4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School

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 answer is: No. Don’t go to grad school. If you want a “yes” or a “maybe,” talk to someone else. I think more people, including advisers and 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.

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.

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.

Wannabe Rick Steveses

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.

27 responses to “4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School

  1. From a Facebook friend: Great post, Lauren! FWIW, my husband taught 8th grade English at a private all-boys school in Maryland for three years so we could get our school loans (mostly) paid off, and got the Masters degree for teaching (MAT) before he embarked on his grad school journey. Now, three masters and one PhD and four years into tenure-track later, there are still times he questions whether it was the right thing to do. He barely makes more than a high school teacher (and that may be debatable, I haven’t seen the salary for H.S. teachers lately) and much less than masters-prepared education administrators, after eight years of additional grad school. It still seems like law school would have been the better choice. He, too, leans toward discouraging Ph.D. work for his students or least entering grad school with eyes wide open and aware of the facts about the percentage of students who find jobs, etc. Including encouraging them to read articles by Thomas H. Benton, pen name for Professor William Pannapacker, on The Chronicle about humanities grad school.) Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Well, I think Law School is as much a load of bunk doses as Grad School. There is apparently an overabundance of JDs, and many of them can’t find work and will be found jerking coffee nexto to the guy with the PhD in Art History. Cynically, the advantage I see with your Option #4 is that you can discharge credit card debt during a bankruptcy, and you only have bad credit for 7 years. Student loans can’t be shaken, and they stay with you for 25-30 years unless you pay them all off. It’s indentured servitude and not a good thing to have generations of young people who make this devil’s bargain by obtaining an education at the expense of their long-term economic well-being. Just one more way that the Baby Boomers are eating their young.

    It’s a crappy thing to realize that you were a good little monkey, did what you were told – went and got good grades, didn’t party-harty in high school, worked two jobs through undergrad to make rent and tuition, made the Dean’s list every semester, went to grad school, and now come out and are shocked to discover that the “good job” you are told you will getting a good education is nowhere to be seen. I talked to somebody high up in my organization about the difficulty of finding a job now, education or none. I’d bet she’s in her early 50s, and she told me that she has interviewed competitively for ONE job in her entire life. Everything else, she’s been shoulder-tapped. And she said, “I don’t have any idea what it is like to be looking for work in the current job market, like my daughter and son-in-law are. When I got out of college, they were begging for people to work in nursing, and I had my pick of jobs. Now, there are 150 people applying for every job, and the whole landscape has changed.”

    I would point you to Chris Hedges’ interview of 1/1/2012 on C-SPAN for more depressing viewpoints on our collective future… http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7zotYU21qcU

  3. I love this post! Favorite part is the section on bumming around Europe. I also wish I had done this. And likewise, both Brian and I are still not sure about grad school. For many of the reasons articulated in this post.

    • Thanks, Sharon — I always thought of you guys as two people who did it right and got the payoff of grad school, so your perspective is really interesting! Also we miss Milo.

  4. You’re doing a great service to share this experience with the blogosphere. I have always dreamt of being a college professor, but my reservations with the cost of college (to me and the students I would teach) in America held me back from pursuing the MA to qualify as one.

    We are suffering a crisis of entitlement. Somewhere along the way our American Dream became more about the letters after our names, and less about obtaining and relying on a set of useful skills with which to contribute to society. I think ECON 101 needs to be taught in high school, with a focus on the concept of opportunity cost.

    I truly hope your situation improves! You could try home exchange dot com to get to Europe some day and teach ESL while you’re there?

    • I think a lot of it is pure ignorance: no one really leveled with me about the cost of grad school, the awful job market. People downplayed those drawbacks (but I was talking to folks inside that system).

      With two young kids, I don’t see teaching in Europe in my future. But, I’m cautiously hopeful we’ll make it there in the next decade or two.

  5. Ok, here’s my plan to get us to Europe, since we both missed the boat and went to grad school instead: we use kickstarter to raise money and write a book about traveling with kids. Like Eat Pray Love, but funnier, and with more snot and Cheerios. You in?

  6. Alternate plan: we go to all the National Parks.

  7. In 2005, I had the opportunity to go to some name brand law schools (not Harvard or Yale, but only just). Not doing that was *easily* one of the best 5 decisions I’ve ever made.

    Lots of people at the time were very encouraging, but one or two helped me evaluate the decision a bit more systematically than I was like to do as a 26 year old trying to decide what to do with their life.

    They basically made me look at what 5 years of work would look like compared to 3 years of no work+debt followed by 2 years of work. It was about $300k in favor of not going back to law school. The break-even point was nearly 9 years out, incredibly.

    I was irritated at the time that they weren’t as supportive as other folks, but I owe them a huge debt.

  8. Pingback: I’m an Adult Woman With Kids in Search of Myself (and I need some new options) | mama nervosa

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  10. I had much the same experience – two PhD programs within a span of 8 years. My second was also in education. A word of warning to anyone considering a PhD in education: the gap between research and practice is as wide in education as it is in any field. (A second word of warning: Education is usually near the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to hiring needs, funding, etc. – something to consider for those who would try to, you know, get a job with that education PhD.)

    Of course, the problems with the first attempt were the same as the problems with the second, mostly because the problems were my own. It has nothing to do with intelligence, or ability, or experience, or anything like that. I think success in graduate school has more to do with personality than anything else. Graduate education is focused more on the process and procedure, rather than on the outcome (whether that outcome be the supposed “significant contribution to the field” expected of all dissertations, or “personal growth”, or anything else). So if you like following rules, using algorithms, “plug in” data sheets, etc., etc., grad school may be a good fit. If, however, you are looking for opportunities to express yourself or find yourself, or even just “love learning”, then look elsewhere.

  11. Lauren-
    I feel your pain. Going to medical school and being a pediatrician was my life goal and I’m still so glad I did it, but so many others go into medicine for all the wrong reasons and then find themselves with a fancy degree that makes them qualified for nothing else, so they are stuck and bitter. Medicine causes most of us to rake up more than $120,000 in student loan debt if we go to public school. At least most of us if we go on to complete a residency will be able to pay back the loans, but after the interest compounds over our years in residency and fellowship we are looking at $200,000+ in debt. I’m so happy doing what I’m doing, but I am not very encouraging to those who think they want to be a doctor.

    • Val,
      That’s sad to hear about the amount of debt you accrue (and very familiar). Are the employment prospects for doctors good? At least people could be guaranteed an income? (That’s not the case in academia at all.)


  12. Pingback: Why I Don’t Care If You Go to Graduate School | fieldnoise

  13. Lauren, take comfort in knowing that there is almost never a way to get adequate preparation from any arrangement of courses in any graduate program. Don’t be hard on yourself for making the wrong choices when it comes to courses; there was probably no right choice. This is a problem for higher education generally, but graduate programs are especially bad at providing a clear path through knowledge-building courses. What should be a standard model everywhere doesn’t seem to exist anywhere. We all end up getting a scattershot education.

    Have you discovered the “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school” blog yet? You are definitely not alone: http://100rsns.blogspot.com/

    The comments range from painfully clueless to heartbreaking. The whole system is broken. You’re escaping the quicksand.

    • Yes — you’ll see 100 Reasons linked on the righthand sidebar. I’m definitely escaping, I just wish I’d figured it out sooner. Thanks!

  14. You have found it! I just saw it on your blog roll. Anyway, there are so many people who have had experiences like yours. I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been so clueless I wouldn’t have fallen into the grad school trap. Was I not listening? The truth is that I don’t remember anyone explaining the ugly reality of what I was getting into. That wouldn’t have been what I wanted to hear, but I wish I had heard it.

    • Yeah, I feel the same way, although I often think I’d have pursued it anyway since the alternatives seemed impossible at the time. Who knows?? Thanks for your comments.

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  16. Great piece. It’s struck a nerve with a lot of people.

    I’ve lived with plenty of rearview thinking, too. Why didn’t I get my Library Science masters in my twenties? Why did I wait until I was working full-time and had children to do it? Why didn’t I travel upriver, when offered, to contact Kurtz and slash him with a blunt hatchet?

    One thing I have learned is that failure is part of it. It’s essential to doing anything. Submitting novels to agents and publishers—an exercise in futility if there ever was one—has taught me this much. I think grad school isn’t a trap so much as a slip n slide, tilting downward into a step pit of lube. The key is to enjoy the work. Then the experience, no matter how lengthy, means something.

    Isn’t the whole grand cosmic thing, every decision we make, about becoming more aware, more involved, in the process, more than the outcome? I’m becoming a mystic as I get older.

    Great, great essay anyway. I would add the following alternatives:
    1. Become a junkie, live in Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, spend ten years sleeping under foggy skies.
    2. Rob banks.
    3. Go Wall Street, steal millions from your fellow Americans, then lose it all in a criminally absurd Ponzi scheme.
    4. Move to Kansas or Idaho, join a militia or a commune, shoot wild animals and talk about the evil empire. Spend your free time counting bullets and dreaming of the coming race war.

    • I agree that process should matter. I just think so much of grad school puts the promise of payoff on that process. The process requires intense sacrifice and we’re all fed lies about the gold at the end of the rainbow.

      I mean, at least when you rob banks, you get the adrenaline rush, the pleasure from well-made decisions, seeing your genius plan unfold in glorious precision. I didn’t have any gratifying experiences like that as a grad student.

      (Thanks for reading and commenting — and congrats on your beautiful baby!)

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  18. This is all so true! I got a MS in biology and then my MLS (library science), and the only thing I regret is that I didn’t choose a cheaper school for the MLS. At the time it seemed to make sense, and I guess I got a couple of unpaid internships that look good on my resume that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but I’m over $100k in debt just from that degree. Choosing an online MLS program would have been so much smarter, I kick myself every time I look at my student loans.

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