Graduate to a Bigger Paycheck

Black Enterprise reveals how to find the right grad school program to boost your earning power

Looking to boost your income? Try grad school. With the national unemployment rate close to 10%, more and more Americans are applying to these institutions for skill-building and advancement. “Graduate school can be a very important avenue for opening up additional career opportunities, especially for individuals interested in tracking careers projected to grow in the coming years,” says Tammy Mann, Ph.D., executive director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, a division of the United Negro College Fund. “There’s the opportunity to build a deeper knowledge and skill set when you pursue advanced degrees, which can be helpful when functioning in leadership positions.”

According to an August study from the Council of Graduate Schools, a national organization for the advancement of graduate education and research, applications from U.S. citizens and permanent residents increased 9% between fall 2009 and fall 2010, the same rate as for international applications. Of the 238 institutions that provided such data, 174, or 73%, reported a rise in applications for fall 2010, with an average increase of 12% at the institutions.

Personal Assessment
What’s your passion? This is the first question Ian Hardman, president of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a career development institution that grooms minorities for top graduate business schools and corporations, asks a prospective graduate student. “We focus on giving people key ingredients needed to maximize their career potential, because there is a fundamental belief that if you maximize your potential, you’re going to have a larger sphere of influence in your organization and community.” Hardman and his team work with students 24 months in advance of the application process, asking them hard questions such as the impact they want to make in business and society once they receive their degree. Such examination, he says, helps individuals verbalize specific reasons for attending grad school.

Prospective students must also be prepared for the rigors of a graduate program. “You have to have the background and track record that ensures that you’re going to be successful. Business schools, just like employers, are taking bets based on your past projects,” says Hardman. “So if you haven’t demonstrated leadership, academic or job performance, a business school is going to make some assumptions about how you’re going to contribute to that school’s environment, classroom, and potentially an employer immediately leaving school.” For the unprepared, Hardman suggests developing a grid revealing your track record, leadership, and performance skills. “Preparation is about having the hard and soft skills on par so that you are eligible to have a conversation with the schools you’re most interested in.”

Hardman also suggests connecting with leading corporations and organizations through career fairs, summer jobs, or internships that will position you for leadership positions. “Prepare yourself professionally to enter the workforce in a way that allows you to leverage your strengths,” says Hardman.

Academic Evaluation
After reviewing the institution’s program and curriculum, Hardman spends a great deal of time helping individuals honestly and, in some cases, painfully address the issue of whether a particular school is the right fit. “Most individuals immediately look at the national rankings and say I’ve got to be at one of these schools. This is really not the game,” he asserts. “Just by looking at the brand name you may miss the most important part, which is the content of the program that you’re going to use to help shape your passions into something that’s meaningful.” He recommends researching various schools and meeting with admission officers to evaluate the program that’s best aligned with your interests.

Mann strongly recommends checking the accreditation of schools. Even though there is university accreditation, look for specialized accreditation tied to specific programs. For example, students interested in clinical psychology graduate programs, at the doctoral level, will want to know if the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Some states require that students complete APA accredited programs to become licensed. Prospective students need to do their research to understand how these additional accreditations could impact post-degree employment opportunities. “Depending on the field one is interested in pursuing, it’s important to make sure that if special accreditation is required, you seek the right schools,” Mann says.

Mann suggests prospective students gain a clear sense of the school’s job placement, especially if a student is immediately starting a program after earning a bachelor’s degree. It may be important for you to gain work experience before going to grad school to make yourself more marketable. “You need to understand how successful graduates are in their respective areas. An institution should have data that helps students understand that picture,” she says. Ask questions such as “What kind of jobs or careers do graduates enter?” and “How successful are they?” You can start your search with the prospective schools’ career services centers. Most institutions have offices that focus on career placement and should be able to share information about how successful their graduates are at securing employment. Some institutions might also post such information on their websites.

Financial Options
Most schools offer federal funds through Pell Grants, Federal Work Study, Plus Loans, and Stafford Loans. Descriptions and requirements for each loan vary and can be found at www.studentloans.gov. Try to avoid private loans because interest rates are usually higher than federal loans.

Many schools offer in-house scholarships available to prospective students. It’s important for students to submit all material by the deadline to qualify for such scholarships. Nickerson and Mann both believe financial support exists for graduate education but it may vary greatly based on disciplines. For example, Mann says prospective students interested in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields should do their homework because there are plenty of fellowship opportunities. Take the time to research fellowship programs by industry. GradSchools.com lists a number of federally funded and independent fellowships.

Even in the current environment, many companies offer education assistance benefits. Mann believes employers still represent one of the most important sources of student financing because more employers are beginning to understand the importance of having highly trained workers. Employees should be aware assistance is optional and differs from company to company, some offering to reimburse 100% to 50% of tuition costs.

Schools to Consider
If time and flexibility are an issue for you, consider an online program, which have gained popularity in recent years for their accessibility and convenience.

If business is your passion, you might want to consider more traditional and recognizable business schools such as Dartmouth College, Harvard University, The Wharton School, at University of Pennsylvania, The University of Chicago, Stanford University, or Yale University that will help you expand your network during and after school. But as Hardman maintains, it’s important to make sure the program fits your goals.

For a focus in the expansive field of healthcare, consider The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill located close to Research Triangle Park, a 7,000-acre development that is home to more than 170 healthcare and technology companies employing more than 42,000 full-time workers, or Emory University in Atlanta, located near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those who would like to blend creative interests and business savvy should consider applying to the arts administration programs at the Teachers College – Columbia University or the business school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both programs will teach the importance of strategic planning, artistic creativity, and social commitment.
—Additional ­reporting by Christina Faison

Studies reveal a clear education–earning relationship. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show individuals who hold a master’s degree as their highest level of academic attainment can expect to earn an average of $2.5 million over the span of their career, while those who have only a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $400,000 less on average. “I try to get recent graduate students to understand the cost associated with graduate training not as debt but as an investment,” says Kim J. Nickerson, Ph.D., assistant dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland – College Park. “On average you will make more money over your lifetime so it turns out to be an investment that you can recoup and benefit from,” he says. Among the highest median synthetic work–life earnings (SWEs), estimates of the average total earnings adults are likely to accumulate over the course of their working lives, is full-year, full-time white males with professional degrees earning $4,754,930 and among the lowest is less than full-year, full-time black females with professional degrees earning $335,556.

Graduate education also plays an essential role in the production of a highly skilled workforce that is expected to advance the nation’s innovation and competitiveness in the 21st century. In the 2010–11 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the civilian labor force is projected to reach 166.9 million by 2018, an increase of 8.2%. The number of women in the labor force will grow at a slightly faster clip than their male counterparts. The male labor force is projected to grow by 7.5% from 2008 to 2018, compared with 9% for the female labor force. And diversity is expected to be a major factor: Among racial groups, whites are expected to make up a decreasing share of the workforce while blacks, Latinos, and Asians will increase their share to 12.1%, 17.6% and 5.6%, respectively, by 2018.

Moreover, total employment is expected to increase by 10% over the next 10 years. However, the 15.3 million jobs expected to be added by 2018 will not necessarily be evenly distributed across major industries due to changes in consumer demand and technology. Expected sectors with double-digit growth include the arts, construction, education, finance, healthcare, information technology, and real estate.

So if you’re a prospective student currently looking for the perfect school or a midcareer professional considering returning to strengthen your skill set, black enterprise consulted three educational experts to help navigate your search. Whether you’re interested in business, science, or the arts, developing a strategic course of action is vital to your long-term career viability.

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