What to do After Grad School: All Your Questions Answered

Finishing graduate school and moving toward a professional career can be complex for some new grads. Many aspects of our lives change during these transitions and, for many, it’s challenging to keep a positive attitude, stay focused on our goals, and face the competitive job market. From job hunting and professional development to managing student debt and networking strategies, the following guide offers some tips and resources for new graduates getting ready to tackle life beyond grad school.

Adjusting to Life After Grad School

The five tips listed below offer links to helpful resources and methods of preparing for the stresses of the job search, life after school, and how to cope with inevitable emotional and professional challenges.

  1. Make time for yourself: According to a Harvard study, by the time students enter their final years of graduate school, up to 25 percent experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression. Upon graduation, these symptoms don't necessarily disappear. In her article “The Grief of Graduation,” Anne Guarnera discusses graduate students' feelings of loss upon finishing their programs. For the most part, she considers these feelings to be a loss of student identity and all the social and spatial connections that one develops while spending three to six years in a town, city or campus environment. When we graduate, many of us move elsewhere. We leave the area in search of a new job, to find a fresh landscape to begin the next chapter or even move in with family or friends to save money. Whatever the scenario, Guarnera suggests that we all need to practice emotional self-care as a means of dealing with these transitions. To do so, she urges us to schedule time to organize our thoughts and process the changes in our lives.

  2. Prepare early: While you’re still in school, take advantage of career-focused resources available through your program. These resources include career planning and coaching, interview workshops, job fairs and networking opportunities. If your department or school doesn’t have free services readily available, you can reach out to professors for help in this area. Many of them will be glad to offer advice on how to prepare for the job market and help you avoid any mistakes they may have made.

  3. Change your perspective on graduate school: Many students, especially first-generation graduate degree seekers, approach graduate school as an extension of their undergraduate program. Nathaniel Lambert argues that students should treat their post-baccalaureate training as more of an apprenticeship instead of “school” as they’ve traditionally conceptualized it. This concept comes from the middle ages when craftspeople would study with masters of a trade and learn by imitating their techniques and processes. Lambert suggests that graduate learning should be no different and, whenever possible, we should learn by doing, “not simply by reading about it and talking about it in classes.” As a result, we may be better prepared for the transition into our careers upon graduation.

  4. Remember: Your thesis or dissertation doesn’t guarantee you a job: While creating a well-formulated, written document based on original research that contributes in some way to your field is important, it’s best to keep that work in perspective. Whether you pursue a career in academia, at a Fortune 500 company or in a research laboratory, there’s little chance that anyone wants to hear about your thesis or dissertation in detail. That said, it’s still essential that you create a thorough and meaningful project. Bear in mind, however, most employers want to know how your knowledge and expertise makes you a good fit for a position. At this point in your career, they want to know what makes you a good problem-solver, teacher, researcher, etc. You need to tell them how you can meet and exceed these expectations and not simply show them what you’ve written in the past.

  5. Cultivate a support system and friendship: Our expert, Rebecca Newman, urges professionals after graduate school to find trusted individuals outside of work with whom they can share their personal, academic or professional frustrations. “Have a strong support network when entering a new field after graduate school. This can take the form of family, friends, a partner or a mentor. They can offer you support that will keep your ’dirty laundry’ out of your workplace,” Newman says. “You might think you’re venting to a friend in the form of a colleague, but it can be more professionally advantageous to look at work as being ’on stage.’ If you have a valid concern, you should absolutely bring it up at work in a thoughtful, constructive manner.”

Landing a Job after Grad School

Now that you’ve completed your degree and you’re on the job market, where do you start? There are an overwhelming number of job search engines and, depending on your area, just as many jobs to consider. While all of these jobs may not be a good fit, you still end up spending time reading job descriptions, researching companies, locating salary information in certain geographical areas and more. It’s time consuming, no doubt. Here’s some tips to help you streamline your search and save some time. We’ll offer more advice on this topic throughout the guide as well.

Where and how should I look?

TheCollegeInvestor.com suggests that job seekers leverage both their personal network and online search engines or job aggregators. In addition to asking colleagues, professors, friends and family for leads on open positions, job aggregators such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, Indeed and HigherEdJobs can alert you to positions as soon as they’re posted. Additionally, most of these websites allow job seekers to post their resumes or CVs. This feature allows employers to search for candidates using keywords. Dora Farkas of FinishYourThesis.com, argues that it’s a common and fatal mistake to avoid using LinkedIn and related sites as part of your front-facing, public image, as many of your prospective employers use these sites to find out more about job candidates.

Should I only look for dream jobs?

Truth be told, many graduate students don’t land their dream job immediately after graduation. For Ph.D.’s interested in teaching at the college level, most don’t secure a tenure-track position until after they’ve acquired solo teaching experience in community colleges, adjunct positions or visiting professorships. (That’s not to say that one teaching job is necessarily “better” than another. Many scholars dream of the tenure-track position, however, because of the job security and various freedoms that come with it.) Whatever your field, you may need to find some stepping stones before landing the perfect position.

“To land your dream job, take every responsibility at every job seriously, and prioritize your relationships,” Newman says. “When I was once grumbling about an unrelated task we were doing as interns, the senior intern said to me, ’Sometimes, social work is doing the hustling that no one else wants to do.’ That stuck with me, and I tried to be thoughtful about what I expressed on the job while venting my frustrations elsewhere when I needed that support. Based on having a strong ethic at a past job that was very challenging, my former director cold-called me to ask if I wanted to come back to the organization in a different capacity, in what is now my dream job.”

Should I apply for jobs I’m overqualified for?

While it depends on whom you ask, most professionals will tell you to avoid applying for jobs for which are you overqualified. Some employers might be interested in having someone like you on staff because you may already know the ropes or can act as a leader. More often than not, however, they will see you as someone who will probably get bored and move on to another job before too long. They may also see you as a threat or internal competitor who could take their place later on. On the other hand, if you are unemployed, you are probably in need of a job immediately or in the very near future. In that case, cast a wide net and apply for jobs even if you appear overqualified.

Once You’ve Got the Job, Ask Yourself These Questions

After all of your hard work, applications, and interviews, you finally land a job you’re excited about. As with most positions, you won’t get a full picture of the position, your tasks, the work environment and other details until you’ve had a chance to settle in and take on some responsibilities. Scott Webb, an academic adviser at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, suggests that we ask ourselves a series of questions after several weeks on the job, then after several months and finally at the end of a year. Newman echos Webb’s techniques for checking in with ourselves, making the most of a job and planning ahead.

What are the pros and cons of this job? How do I make it work?

Both Newman and Webb suggest that in the first several weeks of a job we identify those aspects of the position that are the most fulfilling and the most challenging. Acknowledging these positives and negatives helps us get a clearer picture of what we need out of a job and helps us identify our strengths. As Webb points out, during these early stages it’s important to keep an open mind and be willing to embrace unexpected challenges and difficult tasks. These challenges can help us grow as individuals, allow us to do well and advance in our current role, and teach us something about ourselves that may have otherwise gone unrealized.

Is this job a good fit for now, or could I see myself here for longer, perhaps in a different capacity? If/when I leave this job, what are things I would want to be different in my next role?

Newman advises us to plan ahead and think about our next career move, if that’s something we anticipate. This certainly depends on the individual and career path. Professionals with a Ph.D. or master’s degree working in academia, for example, may be content with their current teaching position. If they’re on the lookout for a tenure-track job, then they need to consider if their current role helps make them a stronger competitor when the opportunity presents itself.

What do I like about this job: the camaraderie, content of work or both? Which of those is more important to me?

Of course, we all want to be happy with our work responsibilities, work environment and our coworkers. In a perfect world, we would be satisfied with all three. In addition to planning ahead, Newman suggests that we weigh the quality of the work environment and camaraderie versus how much we enjoy the actual tasks of the job. Which aspect is more important to you?

Licensing and Credentials

Licensure and certifications are required by law for many professions across the U.S. License-based credentials ensure that professionals meet a high standard of practice and are up-to-date on relevant research or advancements in their field. Certifications are usually voluntary credentials, which professionals earn through a professional society or educational institute. The terminology and requirements vary per field.

Licensure requirements vary by state. In psychology, some professionals with a master’s degree can obtain licensure to be professional counselors. More often than not, most states require a Ph.D. All states require supervised training, a written examination and/or oral examination for practicing psychologists. Similarly, those graduate students in criminal justice who wish to become lawyers must complete law school and pass the bar exam. Other roles in the criminal justice system, such as holding a position as a judge, require extra credentials. They also must pass a written exam administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

While most certifications are voluntary, they help you secure higher-level positions in various professions. Advanced positions in public administration, for example, sometimes require professionals to obtain a Certified Public Manager credential. Prospective recipients must have a bachelor’s degree or higher and complete the required 300 hours of study through a program accredited by the National Certified Public Manager Consortium. Comparatively, the National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified Public Health exam. Professionals who wish to obtain some of the higher-paying jobs in public health must meet the certification standards of their state, along with obtaining a graduate degree.

Professional Development and Continuing Education

Professional development and continuing education are opportunities for students and professionals to enhance their current skill set, learn new techniques and methods in their field, and keep up with the latest advancements and research. In general, we can organize these opportunities into categories: teaching, mentorship, research, networking, workshops, professional conferences, certificates and volunteer work. While some of these categories apply more to some professions than others, they help us locate possibilities for bolstering our resumes, improving our skills and, in some cases, keeping us eligible to work in our fields.

Managing Grad School Student Debt

Some colleges and universities offer graduate students some type of funding, maybe even a full tuition waiver plus a stipend, to defray the cost of their education. In other cases, MA and Ph.D. students may receive no funding at all. Unless they are fortunate enough to receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, many graduate students still take out student loans to cover tuition and living expenses. In fact, about 40 percent of the $1.5 trillion in student loan debt comes from graduate students and professional degree seekers. GoGrad offers 10 helpful strategies for paying off student loan debt.

From the Expert

Advice From a Psychiatric Social Worker

Rebecca Newman

Rebecca Newman is a psychiatric social worker at the Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, where she provides individual psychotherapy in Philadelphia. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, grief and loss, LGBTQIA+ topics, trauma and adjustment to life changes.

What’s one tip for current graduate students or new graduates to manage student debt?

Don’t avoid dealing with your loans or repayment out of anxiety. Your student loan servicer can and wants to help you make your payments. You can work with them on an income-based repayment plan, which can then inform your budget about other expenses. Do your best to develop a budget and stick to it when you’re adjusting to making loan payments.

What are some benefits of participating in professional development or continuing education programs and workshops?

Continuing education programs are a great opportunity to meet other professionals who are a few years ahead of you in your career and can perhaps support you moving forward in your trajectory. Additionally, staying current in your field is important. Think about whether you had a professor or instructor in graduate school who felt out-of-touch. They might not be engaging with continuing education in a thoughtful way, or staying in a lane that is comfortable for them. Professional development requires a certain degree of humility to acknowledge that you don’t know everything, and placing yourself back in the position of a learner can ultimately make you more effective in a role or on a team.

What was your licensing process/timeline to become a licensed social worker?

In my field, licensing is an essential and somewhat lengthy process. Upon graduation (or in your last semester of graduate school, if you’re in good standing), social workers are eligible to take an exam to become a licensed social worker. For this exam, some preparation is necessary -- it is a combination of theoretical knowledge that is a direct reflection of the program curriculum and clinical vignettes. Following passing this exam, in order to move forward, you must accrue 3,000 hours of supervised work experience over no less than two years. With a full-time job this is manageable, as long as your responsibilities at work are relevant to the profession. In conjunction with those hours, you must accumulate 150 hours of clinical supervision, half of which must be individual and with another licensed professional in the field with years of experience. The other half can be in a group, with another mental health professional or a combination of the two. Once you have accumulated 150 hours of supervision, worked 3,000 hours in your job and two years have elapsed, you can apply to take the clinical licensure exam. Upon passing, you are a licensed clinical social worker and can function independently as a clinician and become credentialed with private insurance carriers.

Additional Resources

For those who might feel overwhelmed by the results of a follow-up query into criminal justice or for the experts who want a refresher, here’s a list of industry-leading agencies, institutes, universities and opportunities.