Career Pathways for Graduate Students

Career Pathways for Graduate Students

Sometimes it’s difficult to prove that there are tangible benefits to earning a graduate degree. Individuals might not believe that there are substantial opportunities to enjoy returns on the investment they put into a graduate program. The question for these individuals becomes: “Is a graduate degree worth it?”

The answer to this question is one that professionals in the higher education industry strive to answer as well. In a report released by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service in 2012 titled “Pathways Through Graduate Schools and Into Careers” industry professionals explore the potential benefits of earning a graduate degree, how graduate students are managing their careers, what popular graduate degrees are currently, and the ways that society and institutions of higher learning might better support the career paths of graduate students.

This article summarizes the report’s findings.

In What Sectors Do Graduate Students Find Work?

According to the report, approximately one half of recent doctorate-level graduates initially find employment in business, government, and non-profit sectors. However, in later years, people with doctorates, especially in the fields of health, life sciences, mathematics and statistics, and the social sciences, are likely to find employment opportunities as faculty members at 4-year educational institutions.

Professionals in the fields of computer and information sciences, engineering, psychology, and the physical sciences more often find employment in the private sector.

Smaller percentages of professionals in all fields found employment in private nonprofit and government agencies.

Recipients of master’s degrees work in a variety of settings. The majority of master’s recipients find employment opportunities in businesses and corporations or in government, nonprofit, community, or public service organizations. Only in the fields of education and life sciences (biology, agriculture, and environmental science) do the majority of master’s recipients find employment in education working as faculty members, teachers, or researchers.

Discovering Opportunities: Where Students Go to Explore Options

Campus Career Services

Many students utilized their schools’ career services offices, but according to the report, the majority didn’t believe their schools’ campus careers services offices offered enough meaningful opportunities. Students found more experience-related work in assistantships offered through programs and departments. Such assistantships offered students opportunities to gain experience in teaching, researching, and other university work. Students also noted that the majority of opportunities offered through campus careers services offices were geared toward students in undergraduate programs.


As mentioned above, more students found employment in assistantships than they did in internships. The majority of internships, at least as advertised through the colleges and universities, were geared toward undergraduates. However, some graduate students worked in internships that helped them gain valuable experience in their fields.

Faculty Support and Interaction

Many students depend upon faculty members as teachers and role models and for advising, mentoring, and support, especially in the realm of career development. According to the report, students reported that faculty most commonly recommended careers in teaching and research and less commonly recommended careers in the sectors of community service, business, government, or nonprofit.


Many graduate students, especially those in doctorate programs, cited the importance of publishing in order to enter competitive workforces. While some students changed their minds about their intended career paths due to competitiveness in their fields, others stayed the path and pursued guidance and support from faculty members in publishing research.

Career Planning Services Recommendations for Graduate Programs

The Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers report recommends that colleges and universities work to “clarify and strengthen career pathways for graduate students.” Because graduate students serve as human capital in the United States’ social, political, and economic spheres, it is imperative that graduate-level faculty provide solid mentorship to students and that colleges and universities provide steady opportunities for graduate students to gain valuable work experience while in school. The report ultimately recommends that schools do the following to improve the quality of education and post- program employment for graduate students:

  • Provide high-quality career counseling services to graduate students
  • Connect graduate students with successful graduate alumni
  • Track career outcomes and job placement information for graduate students
  • Expand graduate programs to include professional skills development
  • Enhance collaboration with industry, government, and other employers

Career Planning Recommendations for Graduate Students

The report provides numerous other recommendations to colleges, universities, and employees for supporting graduate students in professional development and employment. However, the list below outlines actions that students can take if their colleges and universities do not offer these services. As a student, consider doing the following:

  • Seeking career counseling on or off campus. Begin exploring careers, requirements for entry into careers, and necessary steps for successfully entering careers
  • Approaching graduate alumni working in your field and asking for advice and guidance
  • Researching job-placement rates and career outcomes in your desired field. The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook is a good place to start
  • Talking to potential employers to discuss what professional development you need to enter the field and then taking action accordingly
  • Connecting with potential employers to request guidance and to network

The Pathways report highlights the value individuals who complete a course of graduate study bring to society. It calls upon society, and the academic institutions these students attend, to enhance access to career planning services that may help graduates leverage their degrees in the job market. Providing better career counseling services may help people answer the question: “Is a graduate degree worth it?”

About the Author: Laura Morrison is the Web Content Manager for She earned an MBA from the Rutgers School of Business in 2010.


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