As an executive recruiter, I think about career trajectories a lot. When it comes to pursuing an advanced degree, most professionals wonder-will the output of time and energy be worth it? It’s a big commitment, especially for established professionals who usually have plenty to balance already. Inviting more work can seem daunting.    

I’ve experienced this firsthand. I’m proud to say that at age 53, I recently earned my graduate degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. My return on this investment has been excellent, both in terms of the refreshed sense of content related to my profession as well as the increase in self-confidence. Working hard and absorbing new material as an adult learner is challenging but also deeply satisfying. I continue to feed off the emotional and intellectual payoffs.   

Ultimately, the value of any rigorous endeavor rests in the mind of the person pursuing it. The fact that it’s a challenge only stands to add to its value. When I played football as an undergrad, our defensive coordinator, Maury Waugh (Drake 1982), had a knack for providing thoughtful motivation on the front of our weekly scouting reports. It was my introduction to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech that has remained with me: “It’s not the critic that counts: the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is really in the arena . . . who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who, at worse, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who never know neither victory nor defeat.”

Pursuing a graduate degree is simply one more opportunity to step into the arena. It means taking a risk and inviting hard work, when frankly you could be doing other, more fun, or diverting things. It’s value to the employer is that it marks you, the employee, as a person who is serious about your career. Someone willing to better understand your profession. It also says that you have the conviction to continue striving and the wherewithal to pursue your goals to the highest level possible or practicable. Employers value these qualities and seek them in the men and women they hire. 

If you’re contemplating this pursuit, here’s what to consider:

Step 1: Self-Awareness 

As you think this through, an important first step is to do some soul searching. Ask yourself: What makes me a stand out as a person, a leader, or an individual contributor?graduate degree

Is it your knack for connecting with people? Is it your ability to identify profitable companies? Is it your big picture perspective that enables you to activate a group towards collective problem-solving? Look at your past performance reviews and other notes from conversations you’ve had with management. What are your professional secret weapons?   

Next, think about how you hope to enhance those through an academic pursuit; for example, I’m a stand out engineer, but to advance in the direction I want to, I need to, better understand how to lead engineers in the pursuit of world-class solutions. This gives you a concrete sense of how you should bolster your career through higher education. Your focus then, is purposeful and targeted. This level of self-awareness helps you prepare for the work ahead.

The value of an advanced degree

Our degrees and credentials don’t necessarily guarantee us anything, but they do position us in a unique pool. Generally, the more and better your credentials, the more and better your career opportunities.

Advanced degrees can hold a technical value or a perceived value. The technical value tends to be more in line with technical disciplines such as accounting, engineering or law, all of which have challenging professional licensing exams, gateways to these professions. Because of this, internal recruitment teams often pursue candidates, who have been freshly indoctrinated with the expertise that their industry requires, directly out of graduate schools.  

The perception of graduate degree value remains strong even without technical licensing. Professionals who earn advanced degrees often have a high probability for success. Graduate-level work tends to provide confidence and a broader perspective about the world and the ideas that make businesses and other institutions better. Not that great innovations don’t come from all manner of places, but it’s the people with the graduate degrees who often have the knowledge, experience, and practical sense of taking an idea to market or pulling together the capital that allows the idea it come to life.

Success begets success and the concrete rewards of earning an advanced degree includes fortifying one’s reputation and confidence-both desirable outcomes. 

How recruiters tend to view advanced degrees

Attitudes about advanced degrees can vary. It boils down to who is conducting the interview and what he or she is seeking. If a CEO holds an advanced degree, for instance, he or she may view that as a core component of fit and require it of candidates. However, it can just as easily go the other way and a CEO without an advanced degree might believe such people add unique value.

For up-and-coming executives, earning an advanced degree often makes sense, simply because it is a fresh start or a reset for the career. While nothing is guaranteed, given the leg up and the inherent ambitions of the individuals, they position themselves to rise to senior executive positions. This again, confirms the notion that graduate school can boost one’s career options.   

How academic credentials can impact job interviews

I rarely see clients actively rank candidates higher or lower because of a graduate degree or the specific school from which the degree came, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. The graduate degree can position the candidate as a subject matter expert and can help the individual answer interview questions more astutely.

I certainly believe there is a significant difference for candidates without an undergraduate degree or without specific technical degrees. It is certainly the case that a graduate degree influences how interviewers view candidates. Candidates tend to pick up on these vibes which impacts their performance during their interviews.

Keep in Mind

As you think through this decision, follow you heart. I found graduate work to be good, enlightening, engaging and thrilling. It’s also hard, coming at the end of already long days and weeks. 

Like anything worth doing, the challenge make it worth it. For me, discovering that was the return on my investment.  


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