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Spring 2009 | Finding the balance

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Heather Krull
Heather Krull ’00 completed a Ph.D. in economics from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2007. She joined the RAND Corporation as an associate economist in September 2006 and has been working there ever since. Her current work at RAND focuses primarily on military research.
Mastering the job search
By Heather Krull ’00

Graduate school looks doubly attractive in tough economic times

News broadcasts and newspaper headlines provide constant reminders that in today’s recession, finding a job is more difficult than at any time since the early 1990s. “New Jobless Claims Hit 26-Year High” (New York Times); “Unemployment rate hits 6.5%, a 14-year high” (Los Angeles Times); “Big Firms Deepen Job, Wage Cuts” (The Wall Street Journal). The unemployment rate and number of jobs lost is on the rise, and the trend is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is faced by new college graduates looking to secure a meaningful, career-building job with little or no work experience on their resumes. Rather than confronting the possibility of a long job search, many graduates are instead turning their attention to the pursuit of an advanced degree.

In the short term, graduate school offers students an opportunity to shelter themselves from the sluggish economy with hopes that conditions will improve by the time they graduate. In addition, most college loans can be deferred while enrolled in school and many programs, especially master’s and Ph.D. programs, offer tuition remission and/or stipends for part-time work as a research or teaching assistant.

Longer term, graduate school equips students with a more advanced, refined skill set, improving their marketability and job prospects in the future. Then, those with graduate degrees command significantly greater earnings. Working adults with advanced degrees enjoyed weekly earnings 30 percent higher than those of college graduates with standard degrees in 2008.

Historically, the effect of difficult economic times on the number of graduate school applications has been mixed. During the recession of the early 1990s, law and business school applications slipped, whereas other graduate and professional applications increased slightly. On the other hand, the number of applications to graduate programs of almost all types skyrocketed during 2001-02. Medical schools, which generally require at least an eight-year commitment, are typically the only programs unaffected by economic swings.

Though indicators like the unemployment rate have been pointing to an economic downturn for longer, the U.S. slipped into the current recession one year ago. Many students graduating in 2008 were on their way to securing post-college plans by that point, and some who might have considered graduate school as an alternative to full-time employment may have run out of time to apply.

Despite this, and the fact that applying to graduate school is a time-intensive process, some schools report having seen an increase in the number of applications already last fall, perhaps in anticipation of a continued slowing of the economy. Rutgers University, for instance, saw a 37 percent increase in its fall 2008 business school enrollment and anticipates a significant spike in 2009.

A recent study conducted by Kaplan, a company that provides test preparation and graduate school admission assistance, suggests that the response to the current recession may mirror that of seven years ago. Of 245 business schools surveyed, 75 percent reported that the admission process is more competitive than it was three years ago. An event that allows prospective students to meet with admissions officers at top graduate programs saw a 200 percent increase in attendance in September. Kaplan reports a 45 percent increase in interest in its graduate school, business and law preparation programs relative to recent years. In response to this expected surge in applications, half of the business schools say they are considering increasing the number of places available to students.

The national unemployment rate has been growing since the beginning of 2007. The current recession began in December of that year. 2008 came to a close with news reports of a rise in involuntary part-time employment, a continued increase in the number of laid-off workers collecting unemployment benefits and the loss of another nearly 700,000 jobs amid a deepening recession. The Obama administration warns of the possibility of double-digit unemployment rates, which the U.S. has not seen since 1983, and the need to act quickly before the situation becomes drastically worse. Even so, though forecasts vary, the consensus seems to be that the economy will continue to deteriorate before it begins to rebound. In the meantime, graduate and professional schools appear to be attractive places to spend the next couple of years for those looking to hone their skills while sheltering themselves from the weak job market.

Heather Krull ’00 completed a Ph.D. in economics from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2007. She joined the RAND Corporation as an associate economist in September 2006 and has been working there ever since. Her current work at RAND focuses primarily on military research.

Spring 2009 magazine

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