For a majority of the 20th century, fashion observers could gauge the state of the Elephant_in_graduate_schooleconomy through women’s hemlines: When the Dow was up (think 20’s and ‘60’s), shorter skirts were in. A consistent downturn led to longer hemlines—and so it was in the 30’s and ‘70s. Today, we need only look to grad school applications to gauge the level of economic malaise.  With fewer employers on campus, many students in the class of 2009 are quietly re-evaluating their chances for employment success while taking steps to prepare for Plan B: More education. As of October, one Manhattan based testing preparation company reported that class enrollment was already up over 50% over 2007. Requests for FAFSA applications for financial aid are up 9%.

My friend and career strategy consultant, Sheila Curran, who coauthored the book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding A Path to Your Perfect Career, calls the stampede towards grad school the “elephant in the room”: Riding out a dismal employment climate by continuing in school is a topic that is rarely openly discussed.  A former director of career services at Duke University and Brown University, Sheila advises students that they’d be wise not to follow the grad school pied piper before considering the following:

  1. How much is pursuing a graduate degree going to add to my burgeoning undergraduate debt? Note: Now’s a good time to sharpen those cost/benefit analysis skills.
  2. Do I really want or need to study this subject at a higher level, or am I just looking for an excuse to wait out the poor economy and please my parents?
  3. Will I be more marketable with this particular graduate degree than with an undergraduate degree and a couple of years’ relevant experience?

Sheila’s advice to college seniors:

“There is no substitute for due diligence—as victims of today’s marketplace will tell you.  You need the straight scoop on the career prospects for the degree you’re considering. Talk to knowledgeable alumni, relatives, or friends of friends to find out if there’s really an advantage to having an additional educational qualification.”

Sheila points out that recruiters have mechanisms to hire those coming straight out of college, and an employment division to hire those with experience, but often have no formal avenues to hire the person with a graduate degree and no experience. And, it turns out that employers have some strong opinions on the subject of further education.

Asked whether new grads should go immediately to graduate school, the employers Sheila consulted unanimously expressed a preference for more relevant experience rather than further education.  One employer went further, exhorting students to “get a job, any job, even McDonalds.”

I agree with Sheila’s conclusions. And I think it’s about time we started to talk about the elephant in the room—especially since it’s going to be increasingly difficult to get financial aid from cash-strapped universities. Campus may not be safe haven from the economic storm that many students and their parents suppose. Maybe it’s a smarter decision to work for McDonalds after all.

I am not saying that you should “settle” for flipping burgers after earning a college degree, but I do think that a job can set you up for career advancement. I, too, graduated from college during a recession and I recall talking to a friend of a friend who took the only job he could find—delivering pizza for Pizza Hut. Matt was a business major and fluent in German. After eight months, he was managing the store. Within two years, Matt worked in Operations for Pizza Hut in Germany and was on a fast-track for senior leadership positions within the company.  Sometimes it isn’t a matter of where you start, it is how you take advantage of the opportunity you have that counts.