From My Perspective – Graduation – What Comes Next?

For most of us who are working on a degree at AU, our motivations combine several elements. Personal development and challenge are important, of course, and many of us are trying to set good examples for our children by placing a high value on university education. But practical reasons are generally primary. We want a degree so that we can get a better job, one that more closely matches our interests and our career aspirations, one that finally lets us escape from the grind of a low-paying, go-nowhere, at-the-mercy-of-the-boss type employment. Those of us who’ve succeeded in graduating this month now find ourselves a bit closer to that goal.

Not that much closer, however. A year ago I moved into new job, and at that time I was excited and hopeful that this would be a helpful career stepping-stone. It has not turned out as expected, unfortunately. While I’ve gathered a great deal of valuable experience, and generally enjoy the work itself, there problems with the job definition and how management views the work my co-workers and I do. There is no room for personal development or advancement and the atmosphere has become extremely negative, to the point that almost half of the original group hired have now quit. I’ve been looking for new employment for some time now, but had decided to wait until graduation before really putting the job search into high gear.

One thing I’ve noticed in my job search thus far is that most jobs that fit my interests and qualifications seem to be full-time. This is an important consideration for me, since I have applied for the Masters of Counselling in January and am currently still enrolled full-time at AU in the Career Counselling Certificate. I’ve weighed whether it would be to my benefit to remain in my current job for a while despite the negatives, since I have part time evening shifts that generally suit my study schedule and work with AUSU.

In the interim, however, I’m actively looking:and applying for any jobs that seem like they might be a closer fit for my new status as a degree-holder. During the past few weeks I’ve been spending countless hours perusing job advertisements and career websites. I’ve prepared a list of organizations I think I’d like to work for and have started contacting them, and I have spread the word amongst friends, family and co-workers, asking them to let me know if they hear of anything. I’ve prepared a detailed resume and curriculum vitae, and have written dozens of cover letters for job applications.

I’m also curious whether my degree will actually give me any more clout in the workplace. Several days ago I was watching a late night television program that followed six recent graduates on their job search progress, and it was quite discouraging. I only saw the latter half of the program so I missed where they were from and what all the degrees were. At least two were commerce or business related, and one was a lawyer. By the end of the program, of the six, only one had found a job she loved that was highly fulfilling and suited her degree. Two had found jobs related to their degree that they were ‘relatively’ happy with, two found employment in completely different areas, and one (the lawyer), was still unemployed!

So what, really, will our Athabasca University degree achieve for us? In Athabasca University’s most recent graduate survey, the “Athabasca University Class of 2000 Two Years after Graduation,” 363 graduates responded that they were very satisfied with the relevance of the courses they took, with 89% stating that the program was worth the cost (in terms of increased earning power). Of these, about 25% were MBA graduates, and its interesting to note that in the individual breakdown of the 89%, Master of Business Administration, Advance Graduate Diploma in Management, Commerce & Administration Certificates, and Distance Education degree graduates reported satisfaction rates ranging from 92%-96%. Arts & Science, Bachelor of Nursing, and Bachelor of Business Administration degrees, on the other hand, had rates of 84%, 79% and 72% respectively.

I’d hazard a guess that these results indicate high satisfaction with Master’s studies, since a masters degree brings the highest salary increase. Diplomas and certificates are short term courses that are also good value for money – not a lot of investment in time or tuition and immediately improved job prospects. But why would most of the bachelor degrees not report the same high level of satisfaction with improved wage prospects?

A 2001 Statistics Canada census report indicated that university degree holders make an average of more than $61,000, college graduates about $42,000, while high school graduates only earn about $36,000. Canadian average for the period was $32,000, with about 1.5 million Canadians earning less than $20,000 a year. Both bachelor and masters levels are apparently combined in the $61,000 figure. Its also noteworthy that one out of every five graduates chose either business/commerce or engineering. Men still were disproportionately higher than women in high earnings, with 302,645 men earning more than $100,000 yearly, compared to only 54,000 women at that earning level.

Among the highest wage male earners were those working in sales, marketing & advertising, management and computer & information systems. High earning females, in contrast, worked as lawyers, physicians, sales & marketing, and senior management. More than 60% of the high wage earners had a university degree, in contrast with 60% of the lowest wage earners, who did not complete high school. Obviously a university degree is an important criteria in earning higher wages, and this is particularly true for women. Significantly, the census report states that for women – the only wage earners in the past two decades to earn more than $40,000 a year on average are university graduates.

Another interesting element of the census report was a chart that showed which of the top ten most common occupations paid the most for those holding university degrees. For both men and women, engineering was tops, followed closely by computer and information systems, then sales & marketing and financial management. Women also had high earnings for nursing. Unfortunately, these statistical indicators don’t make a clear distinction between Masters and Bachelor’s degrees, but I would hazard a guess that MBA’s rather than Bachelor of Administration degrees account for a good portion of the high earnings reported in the financial and marketing fields. While statistics certainly don’t tell the whole story and are open to wide interpretation, I did find it somewhat discouraging to note that none of the high-earning occupations were in Arts, since this is the degree I now possess!

Remuneration is particularly low in the mental health field. In one Alberta health organization where I was looking for jobs, chartered psychologists holding PhD’s are paid only $25 an hour – less than a newly graduated registered nurse (some of whom only hold 2-year diplomas). At the Alberta Mental Health Board, jobs are offered in mental health therapy that place psychologists with a master’s degree (6-8 years) on an equal footing with applicants with a degree in nursing (4 years) – a disproportionate balance I can’t quite understand.

I read somewhere that today’s graduates will be working in fields ten years from now that currently do not exist. This makes it extremely challenging for a student to choose which area of study they should pursue if their main interest is job security and high earnings. For many of us, career satisfaction is more important. We are willing to forego the big money as long as our education allows us to do something we truly enjoy. Most of the time I think along those lines, although I must confess that on occasion, while searching the want ads, I wonder whether maybe I should be going for an MBA, or nursing. But I would not be happy working in either of those fields, in spite of the high wages.

Hopefully all of us who have just graduated will be successful in finding employment in a field where we can use our hard-earned degrees and find personal satisfaction at the same time. Unfortunately, the job search part of it seems so much harder than the four years of university!

References:

Athabasca University Class of 2000 Two Years After Graduation. Prepared for Alberta Learning by Marianne Sorensen, November 2002.
Statistics Canada, 2001 Census, Education in Canada: Raising the standard
Statistics Canada, 2001 Census. Analysis Series. http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census01/Products/Analytic/Index.cfm
Nursing diploma in 14 months: http://nurses.ab.ca/issues/Fasttrack.html
Requirements to become an RN in Alberta: http://nurses.ab.ca/about/membership.html
Alberta Mental Health Board: http://www.amhb.ab.ca

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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