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How To Use Your Graduate Degree To Climb the Corporate Ladder


Thirty years ago, graduating college with a bachelor’s degree was enough to ensure a bright future with promising career prospects. Not only could you land a job, you could rest assured that you’d earn a steady salary and slowly make your way up the career ladder.

But today, the job market looks very different, even more so post-COVID-19, now that employers can recruit remote employees from virtually anywhere. Employers can demand a wide range of qualifications amongst even the best pool of candidates.

Earning your graduate degree can set you apart from the competition and lock in a variety of compelling opportunities. No matter the industry you choose to pursue, your graduate degree will help you plan for long-term success. Although graduating with your graduate degree is the first step towards career advancement, it’s certainly not the last. Leverage your degree to pave the path forward. 

Here are some tips for maximizing your graduate degree as you climb the corporate ladder.

Give Yourself a Head Start

Recent college graduates who have earned their bachelor’s degree are usually thrilled to land their first full-time job. It can feel like the first real step toward creating a self-determined future. But reality can really start to sink for young professionals balancing their budget while paying off hefty undergraduate student loans

Incremental annual bonuses and promotions may offer some relief, but these small monetary gains usually cap out at around 5%. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual review, the average performance-based promotion is closer to 3%.

Increase your earning potential.

Instead, the most surefire method for young professionals to boost their income is to pursue a graduate degree and increase their overall earning potential. As a quick comparison, the typical administrative position requires only a high school diploma or some college experience. A recent study found that the median income in this career field is set at $36,500. A recent graduate with a four-year degree may pursue a career in human resources, which, in the case of a human resources specialist, will earn you an average salary of $58, 350 per year. A training and development manager, on the other hand, who has recently graduated with a master’s degree, can earn an annual median salary of $102, 640 in this entry-level position. 

Determine a trajectory.

Although these comparisons provide a stark contrast at even the entry-level tier, the real disparities surface over time. Conversely, young professionals who climb the corporate ladder early on increase their lifetime earnings substantially. 

For example, the same human resources specialist may be promoted to the level of human resources manager, then on to the top-tier level as compensation and benefits manager, where she could earn an annual median salary of $111,430. On the other hand, the same training and development manager with his master’s degree could ascend to the position of sales manager before achieving the capstone position of advertising, promotion, and marketing manager, where he could earn an annual median salary of $124,850 and attain executive-level leadership.

Look for Opportunity

Even after crossing the stage with your master’s degree in hand, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to turn to next. Although earning your degree can land you in a higher income bracket and ensure a lifetime of healthy earnings, you first have to land a job that will lead you toward that long-term success. 

Avoid resume burnout.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of sending out dozens of resumes online without a strategic plan or measurable outcome. Not only is this method personally discouraging, it’s also usually ineffective, which only perpetuates the cycle. 

Build your portfolio.

A better place to begin is by networking and collaborating in the form of an internship or freelance assignments. Offer sample work to companies you’re already deeply invested in, or at least industries you find compelling. Many companies are willing to hire people who can demonstrate they have the skills to satisfy a job vacancy, even if their resumes don’t yet reflect those skills in a professional setting. Look for companies who could use the help even on an occasional basis: non-profits, small businesses, startups, blogs and so forth. 

Foster relationships.

Aside from a few (albeit valuable) bylines, don’t forget that the primary focus of these types of assignments is to gain experience and forge relationships that steer you toward long-term career opportunities. Let points of contact know that you’re beginning your job hunt, and you may be surprised at the professional opportunities that come your way.

The best way to secure a raise is to simply ask. But how should you approach  the conversation with your boss? This infographic has the answers.

Bridge the Gap

The terrain of the current job market is rapidly evolving. You must work creatively to leverage your degree and market your skills, to stand out from the crowd. 

Between 2000 and 2018, the number of people aged 25 and older who held a master’s degree doubled. Today, 21 million people have earned their master’s degree and 13.1 percent of US adults have an advanced degree. The same census records revealed that in 2017, a person with an advanced level degree earned 3.7 times as much as someone who did not complete high school. 

It’s no wonder that more and more students are deciding to further their education to improve earning potential. But with more and more people making the shift, it becomes even more critical that job seekers with a master’s level degree set themselves apart from other candidates with the same qualifications.

Assess industry trends and hiring practices.

According to Andrew Seaman of LinkedIn’s Job Search and Career News, “Millions of people learned in 2020 that industries can be upended almost overnight.” Career prospects have surely shifted throughout the pandemic and will continue to pivot in a post-COVID-19 world. For those entering the workforce in 2021, LinkedIn points to growing trends in the following fields: 

  • E-commerce
  • Health care support staff
  • Business development
  • Experts in workplace diversity
  • Digital marketing professionals 
  • Content creators

Level up your career prospects by building skills in these areas today. In addition to your education credentials, it will be important to demonstrate your adaptability in mastering some of the most marketable skills of today.

Look to the Future

From the time you send in your grad school application to the weeks and months post-graduation, develop a strategy to achieve your short- and long-term career goals. This will help you to be intentional about pursuing extracurricular avenues from the very first day of classes. Consider things like networking, reading up on the latest industry trends, and publishing or collaborating with others to present your work in a professional setting. 

As you begin to take on these side projects while pursuing your degree, you’ll simultaneously develop soft skills in areas such as communication, time management, and taking the initiative to build your skills. These incremental advancements will improve the likelihood that you score your first post-grad job with ease — but you can continue to set goals for yourself well beyond that first open door. 

Use company incentives to your advantage.

Take advantage of company opportunities to nurture your skill set and grow as a professional. Many companies offer employees mentoring programs. Enrolling in these types of programs may be beneficial for many reasons. To begin, you can hone the skills necessary for your everyday work: brushing up on new design programs, for example, or learning a new coding language. Meanwhile, you’ll begin to develop meaningful relationships with colleagues who can show you the ropes and help you to refine long-term goals in the industry. 

Perhaps with added subtlety but with equal importance, you’ll signal to your employer an eagerness to build new skills and a willingness to learn from more senior employees around you. In fact, according to a survey conducted by about the most sought-after qualities among job applicants, communication skills, interpersonal skills, and learning/adaptability skills ranked amongst the top five. 

Take personal initiative.

While working alongside a mentor is an important step towards solidifying long-term success, ultimately, you must also take the personal initiative to create opportunities for yourself so you can climb the corporate ladder. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and offer to take on additional responsibilities at work, even if they extend beyond your typical day-to-day workflow. 

Offer to help colleagues out when deadlines are tight and tensions may run high. Once you’ve gained some footing in a new role, start to speak up. Be willing to execute on any ideas you bring to the table. And no matter what level of success you achieve, always be open to accept constructive criticism with grace and generosity. It’s the only way that anyone grows in their current role and creates opportunities for upward mobility. 

But it all begins with that first step. It’s never too late to pursue your education and open the door to future career opportunities. Take a look at SNU’s graduate programs for your chance to climb the corporate ladder and achieve your lifelong dreams of career success.

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