battle tactics, the Viking will become “smarter” than the college student over the course of the lesson. Even if both people are equally intelligent, the Viking warrior would have context — he’d understand that the legs are the weakest part of a Viking’s armor and would take special note of applicable lessons — whereas the college kid would have no clue what was going on.

Now who will be the more desirable candidate to the king of a new Viking clan? In the long run, it will be the learner who was already a Viking, because he was able to place what he learned at Viking University into context. The king will reward him with a larger share of the plunder as he uses this information to benefit the group.

So as it was with Vikings then, it is with college kids now. Regardless of what your graduate work is, a candidate with some experience in the job market, whether or not the work is “degrading,” will be able to place more of what he or she learns into context. Even if the graduate work is only tangentially related to life in an office somewhere, the skills might still be found relevant.

To wait a year or two, then, means to gain experience and have graduate school increase your value to employers. Those jumping into it knowing nothing but school likely won’t gain as much in terms of servicable skills.

Thus, if in the long run your goal is to have higher income and better job prospects, it might be best to wait. Just having a degree might provide some income, but having actual skills is far more beneficial. A year off is a good way to help lay a foundation for such development.