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Why (Not) Grad School?

August 27, 2008

A few days ago, a friend asked me for a favour: convince him to stay in school and do his Master’s degree after he finishes his Bachelor’s degree at the end of this year.  I was taken aback.  I mean, this is a smart, passionate, hard-working guy.  It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t continue on.  When he explained why he was thinking of moving on instead of continuing though, well, I understand.  I don’t think I had much useful advice to give him at the time, but his question has been on my mind since we spoke.  Why should he get a Master’s?  For that matter, why should anyone?

I guess I have always subconsciously thought of continuing schooling as a default action, something you don’t need a reason to do, rather you need a reason not to do it.  It’s fine not to do post-secondary education if you aren’t particularly academic.  It’s fine to stop after just a diploma or undergraduate degree if that gets you into the job that you have always wanted.  If you are intelligent, critical, and interested though, then why wouldn’t you go on?

Upon reflection though, I no longer think this is true.  Maybe school is something that you should need a reason to do.  I mean, why get a PhD when a Master’s will get you the job you want?  Why do a Master’s when meeting your goals doesn’t require it?  If I can get a nice job that will give me personal satisfaction and allow me to live the lifestyle I want with only an undergrad degree, or even a diploma, why do I need to go further?  The truth is, I don’t.  I used to believe in schooling as an end in itself – something that you owe yourself and others if you are able to do it.  I don’t believe that anymore.

Thinking about all this has made me evaluate the reasons that I am doing a Master’s degree myself.  I grew up knowing that I was smart and knowing that smart people do science.  Why?  Because they’re smart, and science is what smart people do.  When I changed majors from Biology to Sociology and Religious Studies I had a major identity crisis.  I preferred arts and *gasp* humanities to science.  Did that make me not smart?  How would people know how smart I was if I was doing a second-rate degree?  When I finished my degree I knew I had to go to grad school, for the same reasons.  Grad school is what smart people do, and since I am smart… well, you get it.  I felt that since school was something that I was good at, I almost had a duty to do it.  What am I going to do with my education?  I don’t know, I’ll find something.  The point is that I get as educated as I can, because I can.

Now, though, I am getting tired of debt.  I’m getting tired of all-nighters, of working at home, of working in my head while I’m trying to sleep, of reading boring books, of not having time for novels or video games, of rice and beans, of these particular pressures on my marriage, of being a student.  I want to have kids, several of them, and I am tired of putting it off.  I am scared of being 30, with little work experience, no savings, no RRSPs, no EI (so I can’t go on maternity leave), no house, and huge student debt.  I don’t really have a reason to be in grad school at this point – I could get a good job with my undergrad degree, start paying off loans and saving money – and lots of reasons not to be in grad school.

If I had a passionate reason to be here, say, that I want nothing more in life than to be a professor and this is the only way to get there, or that I have an intense interest in studying something and can think of nothing more satistfying that dedicating my life to that study, I think I would be having an easier go of this grad school thing.

So I guess that leads to the advice I would give my friend.  Why do you think you should go to grad school?  Is it because it is something you really want, something that will take you places you couldn’t go without it?  Or is it something you think you should do because it’s expected of you?  Don’t do it just to prove to yourself or others that you can, having a graduate degree is not a measure of your worth.  Don’t do it because it’s a logical step from your undergrad degree, or because at one time you thought you wanted it.  Do it because you want it now, or don’t do it – yet or at all.  Take some time off.  If you never come back to school it will be because you like what you find yourself doing.  If you don’t like where you can go with just an undergrad degree you will have found a reason to do a grad degree and you will come back.

It’s also easy, when you are in academia, to look around you and imagine that everyone in the world has a degree, and all the people you look up to have advanced degrees.  This is tunnel vision.  Only a small percent of people actually have a degree of any sort at all.  you don’t have “just” an undergrad degree, you have something rare and special, elite almost.

Me?  I’ve got a year to go and then I’m finding me a job for awhile.  I’ll probably end up doing my PhD though because, well, because I’m not very good at following my own advice.  My family has sacrificed an awful lot for me to be where I am and I want them to be able to call me “Doctor.”  Why?  Well, because I’m smart, and smart people…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. maffersalmon permalink
    August 27, 2008 10:23 am

    Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

  2. October 7, 2008 5:12 am

    I think that was the nicest obit for a rabbit I’ve ever seen. Sorry about your loss. He sounds like he made a great pet.

  3. October 27, 2008 5:14 pm

    I’ve definitely been thinking the same lately. When I entered university, I only planned on getting a BSc. in Engineering, but now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t do something more. Part of me wants to do it just because I can. I feel so fortunate to live in a time and place where I have the unique opportunity to learn so much, even if it means a few more years of rice and beans. I kind of want to grow up and be a mad crazy woman scientist, just to kind of skew the ratio a bit.

    It’s hard though, sometimes. Working is so easy and pays me soooo much money, and I don’t have to budget while I’m working. But on the other hand, nothing really beats the mental stimulus (and sometimes utter brain kill) of school, and that’s what I’m going to miss. At least getting a Master’s degree will buy me time to think of an interesting and challenging career.

    Neeever take a grad degree just because it’s expected of you, it will drive you insane. Or, at least, I’ve heard it’s pretty much impossible to find the motivation to get another degree just to live up to someone else’s expectations after you already have one.

  4. jennnnn726 permalink
    February 28, 2009 7:10 pm

    Thank you. I’m just not ready for grad school yet and this post is quite reassuring.

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