When senior Parris Lloyd decided she wanted to go to graduate school this fall, she looked forward to studying the opioid epidemic and premature childbirth – public health topics she never dug into in her undergraduate program at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Lloyd, who will pursue a master’s degree in public health at New York University, said she will need specific skill sets and specializations if she wants a career in the field – something she couldn’t get with an undergraduate degree.
“My major gave me a really good foundation for the skills that I want to utilize in the workforce, but I felt that I wasn’t completely prepared to start working without concentrating on my specific field and learning more about it through a master’s program,” she said.
Lloyd is one of more than 15 graduating seniors and alumni who said a master’s or doctoral degree would allow them to study specific areas of their majors they weren’t exposed to as undergraduates. Higher education experts said as employers look for specialized skills amid a competitive workforce, an increasing number of students are obtaining graduate degrees for a leg up in the hiring process.
About 23 percent of graduating seniors reported that they continued their education six months after graduating in 2017, up from an average of 19 percent in the previous three classes, according to data from the Center for Career Services.
Assistant Provost for University Career Services Rachel Brown said about 35 percent of students indicated on Handshake that graduate school is a personal goal, though she said she does not have enough data to determine why more students might pursue graduate school.
She said students may choose to attend graduate school directly after completing their undergraduate degree because they carry knowledge from their coursework as a senior into their graduate program, or they might prefer to obtain an advanced degree to secure a job after graduation.
“There are a number of reasons students may want to go to graduate school immediately,” she said in an email. “There are pros and cons depending on the individual’s circumstances, the career field, the graduate program, etc.”
Senior Logan Malik, a chemistry major, said he wanted to carry what he learned at GW to graduate school at the University of Cambridge in the school’s environmental policy master’s program directly after graduating.
“Unfortunately, a bachelor’s degree might not be enough to get to where I want to be, or I might have to do this anyways, so I might as well just go ahead and do that now,” he said.
Senior Priyanka Koti said she decided to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Cornell University in the fall because she’ll be able to focus on specific branches of her major, like tissue engineering. She said she can also delve into more in-depth research with an advanced degree that would build her knowledge in the field.
Koti added that both entering the workforce and attending graduate school seemed “daunting,” but her main pursuit had always been graduate school so she can complete her entire education and pay off tuition at once.
“I’d rather finish my education and then spend the rest of eternity paying off my debt than have to come back to school in a few years, when the cost of education is even higher,” she said.
The uptick in students attending graduate school from GW falls in line with a nationwide increase. The number of students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree climbed three percentage points across the United States over the past 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
When students achieve a higher level of education, they can earn higher salaries – depending on the field – than peers who began working after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, according to a study conducted by the Social Science Research Network in 2014.
Elliot Greiner, an alumnus and former Hatchet reporter who graduated last spring, said he needed to pursue a doctoral degree in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan to later become a professor and conduct research.
He said he can continue studying anthropology with a specific focus in paleontology – a branch of anthropology that he didn’t learn as an undergraduate because his education covered a more broad scope of the field.
“With a grad degree, they literally let you hone in on a very, very small slice of your subject, but to an incredible depth,” Greiner said. “Undergrad degree – you’re getting a general sense of the whole thing.”
Higher education experts said students often choose to obtain a master’s degree because it sets them up for jobs with a higher pay grade, as students stand out to employers with an added degree under their belts because they have additional expertise.
Gretchen Briscoe, the director of graduate enrollment at the University of Rochester, said the number of students pursuing graduate school is not a significant increase, but gradual growth in the data is likely attributed to competition among employers who are more often asking candidates to have master’s and doctoral degrees.
“We have a very educated country, generally speaking, and so there’s jobs that exist now that have higher and higher levels of education,” she said.
Chris Golde, a career coach for doctoral and postdoctoral students at Stanford University, said as employers look for a more particular expertise, graduate school allows students to “develop in-depth knowledge.” She said when a degree is closely related to a particular job, students can easily explain how their skills can contribute to a company or position.
“Our world continues to get more complicated, and the world of work demands more skills and complex technical expertise,” Golde said. “Many of these skills take time to develop.”