ETA: I wrote this post before I was hired as an academic advisor for undergraduates. Now that I work in an advising capacity, I see how the language here is problematic for someone whose role is not to tell people what to do with their lives, but help them understand their many options. As an advisor, I would never tell a student “Do not go to graduate school,” but encourage them to learn as much as possible about the many options for a satisfying post-graduate experience, including and beyond grad school. However, if a friend or internet reader contacts me with this question, I feel free to be more direct and discouraging based on my personal experience. The entry below reflects my personal advice when people outside the realm of my work ask for my personal perspective on grad school. –lauren
Every day, someone finds our blog by googling about quitting grad school. This is awesome: welcome. I hope our writing has been helpful to you. I also thought it might be wise to have a landing strip for folks googling ”Should I go to grad school?”
My personal answer is: No. Don’t go to grad school. At least, don’t get a PhD (see below wrt valuable Master’s degrees). If you want a “yes” or a “maybe,” talk to someone else. I think more people, especially professors, should actively discourage people from grad school. Even the smart students. That’s what I want to do with this post. I wish someone had said this to me, given me pause, made me reconsider. There were a lot of yeasayers when it came to grad school. I want to be a naysayer.
Don’t go to grad school.
I’m about two weeks away from being done with grad school. I go through phases where I feel profoundly bitter about my lousy decision-making, and I’m right smack in the middle of one right now. Bitterness is a common post-grad school emotion: for example, after leaving grad school, my husband changed his Facebook info to “Studied: Bitterness. Degree: MA in unemployable bullshittology.” So yeah, take this with a grain of bitter salt. This is from my perspective, bla bla bla disclaimer.
I generally pride myself on being a smart person, someone who can see the big picture, weigh pros and cons, and come up with solutions to problems. I like being decisive, and I like being right. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I thought I was a good candidate for grad school.
A very quick sum-up of my grad school experience: I enrolled in a PhD program in American Studies, an interdisciplinary field, immediately after graduating from college in 2004. I quickly became disenchanted for a variety of reasons I won’t get into now. In 2007, I decided to leave that program with an MA and considered many, many, many other paths before applying to (get ready for it) another PhD program, this time in literacy education. It was a much better program and I learned a lot, but even so, after five years, I am now leaving that PhD at the comps stage. All told, I’ve been in grad school for eight years, and will leave with 2 Master’s degrees and a boatload of mostly useless credit hours.
Grad school has been an exercise in wishy-washy hemming and hawing, and pretty much every decision I made from the type of degree to pursue to the courses I took was wrong. It has been a comedy of errors, and sometimes I can laugh about it (really, most of the time I can), but right now I’m thinking about what I should have done instead of going to grad school.
Become a High School English Teacher
I was an Education major in college and came within an inch of finalizing my teaching license by the time I graduated. I student-taught 9th and 12th grade in a suburban high school, which was a fantastic experience. I should have earned my license and become a teacher.
I had good reasons for not wanting to become a high school teacher by the time I wrapped up my BS Ed degree. No Child Left Behind was just rolling in like a tsunami and I could see the impact it would have on classroom teaching practices, school budgets, and teacher life. I did not want to experience that. At 23, I didn’t feel quite ready to sign up for my lifetime career, and I wanted a chance to get out of Oklahoma. I was having a ball in my upper division, honors courses and wanted more of that. I was newly engaged and my partner also wanted to go to grad school. So, there were reasons.
That being said, I could have, maybe even should have, finished up that teaching license so that HS teaching would have been an option at any time when grad school started sucking (which it did almost immediately). While there are serious drawbacks to HS teaching, I love working with teenagers, especially goofy, immature, at-risk college freshmen. They are essentially high school students. I love teaching books, writing together, and the buzz of the classroom. I would have been happy in high school.
I could have taught for several years before having kids, and might have been able to arrange a part-time schedule when they arrived, or at the very least have paid off my student loan debt and put aside some money before they showed up. I can’t quite quantify for you the benefits of having earned money for most of my adult life, versus having borrowed my way into crushing debt. Even a few years of teaching experience would have been invaluable in terms of understanding what I truly wanted in a job and a graduate degree, so it would have helped me make better choices if and when I did pursue graduate studies. I still might pursue this avenue: ten years later, I am securing my teaching licenses in Oklahoma and Iowa so that I’m never more than a few bureaucratic steps away from being eligible to teach in public schools.
Earned a Master’s in a Traditional Humanities Discipline
I did not understand the differences between an MA and a PhD at all before deciding to go to grad school, and this led to some extremely bad decision-making. Retrospectively, I can’t emphasize enough the value of an MA, even if you drink the kool-aid and go on to a PhD (don’t do it!).
An MA provides a breadth of knowledge that is essential to teach at the college level, as well as make decisions about dissertation research. There’s no way I could have been competitive for English or History faculty positions at 4-year schools with the scattershot coursework I took in my interdisciplinary humanities PhD program. I did not have a solid grounding in any area or field because my program let me design my own very special and unique “plan of study” (ha) and didn’t require me to have a certain number of hours in a single discipline. Ergo, my Am Studies MA is a patchwork of English, History, Comm Studies, and Anthropology courses, and I am not qualified to teach any of these at the college level.
I can and do teach at a community college, which I adore. I wish I’d known that this was an option: I could have done Master’s work in English and likely landed a teaching gig I’d have enjoyed, without all this unnecessary extra coursework. But, because I don’t have a ton of graduate course hours in English, I’m not always eligible to apply for CC English positions, because they want that breadth of graduate coursework (MA-level courses in Brit Lit, Am Lit, etc). By definition, the “Master’s Degree” is the teacher’s degree. I currently teach developmental reading and writing, and I like this very much, but I am disappointed that there are limitations to the jobs I can apply for because of my crappy coursework.
I could have earned a traditional MA and had that intellectual experience I was seeking after college, figured out that PhD students are wackadoodles, and then left. I could have gone on to do just about anything without sinking myself further into debt. I would be exactly as competitive for jobs as I am now, with two truncated PhDs. That extra coursework is doing nothing for me in terms of job apps. The only thing my additional years of coursework has brought me is more teaching experience, but I could have been doing that anyway (profitably!).
A traditional MA would still have been beneficial if I’d moved on to a PhD. Another drawback to leapfrogging all that MA coursework is that PhD course reqs are geared towards specialization and research, not establishing a broad knowledge base. Thus, I was really hamstrung when it came to conceiving of a decent research project. I had to read, on my own, the entire back history of any field I was interested in, because I had not sat through the coursework that would have provided it. This was especially true in my Education PhD: I just didn’t have the background to dream up a good research topic in a field where I’d mostly taken courses on how to do research. I needed that interim step.
ETA: My current alt-ac position as an academic advisor required a master’s degree, so that’s another way a MA would have been a fine goal and enhanced my employability.
Found a Professional Master’s Program
I toyed with going into counseling or social work. I could have done an education-focused MA in student development or athletic services. In fact, my adviser is eager for me to switch to a Reading MA because it would be “right up my alley.” Any of these programs would have been interesting and challenging, and would have the benefit of actual applicability to a job I might have enjoyed, with the possibility of making more money as well. I knew absolutely nothing about professional Master’s programs when I wrapped up my college career. I wish, wish, wish I’d been less embarrassed to talk to my education profs about my interest in pursuing grad school (I felt guilty that I didn’t want to go right into teaching) so MAYBE someone could have floated one of these great options in my direction. I wish I’d done more research.
ETA: Again, this plan would have been enough to qualify me for my current position, although I may not have had the teaching experience desired by my employers.
Opened up a dozen credit cards and spent a year bumming around in Europe with my husband.
I went to college in those days when credit card companies would set up tables in the south oval and give you free shit if you got a card. I wish we’d opened up a ton and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt traveling in Britain, Germany, France. I wish we’d bought unnecessarily elaborate travel gear and taken a hundred thousand photos. I wish we’d lived for two weeks in some ritzy hotel in Rome, smoked a ton of pot in Amsterdam, and bought ridiculously expensive Eiffel Tower souvenirs for everyone in my family. I wish we’d had our luggage stolen and slept in iffy hostels and skinny dipped in the Adriatic.
I would have accrued less debt and wasted less time than I have in grad school, and my God, the memories! I don’t know if, between a family and student loan debt, I will ever, in my life, be able to afford international travel. It would have been foolish and irresponsible, sure, but so was grad school: at least this would have had bucket list payoff.