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Three Lessons Learned On the Job Hunt with Two Degrees

Three Lessons Learned While On the Job Hunt with Two Degrees
An advanced degree does not necessarily guarantee work for the graduate, even in high-demand, high-growth fields.
After finishing my undergraduate degree I, like many others, decided to upgrade my skills and pursue graduate school as the 2008 financial crisis plagued the global economy and workforce opportunities.

I had just completed a five-year bachelor’s degree and was immediately accepted into a two-year master’s program. I believed a master’s degree would give me an advantage in the job market while also improving my skills through research and publishing papers. At the very least, I hoped that the labor market would be on the rebound by the time I graduated. In 2012 I successfully defended my thesis and then struggled for months to find gainful employment.

The job search can take years for many graduates. Some of my cohorts have had to move out of the province to find work. I did not think it would be so difficult. Following seven years in academia, I assumed employers would be searching for candidates like me; I was in an emerging field (environmental studies) and had relevant work experience through co-op placements.

I learned some hard truths during my stint with unemployment and have found three difficulties new graduates often face:

1. Competition is Fierce

There is extremely tough competition for any job posting. While a graduate degree presents a competitive advantage, there are typically hundreds of applicants for any given position, including individuals with even higher levels of attainment (for example, those who earned PhDs). The university system produces more and more graduates each year, saturating the market with degree-holders and making it even more difficult to distinguish oneself.

2. Work Experience is Critical

Most recruiters today ask for at least two years of relevant work experience. Unless you have completed a co-op program in university, gaining experience is a daunting task. This could lead you down the road of unpaid internships, which are not helpful while your student debt interest accumulates. I have found from speaking with colleagues that graduate degrees did not provide the hard skills and experience that employers are looking for. Concepts in academic theory and journal articles are not connected to the realities of the job market and labor pool.

There is a growing problem within academia, where the number of graduates in some faculties is not aligned to what the economy requires. For example, engineering degrees are typically in high demand as a result of labor market needs, while arts and social sciences are in less demand, thus producing a surplus of degree holders in the arts.

3. Advanced Degrees do not Translate

Many employers are not necessarily looking for master’s graduates, so graduates may find themselves doing work that is below their professional skill-set for below average pay. Employers may not be willing to pay more when undergrads are eagerly waiting and will not expect the pay level that a graduate student will.

Given ongoing economic uncertainty, the reality of the labor market today is that most positions are temporary with no paid benefits. While temporary employment can be a great way to gain work experience it also becomes difficult to move from contract to contract while trying to pay down debts, accumulate savings or start a family.


Upgrading your professional skills is a lifelong investment. Continuing education is becoming an integral part of many universities. As job requirements change and new skills are required, many experienced professionals are re-enrolling for additional accreditations. While a graduate degree demonstrates dedication and work ethic, many “over-educated” graduates struggle to compete. A master’s degree on its own does not guarantee employment. Establishing a presence for yourself in the labor market requires personal branding, networking and determination.

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