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Gaining experience after graduation: the benefits of specialization and co-op

What level of education do I need, and when am I really finished with school? Anyone who has ever struggled with these questions knows it's a good idea to talk to someone who has been through the same situation, and that it helps to look into the success stories and experiences of those who have made those very decisions.

Here are the personal accounts of two students, who decided to return to college diploma programs after finishing a university degree. This enabled both students to combine critical thinking and writing skills with applied experience in their field.

Ashley is a University of Toronto graduate who is now going to college to do a diploma program in Communications. She spent a year between graduating from university and starting college.

"I feel that my degree was useful but that I am lacking practical experience, something that I can get from college. I considered entering a masters program at a university, but in the end I was more attracted to a program that was applied and provided a co-op."

Ashley says that on a personal level, she was very pleased with her university program. Wanting more experience on a professional level, she decided on a program that could expand on her skills to give her some applied experience.

"Intellectually, I was stimulated, and my degree program provided a kind of 'mental conditioning,' which will help me for the rest of my life in the way I approach problems. This should complement the applied skills and job experience I hope to gain at college."

As far as the decision to go back to college, Ashley says it was the field experience that convinced her. "Once I finished university and began looking at entry-level job listings, I realized that even entry level jobs wanted some kind of experience."

If she could do it all over, Ashley says she would have made the same major decisions, just beefed up her resume a little more and been more involved in school activities.

"I might have been more involved in extra-curricular activities that could have improved my skill set, such as writing for the school newspaper, being part of the student union, or helping to plan camps events. At the time I felt that I didn't have the time for these things, I was too concerned with getting my course work done and making money to pay for it. Knowing what I know now however, I would have made the time, since these activities are what can set you apart from other graduates, who become competitors in the marketplace after graduation."

Scott is a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University with a degree in Philosophy. After five years of working various jobs, he decided to go back to school to do a diploma program in Journalism. He now works as an editor and freelance journalist.

"It became clear to me, quite suddenly, that I would need to develop specialized skills in some area, if I ever wanted to find a meaningful career. I wanted to keep my second run at post-secondary education as inexpensive and short-term as possible, so I decided on college as opposed to another stint at university."

After graduating a second time, Scott is satisfied with the decision. "I've been completely prepared for jobs in my chosen field. As evidence, after taking the college program, within one year, I've established myself as a freelance music writer and I have a full-time job as an editor with the country's largest electronic information provider. Specialization is very important."

The decision to return to school, however, was not to make up for his previous education. "I would not trade my university education for anything - it provided me with a significant foundation of knowledge across multiple subjects and contributed to the development of my critical thinking and writing abilities."

The decision to return to school can be a difficult one, but for most graduates, research is essential. "No matter what your grades are at the end of high school, no matter how trite it sounds, you really need to pause and examine what you want to do with the rest of your life. There are obviously a lot of 'ifs' and 'maybes' involved in this sort of speculation, but I think that today's students would definitely benefit from a little bit of research into the benefits of different types of programs before they're herded into statistically predetermined categories."

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