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Work Before Grad School: A Nontraditional Path to an Advanced Degree (Part 2)

Posted by Thomas Leusner on

Part 2: The Benefits of Getting Work Experience First

By Viktor J. Cybulskis, Ph.D., P.E. Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the particular hurdles that working professionals face when they transition back to a full-time academic program. Despite these challenges, having work experience and developing an independent perspective before entering graduate school offers some distinct advantages:

Enables greater focus and determination.

Working prior to graduate school provides you with technical expertise and life experience that can sharpen your focus and give you the confidence and drive needed to research topics about which you are most passionate. As a young professional, you’ve had opportunities to grow that your peers within the protective cocoon of academia have not. Such perspective will enable you to formulate a clearer vision of what you want to achieve along with the right path to get there in the least amount of time.

Provides a solid professional foundation.

The skills obtained through on-the-job engineering experience are highly transferable to the independent research setting of a master’s thesis or Ph.D. program. Meeting deadlines and due dates for project deliverables, analyzing and interpreting real data, and communicating results through oral presentations and written reports are crucial to success in graduate school and can significantly differentiate you from the competition. Your work experience with industry standards for process and laboratory safety, hazard analysis, loss prevention, and environmental stewardship can enable you to positively influence the culture of a graduate program and conduct world-class research in a safe and responsible manner.

Enhances your employability.

Unlike graduate students in other majors, those in chemical engineering do not have to depend solely on universities for employment. The advanced technical skills developed through a master’s or Ph.D. program can open doors to more specialized opportunities in private industry, government laboratories, and academia. While research jobs and faculty positions are becoming increasingly competitive to obtain, the combination of previous work experience and subject matter expertise provided by a graduate degree can often set you apart from other candidates.

Going back to school as an experienced professional to pursue an advanced degree can be a formidable undertaking compared to the more traditional route directly out of college, especially if it requires leaving an established career to enroll in a full-time program. Even with such obstacles to consider, the technical preparation, collective skill set, and independent perspective developed through prior work experience equips young chemical engineering professionals with the tools needed to successfully navigate these seemingly insurmountable challenges. By identifying your objectives carefully, planning efficiently, and managing your time wisely, it is possible to embark on this type of nontraditional career path to achieve your goals while minimizing disruptions to your professional career and personal life.