…At least it is the question many graduates face today.

After I finished my last exam in undergraduate college, I found myself pondering life and the valuable lessons that I learned in my four years at UC Santa Cruz.  It became clear to me that it wasn’t the multi-variable calculus, game-theories, or countless business and economic courses that gave me the knowledge to succeed in my professional life, but it is the study habits – organization, problem-solving, prioritizing, communication, working with teams, and overall connections – that I formed as a result, that have enabled me to be a contributing factor in the community and in the office. School is about discovering your strengths and weaknesses, passions and indifferences, and creating a career path driven by your goals.

That said, how much schooling is needed to gain these values?

I am a true believer that a graduate degree ads significant value to your life, but what are the drawbacks by not gaining professional work experience? A difficult decision that many students, including myself, encounter when approaching the end of school is whether to continue on with a graduate school or look for a job in an industry you are passionate about. This comes down to understanding what will benefit you the most.

I wish it was as easy as a single recipe for success, but as we all know, life doesn’t work that way. As Jimmy Dugan said in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The (struggle) is what makes it great.” Based on what I have seen and through personal experience, here is my take on the value of higher education verses work experience.

The Value of Work Compared to School Experience

With the U.S. economy in a recession and jobs scarce, I have seen many friends and fellow classmates decide to pursue graduate school. For some of them, this decision provided a leg up in a future career, while others only dug themselves further in debt. I have noticed that it is the students that have established a definite career path who get the most out of graduate school. By obtaining a focus you differentiate yourself. For those students whose profession had yet to be exposed, going to graduate school often got them involved in something they are not truly enthusiastic about.

When I finished college, I had a brief understanding of potential career paths that I was interested in, but nothing was certain. I decided it would be best for me to get practical experience before going to graduate school, so I could make sure that if I went, I went for the right reasons. Work is in part a continuation of your education. Through my eight months working at Axcient, I have learned more useful information than in any class. Working at a startup has given me the opportunity to experience many different facets of the business, and to truly have an impact on the company, even from the beginning. In the fast-paced working environment of a rapidly growing company, I was given responsibilities and duties that I had never experienced in school, but it is because of my education that I was able to successfully complete them.

I believe that education provides the foundation for a career, but it is through the hands-on professional work experience that we truly develop our expertise. In order to get the most out of your education, it is imperative that you select classes of interest and that you use that time to develop your strengths or discover your passions. Going to school just to go doesn’t provide you with an edge in the working world; in fact, it may inhibit you by limiting your work experience. I am confident there is a distinct tradeoff between work experience and a graduate degree. It is important to take the time to think about the benefits and drawbacks of each option, because for each of us the tradeoffs are unique.

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