How Important is Work Experience for Graduate School Admission?
Note: The article below also applies to the Fulbright Scholarship applicants from Pakistan.
In Pakistan, the term ‘work experience’ is often confused and usually refers to full-time positions taken after graduation rather than part time jobs and internships. Unlike MBA programs, work experience is not at all required to apply for MS or MEng. at a US university. In fact, work experience may not necessarily improve your chances of getting admitted to a particular university. In case of an MBA program you need to show that you have proven communication skills, initiation, motivational and leadership qualities. Therefore work experience becomes very important for an MBA program. For other graduate programs, if you are fresh out of college then it is just as qualified as an experienced professional. However there are some types of work experiences can definitely go in your favor – and will help you get an advantage over other applicants.
Relevance of Work Experience
The impact of work experience on your application depends on different factors; such as the relevancy of the industry to the program to which you are applying, and your specific role there. Suppose that you are applying for an MS in Control Systems and wants to specialize in the field of Robotics; the best impact of work experience would be if you have been working in a research lab or R&D wing of a company that works on related field problems. However, working as a sales professional or a management trainee in any industry would seldom help you. Thus, the importance of work experience depends on the relevancy of such experience to the program to which you are applying. If you have worked with any industry during your Final Year Project, and that project is relevant to your desired field, then that can be counted as work experience as well. In short, its all about relevance.
Reputation of industry
The identity and reputation of company itself matters a lot. Well reputed companies that are more familiar to the admissions committee would weigh more than other lesser known ones. For instance, in the Power sector, these would be companies like Siemens, General Electric etc. This can help you a lot especially if you hail from a fairly unknown college. Moreover by getting a 5-star recommendation from your reputed employer will add immense value to your application.
Importance of research related work experience
Research experience in an independent study or through a formal research program can improve your chances too. This will give you an edge in your admissions process particularly if you are applying to a research oriented graduate program. Such an experience will also provide you with an insight into your future research interests and augment your research skills and motivation. Professors in all disciplines regard it highly if you undertake research in undergraduate programs. If you have already graduated or are about to graduate, then spend some time (preferably 6-8 months) with a professor or other distinguished member within your field to do some research projects on a relevant area within your field of interest.
In a nutshell, work experience cannot hurt. In many cases even where experience is not relevant to your field may still help you; certain skills such as team work, leadership, working under strict timelines etc. are mandatory for success at graduate school. If your job, even if it is not in the area of your specialization, has taught you these skill sets then it will give you a definite edge over your competitor applicants.
Is Work Experience Important for Fulbright Scholarship Pakistan?
Fulbright does not specifically ask for work experience; every year it does accept many fresh graduates into its program from Pakistan. However I personally feel that in order to gain the most out of Fulbright one must get some experience. Fulbright is a cultural exchange program that also aims at producing future leaders; who would go on and solve Pakistan’s socioeconomic and political problems. That is why the Fulbright program prefers students in the discipline of water, power and agriculture – because these are the domains that are the back bone of our economy and are struggling at the moment.
Without any experience a student will not have any hands on knowledge of the practical problems Pakistan has and the specific areas that need an urgent address. So while you go in and sit in the interview Fulbright may ask you something like “how are you going to improve the condition of Pakistan or what area do you think needs to be looked at?”. You will be questioned hard and you can only confidently answer if you have some real experience that is relevant to your area – but even if yo do get accepted due to your stellar academics or by sheer “luck” and make it to the graduate school, then without much experience you may not be able to fully benefit from higher education; you may not be able to optimize courses, projects, affiliations and interactions. For example one of my students had ONE year of experience working for the education sector. She exactly knew what the problems were – after doing her research of US universities, she exactly knew the kind of courses she need to take to learn more about solving those problems. She went into the interview well prepared and confident and came out with the Fulbright in her hands. On the contrary another student went in with no experience – he was asked tough questions but since he lacked the experience he couldn’t answer confidently.
While work experience may not help in case it is irrelevant, it certainly cannot reduce your chances. Work experience helps best when you have demonstrated excellent leadership skills, research qualities and motivation while working for a well reputed industry. For candidates with below par academics, this is one of the few options available to boost their admissions chances.