Have a master’s degree and can’t find a job after college? I had the exact same problem: I was unemployed for 9 months not long after earning my master’s in history. That’s what forced me to learn what I had been doing wrong. I also found out what worked best directly from my bosses ever since, and I’m sharing them here with you.
These lessons ended my unemployment streak and have helped me to land a job with one of the most successful tech companies in the world.
Update: You can listen to an audio discussion of this article right here. I sat down with the fine folks at the Hello PhD Podcast to talk about the job search after graduate school. Click the shot notes to check out their website!
New graduates have a disadvantage in the job market
First, it’s important to understand that unemployment isn’t your fault, so long as you’re putting in the effort to look. Finding a job is much more difficult today than 20 or 30 years ago these statistics illustrate that clearly.
Fact: it takes a fresh graduate an average of 7.4 months to find a job compared to just 4 months for an established professional, according to Consumer Affairs.
Fact: 53% of recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed, according to the University of Washington. That’s not a personal failing or a lack of effort—it’s that students aren’t equipped for the job market when they graduate.
Fact: The pandemic caused the unemployment rate for recent graduates in the United States to rise from 3.8% in Spring of 2020 to 13.3% only a few months later, according to Statista. Graduates had to compete with established professionals who had lost their jobs, too. That number has dropped as society has adapted to the pandemic, but it was still hovering around 4.5% as of December 2021.
You need to understand that the job market is not kind to graduates. Do not accept shame or embarrassment if you have a master’s degree and can’t find a job—just understand that it’s a challenge.
Yet this challenge can be overcome with strategy and diligence, and that’s what this article will teach you to do.
ALSO READ: The scope of an MA in history
My own experience unemployed with a master’s degree
During my 9 months of unemployment I found that nobody wanted to hear about my master’s degree. Most employers saw little or no difference between an MA in history and a BA in history—and to be fair, I wasn’t articulating the difference very well.
Here’s what I learned the hard way:
- Nobody cared that I’d maintained good grades in school.
- Many hiring managers saw zero correlation between my courses and skills.
- Academic experience isn’t valued much.
- Employers would rather see a professional master’s degree.
It was particularly rough looking for entry-level work in a city known for its tech ecosystem, where the culture revolved around engineers and software developers. What I didn’t realize was that it was my job to explain my value directly instead of letting my degree do it for me.
Nobody wanted to hear about my skills in writing, research, critical thinking, or resilience—even though past employers have told me that’s what they liked most about me after I’d worked with them.
In short: success came by demonstrating my practical skills to find entry-level jobs.
ALSO READ: How to find a job after college
I learned that you cannot simply tell a hiring manager how great you are. You need to show them with examples of work.
Why you have a master’s degree and can’t find a job
There could be any number of reasons why you aren’t landing a job with a graduate degree, but in my experience it’s not usually about the degree itself. It’s that the job seeker isn’t getting the fundamentals right.
You’ll hear people talk about how employers think master’s grads are overqualified, and by extension will either demand a higher salary or move on to the next job as soon as possible.
That’s not usually the reason for unemployment, though.
In STEM fields that could be the case, since it’s easier to correlate knowledge directly with each level of education.
For everything else, however, that’s not the pain point—most degrees don’t correlate to job experience anyway.
It’s more likely that you have misinformed beliefs about your master’s degree, like I did. Here are a few examples:
- Assuming your credentials earn you a seat at the table.
- Thinking good grades correlate to professional potential.
- Believing a master’s degree is inherently more valuable than a bachelor’s degree.
You might also be making fundamental mistakes about job searching. These would include:
- Relying exclusively on job portals.
- Avoiding networking.
- Using a task-based resume.
- Stuffing your resume with keywords.
- Writing uninspired cover letters.
- Assuming it’s rude to contact hiring managers directly.
- Stressing over making the perfect application.
- Rehearsing interview questions.
- Acting subserviently or desperately with hiring managers.
Most people make these mistakes pretty regularly—and I made all of these mistakes at first. I probably heard back from every 15th or 20th company where I applied. I only saw success in my job searches once I started fixing these errors.
ALSO READ: Can you get an internship after college?
This is what you need to do instead
After understanding why you have a master’s degree and can’t find a job, you can begin teasing out the subtler advantages that you likely gained.
This is the process to communicate that value, especially on your resume.
Highlight your growth experiences, not the degree itself
Here’s what employers cared about most from my master’s degree:
- Teaching assistant experience: this backed up my claims of communication and interpersonal skills.
- Academic journal contributions: this showed experience in the publishing world, however small.
- My research paper: few wanted to read it directly, but the size of the project showed I could manage more than simple writing tasks.
Take a look at this sample of my old resume from just after I’d graduated. You can include experiences just like these on your resume, too.
That was just one example, but you could include other experiences, such as leading a student association, managing a campus club, writing for campus newspapers, or volunteering with seasonal events. Certain projects with field experience could also work well on a resume.
Speaking from direct experience, these are the things that employers want to see about your master’s degree. Adapt these talking points to your resume, cover letters, and interviews to show how it contributed to your growth.
Quantify your resume, including grad school experience
Grad students are just as likely to make basic resume mistakes as undergrads, with task-based resumes being one of the biggest. One of the most important things you can do for your job search is to improve your resume to show two core things:
- You possess transferable experience from grad school.
- Your experience in grad school correlated to measurable value.
You can use grad school as work experience too, if you had a teaching assistant position or other extracurricular responsibilities (which is the norm).
I’ll use my own resume as an example.
Let’s take a look at that Book Review Editor role I listed on my resume. Here’s what it said at first:
- Identified and recruited over a dozen academics to contribute to an international journal
- Created database of potential contributors for strategic publishing agenda
- Revised, edited, and proofread each contributor’s work for publication
- Collaborated with the Senior Editor to make print deadlines
- Used publication guidelines to negotiate final copy for every article
Here’s what my resume should have said instead:
- Recruited 13 niche academic contributors for a quarterly publication.
- Created a database of 120 potential contributors for future publications.
- Revised, edited, and published 13 longform articles on tight deadlines.
- Adhered all contributions to the article’s strict style guide.
- Negotiated article revisions with all 13 contributors
- Authored a contribution to the publication.
The difference is night and day.
The first version consists mostly of tasks. The first point is solid but the others don’t communicate value clearly, which makes them seem like filler.
The second version communicates value clearly with some kind of measurement—and it works because that is how managers evaluate job performance at most organizations.
I still have experience from my master’s degree on my resume, as of writing.
It works for just about everything. For example, even if you volunteered, then you could quantify these things:
- How many hours you worked.
- How many people you served, tutored, or helped.
- The number of events or sessions you helped.
- How much money you helped raise.
- How many essays or assignments you reviewed.
- How many policies or decisions you swayed.
It doesn’t really matter what you did. Write about the measurable contribution or result and your resume will improve significantly.
Next: follow a winning job search strategy
The reasons why you have a master’s degree but can’t find a job are pretty common, so following these steps will improve your chances of employment by a significant margin.
- Understand that the job market is saturated with fresh graduates.
- Not to rely on your degree like a crutch.
- Highlight your experiences and transferable skills from grad school.
- Quantify your resume to show measurable results.
This is only the first phase of improving your job search, though. From here you’ll need to seek out your own early professional experiences and create a digital presence to showcase them on your own terms.
Get the step-by-step process with this guide on how to get a job, or keep reading through the site to try out smaller tactics on your own.