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Master the Job Market: How to Get Hired & Get Paid After Grad School

Graduates with master’s degrees can leverage skills gained in grad school to better their professional lives. Our guide will help you get hired, evaluate job offers and negotiate your salary after graduate school.

Author: Quinn Dannies

Editor: Staff Editor

A young woman in a lavender shirt smiling while shaking hands with a man in a business setting, symbolizing a professional and friendly interaction.

You’ve earned your master’s degree, and now you’re ready to get paid. And you will. Workers with graduate degrees typically earn more and have lower unemployment rates. The transition from classroom to conference room can be daunting, and your dream job isn’t guaranteed. But you’re smart, savvy, and skilled. Armed with the right strategies and ready to do a little legwork, you can access a world of opportunities for someone just like you.

Now, about those strategies…

In this guide, we will delve into practical approaches and proven techniques that will help you navigate the job search process and capitalize on your advanced degree. From fine-tuning your résumé to acing interviews and negotiating a competitive salary, we’ll be with you every step of the way.

Why Your Master’s Degree Matters … to You

Say it with us: “I’m attractive… to employers.” Your time in grad school equipped you with the specialized knowledge you need to excel in your field. Maybe you’re a spreadsheet wizard, your archival research game is on point, or you can run a small business in your sleep. Regardless of your program, your academic acumen is about to give you a leg up in the job hunt. Here are five ways your master’s degree prepares you to thrive in your new career:

Gain a Higher Level of Skills or Competency

During your master’s program, you immersed yourself in specialized coursework, research, and practical experiences. These types of skills may be difficult or impossible to develop outside of a graduate program. Those formulas you can solve in your sleep might be a full day’s work for a lesser-qualified applicant. Your work in grad school paid off, and you are ready to take on new challenges in the workplace.

Increase Your Salary Potential

Sure, you could have taken an entry-level job right out of undergrad and clawed your way up the ladder to a top role. But after a few years in grad school, you’ve dramatically shortened your journey to prestigious job titles and the generous paychecks they command. Having an advanced degree on your résumé is sure to pique the interest of future employers and can help you prove that you have what it takes to succeed in high-level positions.

Have a Better Chance of Promotion

Are you one of those impressive folks who earned a master’s while working in their field? That’s quite a feat! Now that your degree is complete, you’re ready to move up in the ranks. Some bosses offer a guaranteed raise to employees who earn advanced degrees. Or maybe you’re now eligible for a promotion. Or you can take your newly acquired skills to another company that places a premium on them.

It’s Needed for Your Field

Suppose you dream of teaching English at your local community college. Getting a master’s degree is often the only way to make this dream come true. Across industries, there are certain positions where master’s degrees are mandatory. In some cases, like healthcare or education, an advanced degree is required for professional licensing. In other cases where a graduate degree may not be required, including high-level public policy or business roles, candidates without master’s degrees won’t even be considered for open positions because they are considered inexperienced.

Expands Your Network After Graduation

Graduate programs offer ample opportunities to attend conferences, guest lectures, and other events with leaders in your field. The connections you make during these activities expand your knowledge of the field and introduce you to professionals nationally or worldwide. When the time comes to start your job search, you’ll have a larger network to canvas for opportunities.

Why Your Master’s Degree Matters … to Employers

Having a master’s degree makes you a better job candidate. But, perhaps more importantly, having a master’s degree makes you look like a better job candidate to employers. This means more interview requests. And more interview requests lead to more job offers. But including your degree in the education section of your résumé is not enough. First of all, hiring managers need to notice you have a degree in order to be impressed by it. Second, they need to see how your grad work benefits their organization. So, lean to your advantage by highlighting your expertise wherever possible. Here’s how:

Tailor Your Résumé

When reviewing applicants, a company focuses on how your skills can benefit them. So, make it obvious. A boilerplate résumé is a great place to start, but some extra effort here can pay off. Research the organization you’re applying to and the skills they value, then customize your résumé to highlight what makes you an ideal candidate.

Focus on Day 1 Impact

Onboarding and training new hires can be time-consuming, costly, and generally kind of a hassle. By highlighting how your background will help you integrate quickly into your new office, you can add to your appeal. Emphasize your readiness to take on responsibilities and projects with minimal supervision by showcasing your experience with the technology, methods, and subject matter background needed for your new position.

Highlight Noteworthy Research or Publications

If you’re leaving academia for good, you probably won’t have to deal with the pressure to publish anymore. But that doesn’t mean you should downplay your research accomplishments. The publications and conference presentations you developed during school are great opportunities to demonstrate subject knowledge, writing skills, and initiative to future employers.

Embrace Complexity

It’s unlikely that the positions you are applying for benefit from superficial knowledge and one-size-fits-all thinking. So, don’t undersell your critical thinking skills and appreciation for nuance. It can be easy to speak generally of your accomplishments, but don’t be afraid to dive into the details and talk about how you keep track of all the moving parts of a project.

Talk About Transferable Skills

Term papers and midterm exams probably won’t play a huge role in your next job. But you’ve mastered plenty of skills and will continue to use them every day. Make a list and advertise them prominently. For example, maybe you’re fluent in multiple coding languages or accustomed to complicated lab equipment. Add these to your résumé to help your application stand out.

Job Hunting: Where to Look

Once the ink is dry on your diploma, make sure to take some time to bask in your accomplishment. But keep in mind, job offers won’t start rolling in just because grad work is complete. It’s time to hit the job market, and it’s a jungle out there. To set your search off on the right foot, try out these six job-hunting strategies:

Network Contacts Made During Grad School

If the idea of networking makes you a bit nauseous, you are not alone. But maintaining connections really does matter. Activating your network to seek out job openings shortens your search and yields better offers. So, go through your email and coursework and make a list of people you’ve connected with through school, work, or events. Try reaching out with a personal message that reminds the recipient of your connection and offers your expertise to them and their network. This can be more effective than a general message asking for their help.

Companies Looking for Mid-Level Talent

Part of earning an advanced degree is skipping a few rungs on the professional ladder. Entry-level jobs may feel more attainable, but even if your work experience is limited, you may be overqualified. Instead, don’t be afraid to reach out. Apply for mid- and upper-level positions – a lot of them – and see what opportunities present themselves. For bonus points, reach out directly to HR managers at companies you admire, expressing your interest in their work and future job openings.

Professionals’ Favorite: LinkedIn

Now that you have your diploma, it is time to dust off your LinkedIn profile or create an account ASAP. First, make sure your information is up to date and highlights your new skills and experience. Make sure your photo and bio are professional and in line with the vibe of your industry. Once your profile is dialed in, start reaching out. For connections you know well, a simple connection request should do the trick. But don’t hesitate to reach out to people you’ve only met once or know indirectly. Just pair those requests with a personal message introducing yourself and how you are connected.

Your Internship or Volunteer Host Site

If you’ve interned or volunteered, you have a whole organization’s worth of people who can attest to your skills. If you enjoyed the work, consider inquiring about paid positions. If you’d prefer a change of scene, your supervisors or other connections within the organization might be able to connect you with related opportunities.

College or Convention Job Fairs

Successful networking at job fairs requires more than just showing up. Prepare in advance by researching the companies participating in the event. Identify which ones you are interested in and prepare a few thoughtful questions about the positions and ideas of what you can bring to the roles. Update your résumé and have copies at the event. Wake up early so you have time to prepare, and always dress professionally.

Once you arrive, set yourself to dazzle-mode. Smile and shake hands with confidence. Try to meet and connect with as many people as possible, whether or not you think they can help with your current job search.

Your work isn’t done when the event ends. While your impressions are still fresh, reach out via e-mail and LinkedIn to follow up on possible jobs and networking opportunities.

Informational Interview or Job Shadowing

Informational interviews and job shadowing let you learn about a role or organization that isn’t actively hiring. You’ll have the chance to meet people in the office, get a feel for company culture, and learn about positions that appeal to you. Reaching out and being proactive can be a great way to get your foot in the door or gain insight into your industry. Just keep in mind that when you reach out to a company about an informational interview or doing some shadowing, you are asking them to spend their valuable time doing you a favor. So, when you make your ask, highlight what you have to offer, demonstrate an interest in the company by asking specific questions, and make sure you are asking the right person for help.

How to Nail the Interview

All that outreach paid off, and you have an interview invite on the calendar. Congrats on making a great first impression! But you’ll have to up the ante for your interview. This is your chance to meet key players who will decide whether you are up to the task. So don’t put off interview prep until the night before, and do your homework. Here are our top tips on how to convert job interviews to job offers:

Research, Research, Research

Poking around on the company’s website is a good place to start. But, as a higher ed veteran, you know that there’s more to it than that. Make sure you are familiar with the broader market and industry trends. If you’re applying for an academic or research job, you may want to brush up on the relevant literature. You can also do some gentle cyber-creeping on LinkedIn to learn a bit more about the skills and backgrounds of other people who have similar roles. Doing your research can also help you demonstrate your enthusiasm for the role. Use your findings to develop some smart questions to ask your interviewer when you meet.

Pop Quiz: Practice Questions

If you survived a comps exam, you may have mastered the art of answering off the cuff. The rest of us would probably benefit from some pre-interview rehearsal. You can start by checking out common general interview questions, but also research interview questions related to your field. Try to focus on clear, concise answers that connect your achievements to the role’s responsibilities.

Dress the Part and Be Professional

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for what to wear to an interview. Of course, showing up shabby is a major faux pas, but it can feel just as awkward to show up in a three-piece suit when your interviewer is wearing khaki shorts. Your goal is to match the mood of the office, and dial it up a notch. If the company you’re interviewing with has social media, you might be able to get a feel for what employees wear day to day. Otherwise, you’ll need to research industry norms. For example, fancy financial firms may require a suit and tie, but a tech start-up will probably have a more casual dress code.

If you have friends or mentors in the industry, they may have great advice. Lastly, crowdsourcing might be an option. For example, the fine folks at Reddit’s r/malefashionadvice and r/femalefashionadvice are happy to give you their two cents.

Show Your Expertise

Your master’s degree demonstrates that you are a subject expert. However, employers outside of academia may have trouble visualizing how your work connects to their business. So, it’s up to you to show how the knowledge and skills you’ve earned connect in the workplace. This is likely less about quoting the latest research and more about drawing parallels between your work and the company’s mission. You can identify how experiences you gained at school will translate to essential job skills like clear communication and teamwork. This guide from The Modern Language Association caters to PhDs but has some great advice on this topic that applies to grads at all levels.

Video or Virtual Interview Best Practices

Now that virtual meetings have become the norm, job interviews are following suit. This can be a convenient option – especially if you’re applying long distance – but online interviews have their own set of considerations.

  • First, it can be difficult to get in the right mindset. Try getting up and dressed as though you were headed into an in-person meeting. Even over Zoom, neat and professional presentation matters.
  • Second, curate your environment. No need for a full remodel. Just make sure your background is neutral, your lighting is OK, and there is no distracting background noise. If that sounds impossible in your home, consider reserving a study room at your library for the meeting.
  • Finally, check your tech! Make sure your internet is strong, your camera is clean, and your mic is functional. Maybe even do a test call with a friend to make sure things are looking – and sounding – good.

Follow Up

Your interview is not complete until you’ve followed up. We can’t stress this enough. Following up via e-mail or written note within a few days demonstrates good communication and, follow through, and helps your interviewer remember your conversation. You can also use your post-interview communication to add anything you forgot during the conversation, underscore your interest in the job, and remind them of the qualities that make you a star.

Checklist: Evaluating the Job Offer

Receiving a job offer can be a huge relief. It can be tempting to take the first position you are presented with just so you can be done with the job search. But this is your career we’re talking about, and your first job out of school sets the tone for future opportunities. So, before you commit, consider these factors:

Are the salary and benefits comparable to a similar position in the market?

You can use websites like Indeed to see what peers in your field are earning. Also, keep in mind that where you live can have a huge impact on your average salary. If the numbers aren’t adding up, you can also use this data to negotiate better pay.

If you have to move, does it include relocation costs?

As an in-demand talent, your future employer might offer relocation benefits, or you can ask for them as part of your salary negotiation. At a minimum, companies asking new hires to relocate tend to help cover your moving expenses. You could also ask about being flown out in advance of your move to look for housing. Depending on your situation, other relocation benefits might include temporary housing, language training, or a relocation bonus.

Does the company offer incentives?

These incentives can range from small perks like free gym memberships to major add-ons like performance bonuses or subsidized childcare. If you foresee a PhD in your future, keep an eye out for employers that offer tuition reimbursement. Because these incentives are designed to attract and keep top talent, hiring managers typically aren’t shy about highlighting them on their job postings. This makes it easy to evaluate the value of a position’s perks compared to other jobs in the field.

What is work-life balance?

While this is more of an existential question, your future employer does have a lot to say in the matter. And their demands on your time can hugely impact your quality of life. Some fast-paced environments expect employees to be in reach 24/7; others prefer you leave your work at the office and only work 9 to 5. Additionally, some employers may allow flexible scheduling or remote work. This is a good topic to ask about in your interview, and if you have the chance to chat with other employees, definitely pick their brains as well.

What is the company culture?

You’ll be spending a lot of time with your new colleagues. While you don’t need to be BFFs with the whole office, a good culture fit will make your working hours more enjoyable. For example, do you thrive in a competitive environment, or would you prefer to work collaboratively? You might also consider if the company and employees’ values and ethics align with your own.

Can you climb the ladder?

Your first job post-graduation is a stepping stone to bigger opportunities. Ideally, your new position will offer room for promotions and increased responsibilities. If there are few paths for advancement at the company, it is important to know going in so that you can keep an eye out for opportunities with other organizations.

Does the company pay for more education, such as a PhD or post-graduate certificates?

In many cases, your initial salary offer will be based on your education and experience. But once you are on the payroll, your future academic achievements might not move the needle. So, if you are considering earning post-graduate certificates or a PhD, find out if your new diploma comes with a salary bump attached.

How to Negotiate Your First Paycheck with a Master’s Degree

You did it! You found the right job, and they want to hire you. Amazing! The relief of getting an offer may motivate you to accept right away, but there’s actually one more step in the process: salary negotiation. It may feel ungrateful to ask for more right off the bat, but it’s standard practice, and it works. In fact, 2022 research from Fidelity shows that upwards of 85% of people who negotiated a job offer got at least some of what they asked for. And what’s the worst that could happen? They might say no, but they are unlikely to withdraw the offer. Here are a few tips:

Research Your Industry and Marketplace Trends

It’s good to get an idea of the playing field before you develop a negotiation strategy. So, if you haven’t already, do some research on the salary range in your field. As mentioned above, websites like Indeed can help you find pay info for similar positions in your area. With a bit of digging, you might even be able to find salary info for your specific position. When doing your research, don’t forget that your master’s degree should command a higher starting salary than candidates with a bachelor’s degree.

Try Not to Do It Over Email

Salary negotiations require some nuance. When you negotiate over email, critical factors like tone and subtext can get lost in translation. So, when you’re ready to talk pay, schedule a face-to-face or phone meeting. Interacting in real time helps you keep the conversation productive and on track.

Be an Active Listener

Employers want the best talent they can afford, but every budget has its limits. Salary negotiations should result in a mutually beneficial arrangement. So instead of trying to put the screws on your potential boss, engage in a collaborative process by listening to and addressing their concerns. You can try highlighting skills that go above and beyond the role or adjusting your ask to replace a pay bump with things like extra PTO or a flexible schedule in order to work within budget constraints.

Know Your Number

By now, you’ve considered standard salaries in your industry, the cost of living in your area, and the value of your experience and education. So, it’s time to pick a number. What is the lowest salary you’ll accept? During negotiations, ask for more where it makes sense, but respect your worth by accepting no less than your bottom line.

Talk About the Benefits and Perks

Salary isn’t just about your monthly paycheck. There are other things your employer can add to your offer to sweeten the deal. Ask about guaranteeing a scheduled raise, increased time off, performance bonuses, or more generous versions of other perks the company offers.

How to Accept or Decline an Offer

You’ve got an offer and negotiated a salary package. Now it’s time to make the call: Do you want to commit to this new job? If the pay isn’t right or something feels off, this is your chance to back out without burning any bridges. If you’re ready to accept, this is your chance to start your new career off on the right foot by responding professionally and gracefully. Here are some tips to nail this final conversation:

Examples of Accepting

Accepting an offer is a much easier conversation than declining one. But there is still a right way to do it. Whether you’re accepting online, over the phone, or in-person incorporate these three elements into your acceptance:

  • Express thanks. Let your contact know you appreciate their time and engagement with the process.
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm. Highlight how much you are looking forward to joining the team. Be specific.
  • Know the plan. Confirm your start date and the next steps for the onboarding process.

How to Politely Decline

There’s nothing wrong with declining an offer if it isn’t the right fit, but it can be an awkward conversation. As an emerging professional in your industry, it’s a good idea to maintain connections with the company and the people you’ve met there for future networking or work opportunities. Here are a few tips to help you decline a job offer with class and professionalism:

  • Say thanks. Thank the hiring manager for the offer and the time they’ve invested in the process. You can also pass along thanks to anyone else involved in the interview process.
  • Be direct. State clearly that you are declining the job. Now that you’ve made your mind up, don’t leave an opening for further negotiation.
  • Give a reason, or don’t. If you feel like you need to explain, keep it positive and focus on yourself and your decision-making process. Or, just let them know that things aren’t going to work out for you at this point.
  • Keep them in your network. If you’re open to different positions down the road, let them know. Stay connected with the hiring manager and other employees you met during the process through LinkedIn, e-mail, or social media.

Why You Can’t Find a Job After Grad School

It’s easy for us to tell you how to navigate the interview and negotiation process. But, getting a callback on your job application, much less a job offer, is easier said than done – even with your master’s degree in hand. So, if you’re struggling to find opportunities, know that you are not alone. Here are some common reasons that master’s grads struggle to get interviews and how you can address them.

You Might Seem Over-qualified

First things first, are you overqualified? Imposter syndrome is real, especially when it comes to the job hunt. But, if you’re applying to the right jobs and still not hearing back, you may be coming off as overqualified. You don’t need to undersell yourself to address this. Instead, make sure your résumé is tailored to the positions you are applying for by highlighting your skills and experience over your academic achievements. You can also tweak your cover letter to focus on why you want the role and what you bring to the table.

Limited Professional Experience

Maybe you’ve prioritized your studies the past few years by not working, or maybe you’ve been working in another field while you develop your qualifications. In either case, potential employers may have concerns about your work history. To address this, highlight experiences you’ve had working with a team, planning events, interning, or volunteering to demonstrate you have the skills it takes to work in a professional setting.

Lack of Connections

When it comes to job hunting, who you know can be as important as what you know. But, upon graduating, many students find they haven’t made many contacts outside of their department. But it’s not too late to start now. Consider reaching out to your alumni association, joining a professional organization, attending industry events, or asking the connections you do have to introduce you to others in the field.

Additional Resources to Get Hired

  • Compensation Glossary of Terms. When you receive a job offer, it won’t involve the hiring manager writing down a number and sliding it across the desk. No one does that. Rather, you’ll likely get a package of salary and benefits to consider, and they can be confusing. If you’re having trouble, consult this glossary from The University of North Texas to help you decipher your offer.
  • How to Ask Your Network for Help with Your Job Search. It can feel awkward when you start reaching out to your network for job opportunities. The good folks at Career Contessa are here to help. This piece gives great practical advice and a few e-mail templates to get you started.
  • Science Careers. STEM grads may be interested in this job board hosted by the prestigious journal Science. They’ve also got some helpful resources for job seekers in the field.
  • What Can You Do with a Master’s of Humanities Degree? As an MA student, you’ve probably had more than a few tell you your degree is worthless. If you’re not sure where to start your search, this guide from Tiffin University offers some search terms and job titles to help you find the right positions for you.
  • ZipRecruiter. If you’ve been diligently clicking links in the article, you’re already familiar with heavy-hitting job boards like Indeed and LinkedIn. Here’s one more to add to your list.