Get a job, or go to grad school?

By Anne Fisher, contributor


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I hope you can settle an argument. My parents are saying that with my college major (English), it will probably be hard for me to find a job when I graduate next spring. They want me to go straight to grad school and get a master's degree, which they say will make me more "marketable." (They are willing to foot the bill, which I do appreciate.)

But I am really reluctant to start applying because, to be honest, I'm kind of tired of being a student and I'm ready for some kind of real-world experience. I'd really like to join the Peace Corps, which my parents say is "not practical." Do you have any advice? --Bickering in Boston

Dear B.B.: There's no doubt that the job market for new grads is tough, and likely to stay that way for a while. Just about one-quarter of the Class of 2010 had jobs lined up by graduation day, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. True, it's an improvement over last spring, when only 19.7% had been hired by graduation, but that isn't saying much. No wonder that 28% of new grads go straight into master's programs, NACE reports, up from about 23% before the recession.

It's also no wonder that your parents are concerned about your future marketability. But marketable as what? It's a question you should try to answer before applying to grad schools, suggests Barbara Cooke, a longtime Kansas City career counselor and author of a highly useful new book called Parent's Guide to College and Careers: How to Help, Not Hover (Jist, $12.95). That is, try to figure out what you want to do, and how a master's degree will get you closer to your goal.

"Often, people assume that more education will make you 'worth more' to employers, but it isn't always true," Cooke notes. She adds that "higher education is itself a multibillion-dollar business, with sophisticated marketing departments working hard to convince you that a graduate degree is your ticket to success."

In some cases, it really is: "If you're a speech pathologist, a master's is most likely the minimum degree you need in order for a health care provider to hire you," says Cooke. "Or if your plan is to teach history, again, you need grad school."

But until you've identified a goal, rushing off to get a master's degree may be premature. "Most employers outside of academia value work experience just as much as postgraduate studies, if not more so," observes Cooke. "To find the right balance between the two, talk to some people who are already in the field you'd like to work in, or who have the kind of job you think you'd like to get, and ask them how they got there."

They might recommend grad school, but they might advise you to look for an entry-level job or internship instead. "You really need to consider this the way you would any other investment of $25,000 or more, plus two years of your life," says Cooke. "Gather enough information to make an informed decision about what, exactly, you are likely to get out of it."

Talkback: Is it better to go straight to grad school or get some work experience? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

Now, about your hankering to join the Peace Corps: This is actually a more practical choice, in many ways, than your parents may realize. First, the basics: Volunteers accepted into the Peace Corps, for service in any of the 77 countries where it operates, get a living allowance, free medical and dental coverage, and 48 days of vacation time over two years. They can also get their student loans either fully or partially repaid, or their loan payments deferred, depending on what type of loans they have. To help with the adjustment of reentry into the U.S. when their service is complete, they receive a $7,425 (pretax) stipend.

There's more. At the end of two years of service, Peace Corps volunteers get a one-year edge (a year of "noncompetitive eligibility," meaning they automatically move to the head of the line) if they apply for any federal government job.

Don't want to work for Uncle Sam? No problem. You'll still have picked up at least one foreign language and some fairly intense cross-cultural experience -- which, in a global economy, many employers like.

Plus, this might please your folks: The Peace Corps has two graduate programs. One, Master's International, means that your stint in the Peace Corps is worth credits toward a master's degree at about 60 colleges and universities. The other, Fellows/USA, offers returned volunteers full scholarships or reduced tuition at more than 50 participating schools.

Let's say you do decide to go to grad school, either instead of the Peace Corps or after. A few more words of wisdom from Barbara Cooke: "Try not to put off networking until you've got the degree. While you're still in school, join professional associations, read the trade press and industry blogs, and learn the field you're interested in. That way, when you go to job interviews, you'll have something relevant to say."

Talkback: Is it better to go straight to grad school or get some work experience first? Is the Peace Corps a good option, career-wise? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page