School or Service? In a Down Economy which Way Should You Turn?

For the Class of 2009, job prospects appear grim. As an employment alternative, which is better: heading straight onto grad school, or participating in a term of service?

Is grad school the only safe haven from the nightmarish job market? Absolutely not. For an aspiring public service professional, serving full-time for a year or two with a national or international volunteer organization, or finding a fellowship in your field, may be better solutions.

The Case for and against Grad School

In any economy, both good and bad reasons exist to go to graduate school. Where normally a graduating college senior may be attracted to the structure of campus life, the security of knowing what’s next, and the parental nod of approval that come with a grad school experience, in this dismal job market even more reasons make grad school appealing as an alternate to the job search.

First: If you have a good idea about what direction you want to go in professionally, but fear few job openings in your field, you may be better off going to grad school so that you can work toward your professional goals rather than take a low-paying job that is completely unrelated, and that will take up valuable space on your resume.

Further, grad school also will allow you to defer loans, and may offer more affordable health insurance options than if you worked in a hourly-wage job that didn’t afford you health coverage.

At Idealist.org, we tend to think that grad students fair better after they’ve gotten a few years of work experience. Read more about why most undergrads should wait before going to grad school. Strictly academic fields of discipline (biology, history, literature, language) may be more inviting of undergrads, but professional degree programs (nonprofit management, business, public interest law, social work, public health, etc.) want to see people with real-world skills and professional experience.

Waiting to go to grad school gives you a chance to explore your professional talents and interests, offers you a basis for understanding what you’ll learn in school, and helps you to sharpen your career goals.

In addition to these normal arguments to postpone grad studies, this economic climate poses funding challenges for potential grad students.

  • First, federal loans may not cover 100 percent of your need. Usually students can use private loans to supplement federal funds. But this year, private loans are limited because of the credit crisis.
  • Second, competition will be stiffer for scholarships. School- and foundation-based scholarships are tied to endowments, which are weaker now due to recent stock market declines and fluctuations.
  • Finally, state-funded schools face big declines in funding, due to state budget shortfalls caused by unemployment and lost income tax revenue, so graduate assistantships may also be harder to get.

If you do go directly onto grad school this fall, take advantage of your time in school to get as much field experience as possible, including internships, part-time jobs, and volunteer opportunities. Also take advantage of your school’s alumni and career services to to explore and network in your areas of interest. Your experience and networks add to the value of your education in the eyes of employers.

Service Corps as a Temporary Alternative to Grad School, or Not

Participating in a term of service may be a great alternative for you for a year or two. You’ll be on the front lines of helping the people who are hardest hit by the economic crisis —communities already living on the financial edge. You’ll likely take on meaty service projects—in a team setting or on your own—and get more responsibility than you’d get in a entry-level job anyway.

Most service corps offer basic health coverage, and make it possible for you to defer student loan payments for the length of the term. Check with individual programs for details; you can see a list of Corps and Coalitions in the right-hand side bar of this blog. In the best of economies, service allows you to jumpstart your career with connections and responsibility you’d be hard-pressed to gain in an entry level position. And it offers the essential benefits like a living stipend, student loan deferment, and health insurance that grad school also does — without the burden of morestudent loan debt. To read about the value of service as a launching-off point for a social-impact career, read Why Service?

The bottom line is that service opportunities may be more plentiful than jobs, and more plentiful than ever if President-Elect Obama’s stimulus plan calls for the expansion of national service. The Change/Wire blog has had great reporting of why service should be included in the package, and it is a raison d’etre of the Service Nation movement to increase support of national service. Even if the stimulus package overlooks national service, Congress may still choose to increase support of national service programs which leverage private funds and volunteers, to make them very cost-effective investments.

Good reasons exist not to do a term of service. If you can’t afford to live on less than $1000 a month because of other financial burdens, service may not be feasible. My friend Jen is supporting her husband who is still in school, for example.

You may know yourself well enough to know that you’ll be miserable living “simply.” My cousin Meagen, who will soon graduate from George Washington University, says she hated being a camp counselor last summer because of the primitive accommodations — so she knows that serving out some Peace Corps assignments would be disastrous for her.

You might also consider finding a fellowship opportunity. Idealist.org has a list of fellowships in public service, and a discussion forum with even more opportunities listed.

Keeping Your Options Open

Julie Harrold, Director of Admissions and Recruitment at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota, says the most important things are to keep your options open and to put yourself in a position to learn and network with leaders.

While she agrees that grad school is more valuable after a few years of professional experience, Julie advises this year’s rising grads to apply for service corps, jobs, fellowships, and grad school—and see what comes up. She says most grad schools should be willing to defer enrollment for a year if an admitted student wants to use that time for AmeriCorps or another enriching opportunity. (You can also combine the two experiences.)

She goes onto say that developing a relationship with a leader who will mentor you is very valuable—as is putting yourself in a position to really learn something new. She also cautions young people from turning down a great opportunity in, say, community development, simply because their ultimate goal is in education policy. What you learn in one discipline will offer you broader insights as you move onto other disciplines, so community development may in fact help prepare you in unique ways for a career in education policy.

Finally, Julie Harrold is willing to answer questions about admissions and can be reached via email, jharrold[at]umn.edu.

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One thought on “School or Service? In a Down Economy which Way Should You Turn?

  1. Pingback: Combining Grad School and Service « The New Service

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