On second thoughts

Post from Fraylie! I’m working on an article for Brazen Careerist right now about college and why it might not be a great idea, so this post works perfectly for me today. Plus, she calls academia “sexy,” which I kind of love:

Higher education has made a monster of itself. It’s lurking under your bed, in between your dress pants and behind your medicine cabinet.  Higher education is in there, rearranging your prescriptions.  It’s got your entire life savings held hostage in a snarling mouth, pennies and all.  And now it’s asking for your first-born child.

I am having second thoughts about graduate school.  Let me explain.

College was a gift. I received a merit scholarship, and my parents paid the remaining tuition in full.  While I was gallivanting through apple orchards, sticking my hands in hazardous photographic chemicals, reading essays by dead white men and learning to smoke Camel filters, the bills collected in a pile I could not fathom.  Between tuition, books, photographic supplies, food and rent (not to mention all of those weird fees for “activities” and “the president’s stable boy,”) my parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I cannot thank them enough.

In September, I applied for a master’s in liberal studies at the New School for Social Research.  Having graduated with a liberal arts degree in critical theory and photography, I decided that I both needed some time off and probably, sooner rather than later, would want to go back to school.  I’m a nerd – I like to learn. Academia is sexy.  And I knew that after a year of working service industry jobs, I’d probably want to be thrown a lifesaver.  I’d want out.

The problem was, I got in. I got accepted to a program in the wild concrete jungle of New York City.  They wanted me, and they offered me money.  And when I drove down to Manhattan for two hours of intellectual upsizing, it got worse.  During a reception for accepted students, the director of admissions pulled me aside and complimented me on my recommendations.  He hoped I’d accept the school’s offer.


There’s a local professor who always orders the fish lunch at my restaurant.  He’s a regular and takes honey with his tea.  Every time I place the honey in front of him, he asks, “So what’s the word on graduate school?” No matter my answer, he leans back in his chair and replies, “Well, with the economy the way it is, now is a great time to go back to school.”  When I finally accepted the New School’s offer, the professor was delighted.  But I have yet to tell him my second thoughts.

The economy is a large reason why graduate school doesn’t seem like the best option.  Tuition is skyrocketing.  I worry that I will receive a master’s degree and be unable to find a job that does not involve a cash register.  I worry that I would read about more dead white guys instead of “working on a career.”  My symbolic master’s degree would not bestow any practical or real world experience upon me.  It would not cheer, “Go forth and conquer, fearless academic!”  Instead, my degree would sigh and say, “Good luck out there.”

If human beings were incapable of guilt, I don’t think I would have this problem of second thoughts.  The idea of going to graduate school makes me feel very guilty.  Not knowing what I want to do with my life is an anxiety that curls around me like that writhing snake floor in The Temple of Doom.  (Why did it have to be snakes!)  And spending a lot of money on tuition in order to figure this all out makes me feel like an idiot. There has to be a more practical way.

Somebody smart once told me that the world always needs watchdogs.  The world requires critics and smart evangelists of the greater good.  That’s why she’s an academic.  But she became an academic thirty years ago, when a PhD symbolized much, much more.  It required the same amount of work, but back then, the world worked harder in your return.  Her sentiments came from a concerned and caring place.  But I think they came from a time long gone.

So what am I going to do?  Good question.  I like to tell people I am “moving to New York,” because that is a statement that requires no clarification.  As if New York is enough.  What I’m actually doing is moving to my mother’s house in New Jersey and biting my nails over my placement at the New School.  Until then, I’ll at least know why quarters and dimes been disappearing beneath my bed.  Maybe the monster and I can be friends.  But maybe not.

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love how my hair thickens up and goes wild in the humidity.

P.S. while we’re talking about college, check out my Skipping School post about Phi Beta Kappa, and how I didn’t know what it was and missed my big chance to be someone important.



Kate on May 19th 2011 in guest post

14 Responses to “On second thoughts”

  1. Andee responded on 19 May 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    I’ve struggled with a similar decision for years. After graduating in English Literature I landed a decent job at a highway construction firm (nothing to do with lit at all), and then thought maybe I should go back to law school. It’s tough in this economy to know if more education will really pay off. I feel your pain and wish you the best, there is no wrong decision : )

  2. Kerry responded on 19 May 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    Its refreshing to read about higher education in something other than an adoring light.

    After getting a gift of undergraduate schooling as well, I decided go get my Master’s mostly because I was afraid of being unemployed and floundering – at least if I was unemployed I would still be a student. I regret the decision. Now I have tens of thousands of dollars in debt and in my job market and the current employment situation of this country, it’s made me zero degrees above any other applicants out there. Blah.

  3. Meredith responded on 19 May 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    I think times have changed, because when my husband and I were in school, we were both told that we should only go to graduate schools that were willing to foot the entire bill (teaching assistantship for spending money/rent, tuition paid in full by the school). Especially if your goal is to become an academic, you only want to attend a school that WANTS you to be there badly enough to foot the bill. I ended up at a different school than my dream school for that reason alone, but I always felt wanted and supported by my graduate program–unlike some students I was with who were paying their own way.

    My husband’s job requires a MA at the very least, and the majority of his co-workers have a PHd as well–but financially, it makes sense as his field pays pretty well. I have friends with MA degrees from private schools who are social workers–they will never get out of debt. Someone who goes to Kellogg or Wharton for their MBA will make their money back–someone who goes to a B-list school likely won’t. You hear the same things about all the lawyers who are coming out of B level schools. Overqualified, in debt, and working at a low level job.

    I left my PhD program after my master’s because I hated it. That degree has never done me one ounce of good, though I have ended up in a well paying field, partly luck and also hard work. It is not related (even remotely) to my BA or my MA.

    I think we have hit a point where you do have to do a Return on Investment for all higher education. I heard on the news somewhere that you should only take out (total) an amount of school loans that is roughly equal to the amount of a starting salary in your field. I tell friends with kids to hold the line on school and not allow their kids to choose a college based on “coolness” or “culture” but rather price and value. And a major, based on the same. Honestly, I think I’d push my kids into the trades (skilled contractors, medical technology) if they weren’t completely gung-ho on college. And the college “experience”? Frankly, it’s overrated. I had a better time doing a year abroad than in four years of living on campus.

    P.S. While Academia is sexy, the pay rate is not and it is very hard to get a job–my brother, the PHD in Physics from a top level school will attest to it. He’s on his first post-doc working for peanuts and tells me that you need at least four post-docs to get a shot at a professorship at a small school. That’s four more years of poverty level work and means (likely) no “real” job until he’s in his mid thirties. With two kids and a third on the way, that’s not very sexy at all.

  4. Deanna responded on 19 May 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Ah…great topic darling Kate. I come from a family of academics. My dad was a professor and my mom a school teacher. I didn’t know anything else. I went to a very mediocre 4 year college (I got into an Ivy league but was not allowed to go because my mom insisted it was too much money) and when I graduated, I couldn’t find a job. I ended up waiting tables for a year and then went to graduate school for business. Even after graduating from Business school, it took me half a year to find a job, but I did and I think the degree helped.

    Fast forward many years and hear I am in the fitness business. I left the professional world to be a mom and to travel and move every couple of years with my husband.

    My clients are mostly well to do. I realized that so many of them made a lot more money than we ever did and certainly a lot more than my parents. I realized how unrelated education and money were when one of my clients who owned a carpet cleaning business had a $60,000 car, took 5 cruises a year and lived in a house that was worth at least 3 times what my house was worth. She wasn’t well read, couldn’t write well and probably couldn’t discuss an Indy movie…but boy was she wealthy. I resented this at the time. I resented all the years of education between me, my husband (two master degrees), my dad (PhD) and my mom (one Master) and all of us put together couldn’t hold a candle to the carpet cleaning people.

    I think now I’ve learned to realize that education is a wonderful thing, but unless you study law at a top notch school or medicine, it won’t bring you a large income.

    If education were free or a lot less expensive, then I’d be back to school in a minute. Other than that, I’ll just keep working.

    Thanks for yet another good topic.

  5. Sarah responded on 19 May 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    Although it sometimes doesn’t seem that way, higher degrees really are the best way to ensure you are employed. Even in America, right now, PhD’s only have a 2% unemployment rate. Those with a bachelors or masters are doing much better than average as well. High school grads have the same unemployment rate as the average (around 9.5%, if I remember correctly), and those without a high school degree have a 15% unemployment rate. While we might think that a masters, PhD, etc. don’t mean what they used to – and that is in some ways true – they still mean a lot when it comes to getting a job.

  6. MarieELizabeth responded on 19 May 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Graduate school is not about getting a job any more than undergrad. If you put all the pressure on graduate school to some how magically improve your life you will be disappointed and your return on investment will suck. However, if there is something you love and you want to learn all about it, and maybe in the meantime also become a more critical thinker and time manager, than graduate school it for you. It’s a few years of your life that can be enjoyable or ugly, depending on your perspective going in. Also, nothing says you must stay forever. If you find something else along the way (say a great job in a completely different field), I imagine you will still use what you have learned in some manner. I don’t regret a minute of my college degrees – and I am in a completely different job than I ever imagined. Good Luck!

  7. J. Boykin responded on 20 May 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    I feel way too similar to these sentiments…I graduated from undergrad last year, did an internship and worked for a bit, and now everyone’s telling me I need to go back to school and get my Master’s or my doctorate. As an English major with a real passion for writing, I’m just not sure that getting a degree in that field would really help me.

    Right now, I’m trying to genuinely ask myself what I want out of life, what I really want to focus my energy towards. If that goal is something that requires a graduate degree (teaching, higher-level publishing or whatnot), then I’ll make the move. But right now my priorities are in very different areas, so I’m keeping myself out of the extra debt and time commitments.

    Hey, thanks for the great blog, by the way. I’m a pretty regular reader, and I love what you put up here. Keep up the great work!

  8. On Second Thoughts | paralleling responded on 20 May 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    [...] This post was originally featured as a guest post on eatthedamncake.com [...]

  9. Alii Silverwing responded on 20 May 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    This feeling was why I ultimately didn’t go to Grad School. I felt like I was spinning my wheels in academia, and I’m the kind of person who needs to confront scary things early rather than later. The ‘return on investment’ idea mentioned by another commenter meant that – for me – the scary NOW was far far preferable to scary at some unnamed time after who-know-how-many more years.

    I don’t know, though, maybe you could start moving away from strictly student and start trying to cash in on your skills before you’ve even finished? I mean – life kinda just happens until you poke it to do what you want it to. There’s nothing in the rulebook that says poking life has to happen on someone else’s timeline.

  10. Roxanne responded on 21 May 2011 at 2:44 am #

    I’m in pre-law right now, and I’m really scared of graduating with all this knowledge and love and not being able to use it. The good news is, I also like teaching, so if I can’t find a job for a while, I’ll lecture at my high school. :) But I still want to be able to put my degree to good use.

  11. Genevieve responded on 25 May 2011 at 4:36 am #

    I went to grad school because I loved learning and I was good at it, but to be honest, the largest part of going to grad school was to avoid having to get a real job and starting “life”. I opted for grad school in Europe, so bonus adventure points there, and ended up meeting the man who is now my husband. I was offered a PhD position at the end of my MA, but turned it down- I just didn’t want to be in school anymore. Eight years later, I moved permanently to Europe to be with my husband, had to drop out of my field as I didn’t speak the local language, but I did speak English and got a much better paying job instead. I may not work in the field I studied, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the writing and presentation and research and analysis skills I learned in academia are paying off.

  12. Katie responded on 26 May 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    I see most people who have commented agree with me.

    My thoughts? Grad school is overrated – a LOT. And far too many people in my generation (mid to late 20s) are being told to (or feeling as though they should) go to put off finding a non-existent job. Well, it doesn’t help. I say – find a job for now, and wait till you a) know you REALLY want grad school – or don’t go! (ever) and b) know it will pay off with a job in the economy.

    Law school left myself and most of my classmates in nearly $100k of debt (depending if you have undergrad loans, scholarships – I did and it’s still near that), and the cost of taking exams, etc. It’s a huge burden that didn’t pay off in this economy AND the more people going into grad school makes for more grads for less jobs. The market gets oversaturated, making these degrees even less valuable in a down economy. There are a LOT of articles about the downfalls of a legal education right now and they are true. Big payoffs are not for everyone (or many), and are often way undermined by big loan debts – which never, ever go away (hello 30 year repayment plan!).

    So, my advice: if you aren’t sure if you want to go – don’t. It will still be there later. Find a job and your way now, and wait or don’t ever go, and you’ll still end up okay (and better yet – with less debt).

  13. Eat the Damn Cake » Good on paper responded on 09 Jun 2011 at 10:52 am #

    [...] not too long ago, and then worked as a waitress, and then got into grad school, but realized that grad school is incredibly expensive and that she wasn’t sure it was the right decision anyway. Now she’s looking for a job in NYC. But really, of course, she’s a writer. As you can [...]

  14. Eat the Damn Cake » an ode to guys with beards responded on 16 Feb 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    [...] has occasionally written about the time right after college, for ETDC. She worked as a waitress, considered grad school,  tried to get an office jobs, and went shopping for an appropriate outfit for interviews. When [...]