Working for a year or two before graduate school makes smart career sense for most students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Even an entry-level job as a QA tester, programmer or junior DBA provides valuable hands-on experience (and a steady paycheck).
But if earning an advanced degree will increase your chances of becoming a software engineer or data scientist, why wait to go back to school? A master’s degree could boost your earning potential from the first day of your career.
Here are some things to consider when you are trying to decide between graduate school and an entry-level position:
Reasons to Wait On Grad School
To Strengthen Your Application: Given the rise of interdisciplinary programs, and overwhelming competition for graduate-school spots, work experience has become a differentiating factor in the admissions process for many top universities.
“If you didn’t participate in meaningful internships or didn’t achieve a high GPA, work experience is the best way to strengthen your candidacy for a top program,” advised Julie Raynor Gross, an independent educational consultant and CEO of Collegiate Gateway.
“Working is extremely valuable,” she added, “because it lets you apply theory to practice, so you get more out of your investment in higher education.”
To Assess the True ROI: On average, annual tuition for graduate programs at public colleges and universities totals nearly $30,000, rising to $40,000 at private schools, according to research from Peterson’s. And unless you attend part-time, it’s hard to earn a salary while earning your degree.
While schools often promise that a graduate education has the potential to increase your earnings and career prospects, it’s not guaranteed. Once you enter the workplace, you get a better idea of how much education you really need or whether it’s possible to substitute work experience or training for an advanced degree (which is usually acceptable in specialties such as programming, software development and network admin). Plus, your employer may offer to foot part of the bill once they see your potential.
To Confirm Your True Passion: Economist Neil Howe suggests that only five percent of people pick the right job on the first try. Unless you are absolutely certain that you have chosen a specialty that you will really enjoy, it makes sense to test the waters first.
To Cash In on a Hot Market: Unless you’re assured of exiting graduate school as a mid-career professional, why not accept an entry-level job, bank some cash, and get paid to work your way up the ladder?
“Go for the money,” advised Marilynn Aiches a career counselor who also provides outside services to the admissions department at UC Berkeley. “From what I’ve seen, self-starters in the tech industry without a master’s degree make just as much as professionals with one. Ageism might be an issue down the road in tech, so my advice is to earn as much as you can, as soon as you can.”
When Going to Grad School Makes Sense
You Get a Scholarship to a Top Program: If you score a full or partial ride to an elite graduate program, buckle down and hit the books, because that’s one opportunity you just can’t afford to pass up.
You’re on a Roll: William Bain, CEO of ScaleOut Software, believes that aspiring software engineers should buck the current trend by enrolling in graduate school right after undergrad, because returning later often becomes impracticable and your career may stall or suffer as a result.
If you absolutely need an advanced degree to achieve your goals, don’t wait too long to enter grad school; otherwise, you may lose momentum and your knowledge of CS fundamentals, and study habits may grow stale.
Your Entry-Level Job is a Dead End: If the only job you can find doesn’t offer upward mobility or the opportunity to learn transferable skills and new technologies, enhancing your marketability through a master’s degree may be your best option.