The prospect of getting a better job is one of the most common reasons for going to graduate school. With hustle, diligence, and a lot of planning, you can make it much easier to embark on a fulfilling career once you have that advanced degree. First, start strategizing early in graduate school, determining how to land the type of job you want at the end. Keep asking yourself, “What are you doing now to get yourself ready for the career that you’re going into?” advises Emilio Lorenzo, Assistant Director for Career Advisement at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then, follow these tips to craft your post-grad career plan.
Be strategic with your grad school classes
- Use your time wisely. Plan your schedule at least a semester ahead, so you take classes that are most relevant to the kind of career you want. Gradually add more to your schedule as you learn what you can handle. “The students who I’ve seen be the most successful are the ones who recognized that this is a period of your life when you have to be stingy with your time,” says Chris Rios, Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. Before taking on a commitment, he says, assess how much you can dedicate and how it will help you long term.
- Use class assignments to your advantage. Currie Gasche, Director of Student Services at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, tells the story of a student who wanted to move into global business development at her company. She took classes that involved an international business consulting project and study abroad in China and Brazil. She put these experiences on her résumé and, once she graduated, landed a promotion into her company’s global business development division.
- Do more than your degree program requires. Look for opportunities like research assistantships or roles in student organizations. You don’t have to keep these commitments forever; a year or even a month can give you meaningful experience to add to your résumé.
Visualize your career path
- Set goals and work backwards. Read job postings for the kinds of positions you might apply for after you graduate. Note the skills and experience employers are asking for, and find ways to pick up the components that aren’t on your résumé yet.
- Update (or draft) your résumé early in your program. This can shine a light on your professional strengths as well as skill gaps. List key skills for your field under targeted headings. Remember that whether you used a skill in class or in the real world, it’s something you can offer an employer. Keep updating and polishing your résumé as you get closer to graduation, and ask your college’s career advisors for feedback too.
- Create a cover letter you can customize for each job. Before writing it, think of the skills you’re picking up in graduate school, like advanced research, technical analysis, and overcoming setbacks. Again, ask your professors and career center advisors for feedback.
- Be open to careers within your field. “Be a sponge,” says Wendy D’Ambrose, Director of Graduate Advising and Employer Outreach at Bentley University. “Have an open mind to everything.” There are likely many possibilities in the field you’re studying. Maybe you decided on a master’s degree in Finance because you want to be a trader on Wall Street, but you might figure out that you’d rather be a portfolio analyst or investment banker instead.
Develop your personal brand
- Be aware of how professionals in your field perceive you. Assess your strengths and learn how to explain them to future employers. Remember that employers want to know how you can help them reach their goals—and they’re more concerned about your skill set than your grades. “They care if you can solve their problems,” says D’Ambrose. “Can you increase revenue? Can you work in a team? What does your degree make you able to do?”
- Use social media thoughtfully. Chief among them is your LinkedIn profile. Use a professional-looking headshot. Connect on LinkedIn with your current classmates, undergrad friends, research or fellowship supervisors, former bosses, and people you meet at conferences. Keep your posts on that platform strictly professional, like links to articles about news in your field or congratulating a friend on her promotion. Wherever you’re posting, be yourself—but think before you post. Build your network
- Remember that “networking” doesn’t mean shallow schmoozing. “Networking is just a form of building relationships,” Rios says. If you want to learn more about a classmate’s project, ask if he’d like to meet you for lunch or coffee. If you meet a professor from another college at a conference, tell her how much her journal article helped you write your last paper. If students in your program have a weekly happy hour, go! “Listen more than you talk,” Gasche says.
- Find a mentor. This can be someone in your field, at your college, or both. Choose a mentor who will be honest with you and point out when you have made a mistake—or are coming close to making one.
- Join professional associations. No matter what you want to do, there is a professional association for it. Many offer discounted student memberships as well. Getting involved in these groups will connect you with people who work in the types of jobs you want—and some you may not have thought about. “You will get mentoring,” D’Ambrose says. “You will get access to jobs. You will get clarity on the field you think you want to join.”
- Attend professional conferences. Professional associations usually have annual conferences, and state or local chapters often host local events that are less expensive to attend. Your college might give you money toward your expenses. You may even be able to partner with one of your classmates or professors to give a presentation while you’re there.
- Connect with alumni from your program. The fact that you’re at the same school means you have something in common. If a recent graduate works at a company you’d like to work for, ask if he has time for an informational interview. Use phrasing like, “I’d love to work there, and I’m trying to figure out my strategy,” D’Ambrose suggests. Don’t look at these informational interviews as a way to beg for a job but to learn more about a job that intrigues you.
“Keep your eyes on the horizon,” Rios says. Things may seem tough and you may start getting tired from the effort, but it will all be worth it in the end. When you’re bogged down with papers, internships, and life, remember the goals that sent you to graduate school in the first place. And know that in the future, you'll find yourself in a great position making a difference in your field.
If you're looking for even more graduate student–centric career search advice, check out these Tips for the Post-Grad-School Job Search from a recent grad.