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Applying Straight from Undergrad: Worth It?


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11 replies to this topic

#1 swizzle24

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Posted 17 March 2012 - 09:22 PM

So I am currently a rising senior contemplating my post-graduate plans. I'm still very much in the academic mind set and I am very intent upon continuing with my foreign language as soon as I graduate. In my estimations I should go straight to graduate school to build upon my schooling and continue with Arabic as soon as possible (so as to not get rusty).

However, many of the more professional schools (like one of my top choices, SAIS), only admits a small amount of students straight from undergrad. The admissions office from SAIS specifically told me they admit 10% with no work experience.

Is it worth applying to top schools with no work experience? I have spent a year abroad doing intensive language studies, I spent last year doing a DC internship, and I'm spending the upcoming summer doing a government language fellowship. I have very good grades yet I come from a no-name private school. I feel like there are very few jobs that would hire me straight from undergrad in the fields I'm interested in (namely international security, intelligence, war studies, middle eastern studies, Arabic) so it seems to me that work experience will be very difficult to come by.

Does anyone have any advice for me? Has anyone went straight to graduate school and regretted it? I can't seem to think of a place to apply to work in the aforementioned fields without any relevant experience or graduate degrees.

Thanks in advance!
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#2 Azrou

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Posted 17 March 2012 - 09:51 PM

Here are some things to think about.

1) As you said, top schools only admit a small % of applicants straight out of undergrad. Your chances of financial aid are going to be even less than that. Are you willing to pay full sticker price?

2) "Keeping academic momentum going" is not that great of a reason, IMO. You won't lose any of the skills you learn in undergrad, in fact, they will only become stronger as you mature. You may find that taking some time off to get professional experience will allow you to approach a master's program down the road refreshed and more prepared.

3) Finding the ideal job with a 4 year degree may not be easy, but that's why it's your ideal job. There are many different fields that you can connect with your intended career path. You don't have to land a DoD gig to get relevant work experience. In addition, professional experience is not just something you put on your resume to help your application. It will make your coursework much more relevant and allow you to understand things with a bit of context.

4) If everything does work out and you get into a good program out of undergrad, in a few years you'll still be at a disadvantage because you'll have to compete for jobs with people that have all of your education and qualifications, but also the experience. Just getting that master's degree is no magic bullet.

Ultimately only you can make the decision on what is best for your future. Just realize that there is a reason that the vast majority of master's candidates have professional experience. If they can do it, why can't you? I feel that the demand for Arabic speakers is extremely high in your field of interest (probably top 2 along with Mandarin speakers) so you shouldn't have much difficulty getting something relevant. On the other hand it never hurts to begin laying the groundwork...schedule a GRE test and hit the books, start feeling out professors for LORs, etc.
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#3 hudwa

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Posted 17 March 2012 - 10:46 PM

I agree with a lot of what Azrou said. The first thing you need to ask yourself is why you're going to graduate school. As stated, continuing academic momentum is not a good reason, and I'll explain my own reasons later. Also, there is a good reason why those schools want candidates with work experience, and it's not because most applicants have sub-par academics that need to be propped up. It's because work experience is valuable in your career overall and focuses your career goals much, much more than any undergraduate education can, even with a few good internships and studies abroad under your belt. Trust me on this one; after a few years working 9-5 (hah! that phrase is a total lie), paying bills, cleaning your own apartment and having to do something other than read, write and take tests all day, guaranteed you will have a very different view on life, and almost certainly your outlook on your career.

So do not look at the requirement some schools have for work experience as a hurdle you need to find some way around so you can prolong your stay in the comfy, protective bubble of academia, take it as a piece of advice. Go work, do something in a field you're interested in, even if it's menial work. Frankly, for those of us who did not go to big name schools or network our pants off before graduating, that's about all there is out there.

Also, the end of your undergraduate education only means the halting of education if you let it be so. When I moved to DC after graduating, I attended lectures and discussions on things that interested me, and you will never, ever get bored learning new things through such forums in DC if your passion is for IR and policy. Then after moving to Tokyo, I found similar venues and had the opportunity to build a really great network of policy professionals in diverse industries through keeping myself intellectually engaged. That networking allowed me to land a job upon returning home to NY, landed me valuable recommendations for grad school and enriched my life greatly through new friends with whom I share interests.

Lastly, don't look at taking night classes as something you're only doing to beef up your resume. I took Intermediate Microeconomics twice and dropped it twice in college because it was mind-numbing and difficult, but after college I became fascinated with economics and am now taking the same course after work. I'm loving it. Not because I know it's helping me get into grad school, but because it's personally satisfying and I know the knowledge will come in handy one day. I also realized I prefer studying language by myself, so I got to improve my Japanese through talking with friends and colleagues, and watching Japanese TV. Ironically, it was being out of school that taught me how to learn.

So go out, get a job, take some classes, stay involved in policy debates online and in person, and then apply to grad school after 2-3 years. I think you'll have a very different perspective on things and you'll find that your goals are much more well-informed and well-thought out. Just my two cents :)

Edited by hudwa, 17 March 2012 - 10:54 PM.

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#4 MYRNIST

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 01:53 AM

As a fellow international security scholar, I strongly recommend you get some useful experience. You are correct that entry level jobs are extremely hard to come by - surprisingly JSOC is not so keen on hiring 22 year olds. But, there are a wealth of (unpaid) intern programs in DC that give you real, first-hand experience with how defense policy is made. You'd have to additionally work a paying job to support yourself, but it's worth a shot. Investment in your language skills is another good idea - maybe study/work abroad for a year? Don't think of work experience as restricted to direct involvement in the organizations you want to work for, since for recent undergrads and the defense community that's not realistic. Think more of the skills vital to long-term success in the field, and try to acquire them, whether it's in private industry, NGO, government, etc.

Your worst-case scenario is going to grad school with no work experience, racking up debt, and then coming out to find no one wants to hire you because, surprise, you have no work experience, no recommendations, etc. Especially since Security Studies is not a broadly marketable degree - the range of institutions interested in hiring you is quite limited, compared to, say, International Economics. That specialization is one of its strengths, but it also means you need to be pretty sure you can gain employment in the national security community post-graduation.
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#5 piquant777

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 01:57 AM

Have you ever considered joining the Peace Corps? It's a long and significant but very rewarding commitment (language, cultural exchange, intl experience) with frankly little barrier to entry. There are programs in Jordan and Morocco, if you time your entrance correctly you can maximize chances of placement. Grad schools look incredibly favorably upon it and will even give you special post-service scholarships.
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#6 flux000

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 12:39 PM

Besides finding a regular job, there is also AmeriCorps, Teach for America, teaching English in X country abroad, applying for various fellowships to work abroad (i.e. Fulbright, Princeton in Asia)...among other options.
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Applied: Berkeley ERG, Chicago Harris, Princeton WWS, Yale MEM, HKS, GW MPP, JHU SAIS, SIPA, Stanford IPS
Accepted: JHU SAIS ($$), SIPA (0$), Stanford IPS ($$), Chicago Harris (0$), Yale MEM (?), GW MPP (?)
Waitlisted: Princeton WWS
Rejected: HKS, Berkeley ERG

#7 lecorbeau

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 05:41 PM

I felt compelled to weigh in. After all, I in essence applied "straight from undergrad" in that I had no "real" work experience, but I got into every school I applied to.

However, if I do say so myself, I made good use of my BA years. During my time as an undergraduate I held down myriad relevant internships (of which two were with the best-known security organizations in the world at their overseas missions/delegations), secured a very prestigious US govt fellowship that sent me overseas for a year and a half in an unstable region, learned two foreign languages to a "C2" level (with corresponding certifications), and took a year off to travel to 40+ countries (and volunteer in the West Bank and Kashmir).

My rationale to apply to graduate school sooner rather than later was rooted in my desire to have a more in-depth academic foundation in international relations that I feel I lack (my undergrad degree was a bit scattered discipline-wise), and to be blunt, "get grad school over with". Most of my peers with any measure of ambition are currently pursuing advanced degrees (and though the system is totally different, most 22-24 year-olds in continental Europe have a masters degree just by dint of how their system works), our world of shocking education inflation has made the BA tantamount to a HS diploma, and I knew that the more time I spent in a certain career track the less I would want to put my career on hold for two years to get an MA. I have met plenty of diplomats/NGO officials/etc. overseas with precisely this latter concern, as federal programs that send/pay government employees to pursue graduate degrees are highly competitive and only allotted to a few people so no one can bank on those ever coming through. Furthermore, at IHEID Geneva I will have opportunities to find relevant part-time work during my studies. And at Sciences Po Paris they have a program where one can supplant a dissertation by being placed as a "junior consultant" for a year at an international organization or NGO. So when I graduate I will have an MA and more work experience, truly the best of both worlds.

So if I do it now, the sooner I'll pay off my loans (at this rate I'll be in my early thirties), the sooner I won't have to face any obstacles to professional mobility, I will have evaded being a 28-30+ something in school and likely suffering a massive hit to my quality of life (this being an obviously personal choice), and should I ever decide in the very, very distant future to go into the private sector or academia I'll already be on the right foot.
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#8 hoggerjp

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Posted 18 March 2012 - 10:59 PM

Hey, I will be entering SAIS this coming fall, and I received my undergraduate degree just last year so thought I could offer my two cents..

First, Fletcher got this new program called Map Your Future Program just for applicants like you; undergrads who want to pursue a career in IR but who lacks full-time work experience in between. They let you into the MALD program after you spend 2-3 years in a Fletcher-approved position. Not sure if the school helps you in finding that job, but my guess would be yes. I think there is a grad cafe contributor in this forum who is a MYFP admittee, so try to PM him/ her. Also, you should be speaking with students who are currently in the security studies program at these schools and ask for their input on pre-grad school options. I strongly recommend that you apply to Fletcher either through this program or to a regular MALD degree, because my impression is that being a re-applicant gets you some brownie points at Fletcher. Even if you get rejected on your first try, you have a better shot at getting admitted the next year. Many current Fletcher students were re-applicants themselves.

Fletcher also has a special arrangement with GTown's BSFS where they admit the most promising undergrads directly into MALD. Realistically speaking, chances of going straight into these top-notch programs are higher if 1)you come from a widely recognized institution 2) have majored in IR or related social science (international finance or business) 2)have made contribution in the field in ways that are unusual for someone in their early twenties or 4)have published an earth-shattering piece on an academic journal

I am kind of reluctant to reveal more about myself because doing so would make me immediately identifiable to adcoms and current students who might be reading this forum, but I can tell you this much. Before finishing my undergraduate study, an incredible opportunity arose; what was meant to be a summer internship turned into a full-time position because I was lucky enough to have bosses who were willing to give me substantial responsibilities despite my lack of official qualifications. So, I took a year off and worked there before finishing an undergraduate degree. During my last year as an undergraduate, I applied to the schools and was rejected. I was not surprised nor upset about it. Also, I received very nice e-mails from people from these schools, encouraging me to reapply after getting more experience ( + tips on how to address another weak area of my application package)

LOR: I received one from former supervisor, the other from my mentor who is a highly respected figure in the field, and the last from a professor who has taught at one of these schools and has seen hundreds of students who now work in the field. In other words, I selected my letter writers quite strategically.

In hindsight, getting rejected on the first try served me right in ways that I could not have imagined at the time. Now I know exactly how I would like to spend the next two years in school to get to where I want to be by the time I graduate. Plus, the experience of having earned a pay check for yourself etc makes you feel like a real grown-up :P

Also, check out these entries from Jessica in Fletcher's admissions office:

http://sites.tufts.e...e-so-important/
http://sites.tufts.e...draw-a-picture/

So, to answer your original question: Yes, I think it is worth applying straight from undergrad. Is attending a grad school right after undergrad an ideal choice? Only you can answer this question.

Best of luck in your journey. Congrats on figuring out what it is that you would like to do, and msg me if I can possibly help you with your plans.

Edited by hoggerjp, 19 March 2012 - 12:12 AM.

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#9 CalSeeker

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 05:37 PM

As a current grad student that worked for several years before going back to school, I thought I would offer my input with the realization that I am probably biased by my own experience. I focused on security studies in undergrad and was sure that I would work in that field. However, I ended up taking a job related to international trade "temporarily" after graduating. I found I actually liked that a lot more than security studies, and that is what I decided to study in grad school. So I think that having actual work experience in the field is important before investing the money/time in another degree, to make sure that it is actually what you want. Also, I feel like what I am learning now is much more interesting/valuable to me after getting a bit of real-world perspective. I feel more equipped to apply what I learn to my professional life.

That is not to say that there are not downsides to going to grad school later. I am doing school part-time so that I can continue to work, and I do not have much time for extracurriculars. If I had to do it over again, I might have gone back a year or two earlier, but I think getting 2-3 years of work experience first is very helpful.
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Applied: JHU SAIS, Georgetown SFS, GWU Elliott, American SIS
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Attending: GWU Elliott

#10 OregonGal

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 08:01 PM

I would second all of those who suggested work experience. If you have held a lot of internships, have foreign language experience, spent significant time overseas etc like M. OverAchiever up there :) then you definitely have a lot of "relevant" experience already. However, if you're like the majority of us, you don't have all that on your resume and need to build it up a bit.

I'll give you myself as an example. I graduated in the bleak job market of 2009, but I had a plan to gain the experience I needed for graduate school. I didn't apply straight out of undergrad because I had a sub-par GPA (3.2 overall, though 3.5+ within my majors and my last two years), no relevant work, and only 3 months of international experience. Since then, within the constraints of the job market, I've tried to target specific skills/experiences to help me a) confirm that working in the international affairs field is what I want to do long-term, B) hone in on what sub-field I want to focus on and c) make me marketable for grad school as well as post-grad employment.

My first job was a 1-year contract as an ESL teacher. Glamorous? No. Obviously relevant? No again. However, it was international experience without the buffer of school or a lot of Americans around, working directly with the local community in a region relevant to my professional interests. My goal was to prove to myself that I could live without that buffer, as professionals in our field are likely to do. My second position was as an unpaid intern with an international policy organization in my hometown. That position helped me build up my marketable office skills as well as my IR/non-profit experience in a way that will play well into a job as a Public Affairs officer in the Foreign Service or similar position. Finally, my current position as an Americorps member lets me demonstrate my program management/evaluation skills, has me working with the flipside of international affairs (immigrant/international communities w/in US) and has strong brand recognition.

Even with all that I didn't get into my top schools, and may continue on with this plan of working to showcase or develop skills in order to apply again next year. Also, beyond building up my resume and skill-set each position I've taken has really helped me refine my goals and confirm that this is what I want to do with my life--essential before taking on a massive amount of debt, and also essential for crafting a strong SOP and targeting the right schools for your interests.
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#11 IRToni

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 01:37 AM

I might be able to offer some insight:
I applied straight out of undergrad. However, I managed to cut my degree short and am currently spending a year in China (replacing basically my last undergrad year, but all my credits are done). While here, I really tried to get work experience, am now doing my second internship, go to lots of talks and am just now trying to get involved with TED etc. I didn't get into all schools, but I got into my dream school with a partial scholarship.
Due to funding issues, I might actually have to defer my acceptance and get some more experience, which I would be fine with as well.
I can't tell you how it is to attend grad school as a recent graduate, since I haven't done it yet.
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#12 ahoskins321

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 03:58 PM

First of all, there has been some great advice from all the posters above. In order to avoid repetition, I will be upfront and echo that I completley agree with a lot of what was said, and that I am aware of the different opinions on this issue. I've found on this site that the overwhelming majority of people seem to frown upon students applying straight out of undergrad, and so I figured I would try and share my decision thought process as someone who graduated less than a year ago and who will be enrolled in a public policy program this fall.

I am very fortunate in that throughout my life I had many opportunities to travel to countries that don't fall in the typical "family trip to Euorpe" category (not that there is anything wrong with that, I was just interested in development). By the time I entered college, I was dead set on spending as much time abroad as I could and studying international relations with a focus on development in Africa. I was given a scholarship to spend four months working full time for a small development organization in Uganda and then studied abroad for 6 months in Madagascar where I did a solo research project on women's health. I also had multiple relevant part time internships that were facilitated by my location in San Francisco, and when I graduated I was hired to work for a non-profit organization focusing on education. My point is, when I was making the decision whether or not to apply, I felt like my relevant experience, while certainly not comparable to some of the people that I am sure I will meet in my program, was substantial enough that I have a pretty good idea of what I am interested in and what I want to do.

I know that many people will argue that when I graduate I will be at a disadvantage for having more limited professional experience than my classmates, which is a completley valid point, but in my experience there is a lot more that goes into getting a job than just a laundry list of experiences on your resume. Who you know, your personality, and dumb luck all play a role in who gets hired, especially in this economy. Additionally, I chose a program in DC where the majority of students intern during the year, so I hope that this will allow me to do some catch up while in school. Anyways, I am not trying to rationalize all of my choices, just to show that as others have said it is a very personal decision that depends on your own life experience, your financial situation, and what you want to get out of a program.

I will tell you upfront that I am not one of the people on this forum who was accepted to every school they applied to. I largely attribute that to my limited full time experience, and if you do decide to apply you should be aware that the 10% rule is almost universally true for top programs. I feel fortunate that I got into one of my top choices, and so I feel good about where I will be in the fall, but had I not I would have considered staying on at my current job.

Since I haven't started my program yet, I can't tell you whether or not I regret my choice to go, but if you do decide to apply feel free to PM me in the fall and I will let you know! :)

Good luck no matter what you decide!
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