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When Does Real World Experience Outweigh the Benefits of Graduate School?

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The recent financial crisis resulted in economic hardships, particularly among recent graduates. Faced with a limited job market, many graduates are now rethinking whether the investment in graduate school is worth it.

There are certain professions where going to graduate school is a necessity, such as medicine, law, and certain scientific occupations. However, for those who are planning to go back to graduate school to advance their career, graduate school is a serious decision. It requires a large investment in terms of energy, emotions, finances, and time. Determining whether experience in the real world may outweigh the benefits of graduate school is essential.

I currently work full-time in a large advertising agency, and go to school at night to earn my master’s degree in marketing at a very competitive university. Managing both, along with volunteering and my social life, has proved to be incredibly challenging, but my ambition drives me forward. Keep reading to see some important things I considered when I was making the decision to go to graduate school.

Industry progresses faster

Generally, industries progress faster than academia. In fast-paced industries—such as technology, media and finance—this is even more apparent. If your goal is to learn new technologies and processes in your field, going back to graduate school may not significantly help get you up to speed. However, it might allow you the time to concentrate on a key area of research, or hone your foundational knowledge of your industry. Depending on the curriculum, it may also help you explore your field with greater breadth.

If your career goal is to help companies increase profits or discover the latest innovation in a field that doesn’t require specialized knowledge, real world experience allows you to stay connected to the market that demands your products or services. It helps you monitor trends and developments in real time. In my field, media and advertising technology change rapidly, which affects the industry and the clients we serve. What might have been a promising new app months ago can quickly become old news. I knew that taking a break from the real world would cost me the opportunity to learn about industry developments, which is why I chose to keep working full-time.

Interaction with people

Real world experience affords you the opportunity to deal with people across all ages, levels and backgrounds. In graduate school, most students have peer-to-peer relationships. Professors, teaching assistants, and the administration are the only individuals who are at a different level. There is less opportunity to develop skills in dealing with a highly matrixed organizational structure. The opportunity of talking to our CEO, along with the potential to meet new mentors who can help me navigate the professional environment, are some of the benefits I’ve found of developing experience in the real world.

Career progress

Another consideration you will face where real world experience may outweigh the benefits of going to graduate school is the time it takes you to finish your degree. During this time, you could gain on-the-job experience and knowledge needed to progress in your career much more quickly in the real world. In this case, the benefits of developing real world experience matter more than holding a graduate degree. Unfortunately, the “real world” experience you gain only counts when it allows you develop skills that helps you advance to the next step. If there is a lack of opportunities to develop your experience and knowledge, then graduate school may be a more beneficial route.

Employers’ viewpoint

It’s also important to understand how employers view academic degrees. A recent article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education states, “Employers want book smarts to translate to the real world.” If your graduate degree is only relevant in academia, but you want to develop a career in the industry, then having real world experience counts more than attending graduate school.

You should only go to graduate school if you’ve identified how possessing the degree will help you in the future. Your time in graduate school will be used to further define what you want to do. Things might change, but you should already have a general idea of whether the benefits outweigh the cost before going in. It is a serious commitment of your time, energy, and money.

However, graduate school is a reward because it opens opportunities, such as the opportunity to do research or partner with very brilliant professors in your field, that may not be found in the real world. Ultimately, it is a personal decision to go back to graduate school. It is important to understand the goals of academia versus businesses, but it’s up to you how you choose to navigate your career.

Are you trying to decide if graduate school is the right choice for you and your career goals? Ask Seamless Vice President of Product Lizzy Klein for her advice.


Career Path #Gamechangers #Personal Development #Graduate School Career Advice
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Maggie Seaver
Maggie Seaver

I really appreciate this article. You have to find what's right for you, I guess. Working at an ad agency and taking night classes sounds like a lot, but also a good balance (and it will be totally worth it in the end!).

Breanna Oubre
Breanna Oubre

Great article Kristine.

Thank you, I hope it helped!

Thanks for the comment, Maggie. Yes, it's a big personal decision and you have to make sure you're up for it 'til the end. Balance and motivation is key. It's an investment in the future- absolutely.


Great insights Kristine. Real world is so different from the textbooks that we learnt in business schools. I was fortunate enough to have linked myself with the real world while doing my distant graduation at Freedom Business School of California. There is a limitation to the exposure a distant school can offer you. But then, of course they open an umpteen number of avenues to graduates once they've completed the course.

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