August 23, 2001
Better Than a Job
Loathing the reality of 9 to 5, many seek the shelter of graduate school.
"Face time" finally got to Carol Cohen.
The 24-year-old business systems analyst is tired of corporate politics that value appearances over quality work. "Some guys come in at 7 a.m. and think that makes them star employees," she says, "They'll stay until 7 p.m., but still do not manage to complete two hours of work."
Disillusioned with the working world, Cohen is going back to school for a master's degree, and plans to eventually earn her Ph.D. She would have gone back sooner, but at application time last year she was working for a San Francisco start-up Internet firm, which recently went bust. "It was a better education than school," she says. "I can't say that about a big corporate job. So I'm going back."
Cohen is just one of many students returning to grad school. Applications to graduate degree programs have increased at UCLA by 1,000-2,000 per year for the past four years, according to Dr. Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, dean of UCLA's Graduate Division, who sees similar increases at schools across the nation. Both "academic" programs like English and history, and "professional" programs like law and business have increased in popularity, even during the economic boom-times of the past decade.
That's because the job market is far from the only factor in the decision to pursue an advanced degree. "I always knew I was going to go back eventually, and I've been kind of bored at work," says Kendra Knudtzon, 23, a computer-science worker at El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp. Knudtzon never planned to join the workforce so soon. She had planned to pursue studies in educational technology right after college. But when she did not get into her first choice MIT, "I figured I'd work for a while. I wasn't sure what to expect. Working in aerospace has never been one of my dreams, but I'm learning things here that will hopefully help me."
Though experience in the workforce may help some prepare for higher-level studies, it makes little difference to overall success in academic programs, according to Mitchell-Kernan. She adds that except for certain professional programs, students with work experience fare about the same as those who come straight out of undergraduate studies. The most significant correlate to successfully completing a higher degree, according to Mitchell-Kernan, "is adequate financial support."
A lack of financial support -- in the form of a paycheck -- may also push some into graduate school. Greg Laran, 27, had considered going to law school during his three years of working as a lawyer's assistant in a Century City firm. "But I got used to the paycheck, I guess, and settled into my life." Laran settled in until this January, when he learned that his firm would soon be moving to smaller offices, leaving many staffers -- including him -- behind.
"I'm lucky, really, because the firm gave me almost three months' notice. Some of the dot-commers I know ... they just showed up one day to no jobs," says Laran, who used his time wisely and got accepted to his first-choice law school. "I'm not sure if I really want to practice law, but I don't think the degree can hurt," Laran says. Besides, he thinks of the three years of school as "hiding from the economy for a while."
Whatever their situation, young adults returning to school share a desire to return to work, eventually, with more options for more rewarding careers. "Ultimately, I want to be able to dictate the terms of my future employment," says business student Cohen, "I want to get paid for the work I do, not the time I put in. Also, I really enjoy learning, and I think a higher degree will afford me a lot of opportunities."