More Perspectives on “Hedgehog” Graduate Degrees

Joyce Chang was a guest on Part II of the Agenda’s feature on employment in recession. She has a masters degree in sports administration, and has been pounding the pavement for some months now:

“It’s true… this is a very frustrating time. You go through your entire life – I think Generation X – is that you can obtain anything. It’s kind of like the dream or a lifestyle. You just work hard get your education, and then when you graduate you’ll have a job and everything will be okay and you know money will flow and everything will be great. And it isn’t happening. Recession is something that we can’t control, and we’re so used to controlling things…we don’t know how to equip or deal with it.”

Joyce is actually a “Gen Y,” which the Agenda episode pegs as younger adults aged 15-29. The educated among this cohort have high expectations. But, as the Agenda series suggests, the jury is out with regard to whether these expectations will be met. Do GenYs just, as Linda Duxbury suggests, just need to wait for a promised wave of Boomer retirements, or is the present purgatory of underemployment and precarious employment something more ominous and enduring?

The Agenda’s discussion of present employment prospects for Gen X and GenY, coupled with a February 1st editorial piece on the value of a masters degree raises questions about the wisdom of pursuing graduate studies when the undergrad degree doesn’t pan out right away.

Two significant issues are raised. First is whether a graduate degree close on the heels of a bachelors degree will help or hinder job prospects. There is a case to be made that further education with little work experience niches you at the wrong stage of your career development. U of T economics professor Philip Oreopoulos suggests that maximum flexibility early in the career trajectory is an asset. Flexibility is compromised by over-qualification or over-specialization, but also, significantly, by high levels of student debt. Chained to servicing large debt loads, these new workers potentially price themselves out of of entry level jobs that might provide valuable work experience. It creates an “all or nothing” scenario for that important first career job.

Jerema’s “The Old M.A. Just Ain’t What it Used to Be” also points to the growing signficance of professionally-oriented graduate degrees (discussed by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies ( Usually taken after some experience has been gained in one’s professional field, these degrees can provide some bang for the buck — particularly when they are undertaken with partial or full employer support, and hold the direct promise of salary increases and promotions. In my opinion, these degrees also make the most of past professional (field) experience by bringing together theory to generate meaningful learning.

The ultimate point to consider? There are better and worse times to think about pursuing graduate level education. It is difficult to find reliable statistical information that might determine whether the likes of Joyce are in purgatory or hell, but anecdotes like hers leave me skeptical of the long term effectiveness of the “hedgehog” strategy: Stay in school and lay low until the recession blows over. Could this just further entrench the likelihood of underemployment down the road? I guess we’ll see…


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