We are going to discuss the importance (or insignificance for that matter) of work experience for MS. There are two aspects to it –
- How much is the work experience valued in the admission process generally?
- How will having work experience benefit me overall? – This is what answers questions like ‘Should I wait and get some work experience before applying to MS?’
How much is the work experience valued in the admission process generally?
Let us be very clear – work experience is NOT mandatory. But it can help. It means that work experience is an added qualification and carries some weight just like your GPA, GRE score and application documents do. So, a student without work experience is NOT at a disadvantage in MS applications.
- Relevant core experience at a well-known company can matter A LOT.
- Relevant experience at an unheard company can matter if you describe your projects well. And LORs support well.
- Irrelevant experience hardly matters – here, it depends how you spin it in your story.
Again, let me bring to your notice that this is very different in the case of MBA. But if someone has relevant work experience, then they can get some extra points and might be preferred over another applicant with similar profile otherwise but no work experience. The keyword here is – relevant.
What does relevant work experience mean?
Not all kind of work experience will enhance your profile. The one that will is what I am calling as relevant work experience. It is the experience accumulated in the same field in which you are applying. So if you are applying for Mechanical Engineering, your experience in mechanical industry (engineering role in auto firms etc) will help but your experience as a radio jockey probably won’t. Another thing to consider might be the length of experience – too short a work experience can only do so much while 1-2 years is a good period to be considered.
By the way, the length of your work-ex considered is what you will have by the time you join graduate school and not the time of application. So, if you just graduated and started working, consider your work-ex as one year and not 5-6 months at the time of application.
Will work experience help me get into good schools for MS?
First of all, good is subjective. What is a good or bad school depends on your ranking criteria and inclinations.
We at Scholar Strategy have been fortunate to drive awesome admits irrespective of the work experience. I have guided freshers who got into Harvard, CMU and Columbia and experienced folks who got into Austin, UIUC, Berkeley and so on.
Shall I pursue MS right after college or wait and get some work experience first?
Here’s how I look at it. You can obviously get better quality and higher paying jobs after finishing MS from a good university. So, why delay that and waste time on comparatively lower kind of work experience before MS? As we discussed earlier, work experience can help you get into better-ranked universities. So, if your profile right upon finishing college is not able to get you into good-best schools, you might consider getting some relevant work experience and apply in a year or two – again, note that only good and relevant work experience will help you. So, make sure your work profile aligns with your graduation goals. But if your profile is already good enough to get you into Top 50 schools, why wait?
The downside of waiting is that you never know what will happen next year. Competition grows every year and you may or may not get a higher ranked school next year. That means, you wasted a year.
I have a good job offer in hand, should I still go for MS?
Is it your dream job? Then, no, you don’t need to pursue higher studies (which is like introspecting what is it that you want in life). But most likely, you don’t get dream job right away after finishing college. Then, contemplate whether this is a job role which will inch you closer to your dream and enhance your profile more than what an MS would do. For e.g. if you are an IITian with great offer from Big 3 consulting firm or Facebook, yeah working there can make more sense because even if you want to pursue Grad School later on, this work experience can enhance your candidacy much much more. Now, if you are choosing between Facebook and MIT – I would say you are already a rockstar, so whatever you do will be right! 🙂
Now, my story-
I applied to ten MS in CS programs when I was still in college. I had great gpa and GRE score but my college was not too well known. I applied a bit too ambitiously and ended up getting 9 out of 10 rejects. The only admit I had didn’t excite me that much. I had a job offer from a decent mid-size MNC as a programmer (so directly relevant to my MS in CS aspirations). So, I decided to accept that and apply again next year. I used some tales from my work experience in my personal statement and got one LOR from my manager this time. I got 5 admits, one being from my dream school – University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. So, going for a job helped in my case since I felt I deserved a better school with my profile and did not want to sell myself short. And, it helped because I knew how to use it to strengthen my profile.
If I had received a good admit in my first attempt itself (even if from a school lower than UIUC), I might have gone for it instead of working in India first because I could get much better offers after finishing MS. Secondly, as it happened, the Research Assistant stipend I ended up getting during MS at UIUC was more than the package I was working for in India. So, for me, it was a no-brainer. I was somewhat convinced that I can get into a much better school by improving my application a little bit which I did.
The crux is to understand how much the work experience can help YOU (remember, it totally depends on your profile and there is no right or wrong answer).
If you are not entirely satisfied with the admission you have (or think you can get) based on your existing profile AND there is an option of getting a relevant work experience that can enhance your candidacy significantly, then you should get some work experience before applying. Sometimes, working also gives you a perspective of what professional world is like. It may also help you understand whether MS is something you really want.
If you have a good offer in hand (or can get if you apply) and a work experience can only help you marginally (since your profile is already great), then why wait to get that more awesome job upon finishing MS?
*Nripsuta, a fresher, made a phenomenal admit to Harvard and many top schools in 2016. Her testimonial summarizes it-
“Most places don’t encourage you to apply to ambitious schools – they ask you to only apply to universities where you will almost certainly get in (the ‘safety’ schools), so that they will definitely have a ‘success’ story. Nistha’s different. Not only does she encourage you to apply to ambitious schools, she also helps you narrow down on the ones which match your interests best. Her advice is encouraging, and also practical at the same time; you can definitely see that she’s been through all this herself. You’re in good hands – she’ll make sure you’re on the right track!”
This topic is covered in detail in our upcoming book as many successful students tell you what they did and what is their recommendation. Read about it here – Be a smart engineer handbook
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