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For Students Who Rode Out The Recession In Grad School, A Mixed Picture

By MARA LEE

May 04, 2012

When Katie Surma graduated in 2010 with a chemistry degree from a liberal arts school in Wisconsin, she knew friends who had graduated in chemistry in 2009 and still hadn't gotten work.

So she decided to stay in school. She didn't want to go for a Ph.D in chemistry. Instead, she went to the University of New Haven for a master's degree in forensics science, specializing in arson and ballistics.

Surma, 25, graduates this month, and hasn't had a job interview yet. There are more openings in blood fields, and many postings require one to three years' experience.

"I'll start worrying in three or four months if I still haven't gotten anything," she said. She's moving back to her parents' house in Illinois, where her two brothers also returned after layoffs. One landed another job but hasn't yet moved out her 65-year-old father has been out of work for two years.

Surma has a back-up plan if state budgets are too squeezed to hire lab trainees. She said there's a two-year position in Afghanistan as a civilian supporting theU.S. Army.

"It would definitely be a good place to start, even if there is a risk of death and dying," she said.

Two and three years ago, the numbers of students applying to graduate school overwhelmingly for master's degrees jumped more than 8 percent each year, as tens of thousands of college graduates took one look at the job market and decided to wait it out.

Still, hundreds of thousands of students who started full-time graduate school programs in 2010 are now entering the job market. Did their decisions pay off?

Jennifer Schramm, a researcher at the Society for Human Resource Management, said unless they're in a high-demand field like engineering, their timing is still poor.

She pointed to a study from the Conference Board, which noted that students who graduated from college in 2011 are being offered salaries 2 percent lower than students who graduated in 2008. That's a strong improvement from what new graduates received in 2009 and 2010, when their salaries were 5 percent below pre-recession offers.

The SHRM's own polling shows just 35 percent of companies in areas other than manufacturing are adding to head count this month. And while they haven't finished their poll of HR managers on this Spring's hiring of undergraduates, last Spring, 42 percent of HR managers said recent grads were at a disadvantage compared to other job seekers, largely because they're not as qualified as older workers and companies have less time to train new hires.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers projects hiring of new graduates each Spring from a poll of large companies in February. They are predicting 10 percent more hires than last year, but the last two years, actual hiring has fallen short of predictions.

For instance, in the Northeast, employers projected they'd hire 11,584 recent grads in May and June 2011, which would have been a 25 percent increase from 2010. Instead, they hired 9,589 a 4 percent increase.

"Right now it's still very difficult for new graduates, even if they have a master's degree," Schramm said. Still, she said the extra years in school weren't wasted. "It wasn't a bad idea, 10 years from now it might come in handy."

Some recent grads won't have to wait 10 years to capitalize on their advanced degrees, of course. Russ Chaput, 26, of Colchester graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Roger Williams University and landed a job in his field as a clinical research assistant at Brown University.

Problem was, with a salary in the mid $30,000s after three years, and with more than $500 a month in student loan payments, he had to live with his parents.

"I had made my way up as far as I could go as far as salary goes," he said, so he decided to get a master's degree. He chose a master's degree in industrial psychology, and stayed in New England because his fiancee had a good job in Massachusetts, and she was able to transfer to an office in Connecticut, as he studied at the University of New Haven.

He started looking for internships in his first trimester, and eventually heard about a coop opportunity at Pratt & Whitney. He started a full-time coop job there in April 2011.

It was tough to take classes from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at night, and still squeeze in office hours for his teaching assistant job, but he knew he couldn't turn it down.

"The sacrifices I made then certainly paid off for me," Chaput said. When he finished his master's in March he officially walks for his diploma this month he was offered a job in career development for the company's engineers.

Chaput said many of his fellow students went straight to graduate school from college because of the economy, and many of them are really struggling to get a job. His attitude was that everything he did in graduate school should build his resume. But he said that not everyone was as anxious about the future as he was. When he'd ask some of his 28 classmates: "Have you started looking for jobs yet?" they'd reply: "No, I'm going to wait until I finish."

He said most of those he graduated with are still looking for work.

He's making significantly more money than he did at Brown, and the amount he added to his student loans was less than one semester's worth of Roger Williams. The new, higher salary allowed Chaput and his wife to buy their first house last month.

Going to an exceptionally prestigious university for a master's degree also seems to make a difference.

Kimberly Kushner, studied applied life science at Lehigh University, and went straight for a master's degree in public health at Yale. Kushner, 24, whose only professional experience has been internships at a lobbying group, a hospital, a pharmaceutical company and a consulting firm, will become a healthcare management consultant with Accenture in New York later this month.

She said of about 120 students she's graduating with, 95 percent either are going on for a PhD or have a job offer.

Students graduating from Yale's MBA program see similar rates of success. Most of those students did not go to graduate school to escape the bad economy rather, they quit good jobs to go back to school.

Joef Hatton, 29, had been an information technology project manager at an electronic medical records company in Madison, Wis., for about four years before going for an MBA. In the summer between his first and second years at Yale, he interned for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, and he'll be returning there as a full-time worker after graduation.

Even with monthly student loan payments topping $1,000 a month from his Yale degree, the jump in pay he'll receive will leave him with more disposable income than he had as an IT manager.

Getting his MBA did exactly what he wanted it to do. The only MBA candidates he knows that don't have jobs want to work in nonprofits or education.

Compare that to the job prospects of a newly minted MBA from University of Connecticut, where Jim Lowe, assistant dean of the School of Business, said: "I would have to describe it as challenging."

Accounting specialists are always in demand, but for most students, applying online isn't effective, interning or networking are their only paths in, he said.

Lowe said he wasn't ready to release the results of the survey of students who graduated Saturday, how many already had job offers in hand, but he believes they're tracking roughly where they were last year, when 61 percent did. By August 2011, 44 of the 52 graduates from UConn's full-time MBA were working.

If such a career-oriented program from a strong school isn't a sure path to a job, it's not surprising that students with an English master's are finding competition fierce for jobs.

Katie Panning, 24, went to graduate school twice to escape the economy, After getting an English literature degree from Le Moyne College, she went to library school at SUNY Buffalo, and took on just $20,000 in debt by picking the cheapest school and living at home. She has no undergraduate debt.

Instead of looking for a public library job in 2010, she decided she wanted to aim for a college library job, where an advanced degree in English would help her.

"I just love being in the college atmosphere, academia is my favorite place to be," she said. "Because the economy wasn't great and because UConn had a fabulous offer, I did it right away."

By teaching courses at UConn while she studied Irish literature, she was able to get a master's degree without any borrowing. But she's been looking for a job for five months and has only gotten three phone interviews. In two cases, she didn't make it to the next round.

She is seeing three to four jobs each week she's qualified for, and she'd consider living anywhere but California or New York City. She doesn't want to live there because entry-level academic librarian jobs pay about $40,000.

She didn't think it would take this long to find a job, but she said she thinks the collegiate librarian job market is picking up.

"I know I can do this," she said. Next week, she's moving back to Rochester to her parents, while she continues her search, and she will start applying for regular public libraries then, too.

Steven Wyman-Blackburn, 25, of Winsted, doesn't have as clear a plan of attack as Panning, nor as early a start on the hunt. He didn't start applying to jobs until this week, when his thesis in English at Trinity College was approved.

Wyman-Blackburn, who graduated from the University of Hartford with a degree in English in 2010, went for a master's degree in English immediately because of the tough job market that year.

"I thought a master's degree would give me an edge and help get me a job," he said. He has interned at The Advocate at $12 an hour during school, and said he's considering teaching high school, college, or continuing in journalism.

"I would consider anything," he said, including a job in the business world.

"I know it won't be easy. It's more difficult to get a job these days, competing with undergrads as well," he said. Will his English master's give him a leg up? "I really hope so," he said, and laughed. "Trinity's a good school."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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