Friday, October 8, 2010

19. These are the best years of your life.

Whether or not your young adulthood does in fact turn out to be the best part of your life by one measure or another, these probably are the years when you will be the healthiest, most energetic, and most capable of taking on challenges. This is the time to try, fail, and try again, to explore your options and discover work that you enjoy. Some of that energy would certainly serve you well in the energy-draining atmosphere of graduate school, but is that where you want to spend it? You really are only young once. Do you really want to start down the graduate school track from which it can be so hard to remove yourself? (See Reason 11.)

You can start a graduate program after you have tried something else first. For that matter, you can try two or three or four things first. In the process of giving something else a chance, you may discover your life’s calling and settle into a livelihood long before you would have finished graduate school. Having secure employment and income in your twenties gives you more flexibility when it comes to starting a family than you would have if you were to emerge from graduate school at 30 without any savings, and quite possibly in debt. Moreover, if you choose to start graduate school after working and saving for a few years, you can give yourself a monetary cushion that will improve your standard of living in graduate school and give you some peace of mind, which is a rare commodity among graduate students.



  1. Even if you work and save for a few years and give yourself a financial cushion, know that your peace of mind will be short-lived. How long is that cushion really going to last? Two years? Five years? Ten years? If you go to grad school at 28 instead of 22, you won't finish until you're 36 or 37 or 38. Your monetary cushion will be used up, and no one will care about the work history you built up in your 20s. When you don't get that coveted tenure-track job after 3 or 4 years of trying, you'll not be 30 and broke -- you'll be 40 and broke! You'll finally have realized just how much adjuncthood sucks, but your only other option will be to go back to the entry level nonacademic jobs you had in your 20s -- that is, if anyone will even hire you, because now you're overqualified for those but underqualified for anything else.

  2. I entered grad school at age 22, and looking back, I wish that I had at least spent a year or two pursuing other dreams before committing to this program. I wanted to teach English abroad, work in a national park, learn more languages, and so on. I could have done all those things and entered graduate school (if that was still on the agenda) at age 25, which wouldn't have been out of the ordinary. But now if I want any shot at a tenure-track job, I have to stay in academia permanently. Search committees don't like a candidate who finishes a PhD and then has a CV gap (though they couldn't care less about what you did *before* the PhD).

  3. I started grad school when I was 29. I loved almost every second of it--except the first quarter, where I didn't understand a tenth of what I was reading. For a lot of people, grad school sucks. But not for me: I drank lots of beer, hung out with girls....yes, but I really, really had a good time with great people who are still my friends. And, I got a job. So you can see that I did not get my PhD in English, and others' situations will vary

  4. i started grad school ten years ago when i was 35 and actually my life has improved ever since. i have had a great experience. but then, i went at my own pace: ta-ing sometimes, research trips other periods, and so forth.

  5. Some similar thoughts are expressed here:

  6. Aw @#%&, you mean they get worse?!

  7. I joined the Peace Corps after my M.A., thinking I would return to school after two years, and I was wrong. In the PC, I traveled, learned a foreign language, helped other people, and discovered an inner patriot I never knew existed. I talked with my friends who went on for PhDs or battled their way through a tough market, and found that my career prospects were as good if not better than most of theirs. I'm not selling the Peace Corps to everyone because PC is tough, but there are other choices aside from more school.

  8. This is one reason I had for leaving. I worked for a year between my b.a. and my m.a. I then took another year off between my m.a. and starting a phd program. I ultimately decided to leave grad school because I am still young and I want to have a life. I didn't want to sacrifice all of this time and suddenly wake up in my mid thirties with no partner, no career prospects, no sanity, and no life experience.

    You only get one shot. I'm now saving to travel around South America for three months.

  9. It's completely possible to have it all! I am debt-free, receive a normal stipend of around 1400 a month, and am pursing my PhD to be complete by age 29 (I'm 27 now). I am in a committed relationship, I travel, and I enjoy conversations and life around me. No way would I give this lifestyle up for the 9-5 pounding of real life. I have way more free time now and when I was getting my MA then when I worked for the two years in between my MA and PhD. I also have summers off and every University break to do as I wish.... I couldn't think of a better life. My solution would be for those that don't think they can balance the life or who don't have the money, should really think twice about graduate school so you don't feel trapped.

  10. I agree with the post about saving some money and trying some other career choices first. I did that, and enjoyed my MA a lot because I had practical experiences and confidence and a savings account. I have somewhat enjoyed the PhD track, now at the end I am extremely tired. But, I think I have coped well from having that experience and savings to draw from. Every time I've been down, I believe I could still get a professional job with my background. That is, as the author says, a rare commodity of peace of mind.

  11. When I was miserable in grade school, I was told high school would be better.

    When I was miserable in high school, I was told college would be wonderful.

    When I was miserable in college (considered an Extremely Good College), I thought grad school might not be wonderful, but I might have a career doing something I was good at.

    However, I was diverted into a local grad school maters' business program instead, where I was miserable. When I got back into my previous field in grad school, I was miserable. When I quit (external circumstances and poor continued funding prospects of the program having inflicted a certain amount of misery) and went back to the business program I was miserable, but I thought, well, at least I'll have a job after I graduate.

    When I graduated from the business program (4.00) and couldn't find work I was miserable. I was very low on debt, but that wasn't going to last. What had I done all this for, I wondered.

    When I went back to school two years later, I was glad to be working towards something. When I got into grad school (a masters' program in engineering), I was glad for the opportunity. I thought, well, as long as I keep working hard I'll have marketable skills and a job afterwards - after all, there's a publicized labor shortage in this area.

    When the economy tanked (again), I was miserable. When I was mistreated by a faculty member and told I would be targeted, I was miserable. I told myself, I just have to be persistent, and things will improve. As I began to realize that there might be some problems with the department, I became more miserable. I told myself, I just have to hold my nose, and things will work out. As I began to realize what an ethical cesspool my department really was (plagiarism, department-sanctioned cheating, racial and gender preferences, hazing of students to leave the department - all routine) I became more and more miserable. I just have to grit my teeth and get through this, I told myself, then maybe it will be okay.

    The longer I persisted, I went deeper into debt, and the more the department regulations changed (we are talking here about effectively RETROACTIVE degree requirement changes, which I had always believed were illegal). The more the regulations changed, the more Catch-22s accumulated, the longer I stayed to accommodate the new regulations, the deeper I went into debt, the nastier some faculty got, and the more miserable I became.

    Finally I quit (3.1+ GPA, higher GPA in major, all courses completed), and was miserable for several years as I started to pay down my now high debt with occasional work and seek employment unrelated to either of my degrees or the field I had just left. However, I never fooled myself into thinking I would ever have been allowed to take my 2nd masters' degree - the fix had been in from semester one.

  12. Part II

    After several years of miserable underemployment, I went back to community college (rather than the university I had left) to take prerequisites for a more up-to-date and more marketable credential in which I could use my previous studies. Initially I was glad to be working hard towards something and pleased at the prospect of being able to leverage previous work towards employment and a career. Finally after 18 months I applied to grad schools (masters' programs) in the new (but related) field.

    What a letdown.

    One department (at Excellent Land Grant U) was mostly interested in things I'd done 15 years ago, and I was 20 years older than any other student in their final applicant pool.
    Another department sent a rejection letter in which the sentence 'You are to be commended for your interest in graduate studies' featured prominently.
    A third department wrote to tell me that I am 'admissible.'
    I never heard from the fourth, although I see from a website that an international student with much lower test scores and grades was accepted with full funding in March. Must be nice to be part of a diplomatic initiative, courtesy of that pre-1789 French tableau known as Washington D.C.
    I dropped applications for two other departments as unexpected problems surfaced from a former professor whom I had approached for recommendations. This was highly depressing. Never again.

    These were 'the best years of my life,' during which I lost most of my 'friends,' my career(s) and over half my earning potential despite demonstrable hard work and previous societal contributions. Please note that with the exception of a few months, I stuck to masters' programs that I thought would provide serviceable and practical non-academic employment credentials. Not going for the PhD in my original field (not that I had much choice in the matter, and not that I advocate that either) did NOT help me avoid either debt or misery or long-term employment problems. The fact that I didn't study for an MBA or JD - other professional degrees with known gluts - did NOT help me avoid debt or misery or long-term employment problems. I am, however, glad I did not saddle myself with either. I guess it could have been worse, but I never believed it would be this bad.

    Now I await eviction as I pack and look for work in this miserable economy, and yes, if you were wondering, I am miserable.

    1. I'd like to commiserate with you, after just having been rejected by my graduate department, despite having 4 or so years of experience working in labs and actually settling in the department as a technician for the past half year. I reckon my position will also go to more expensive, lower-quality imported labor (the majority of it does here, causing some very annoying communication problems.) I decided to leave grad school altogether and seek employment across the country, expecting to find only transient, highly-outsourced positions everywhere I go. Alas, being a Canadian citizen now simply means to be a warm body on Canadian soil... and they'd replace you with a machine in a split second if they could.

    2. Sorry to hear about your experience. I very much hope things turn out better for you. I know these words won't bring solace after years of misery, but I hope in some way you know someone cares. Cheers.

    3. Thank you, but I didn't write my experience up to elicit sympathy but rather to either counter or illustrate a few points raised here and elsewhere on the forum.
      Professional masters' and degrees postulated as more 'acceptable' in the job market (e.g. M.S.) have sometimes been mentioned as preferential alternatives to PhD programs. I'm pointing out that these are not always better alternatives, however "practical" in orientation they may profess themselves. In fact it seems to me that this 'practicality' is more of a selling point for the program than a hiring point, and that actual performance in the program may not matter one whit to prospective employers or even to other graduate departments. Also I point out that even these relatively modest degree programs are not immune from problems affecting longer programs of study.
      Also I point out that career flexibility and persistence are inferior selling points for either prospective or graduated students.
      Foremost, however, I am expressing my deep sense of disappointment in a set of institutions - primarily academic - that clearly play by very different rules than those by which they claim to play. Higher education in my experience has been one expensive, overly lengthy, demeaning con game - and had I known this up front, I would have made different decisions.

  13. To be fair, one of the reasons that I chose to undertake a PhD was the "security" of 3 years Scholarship. I came out of my Masters struggling with temporary work, casual work and unemployment to the extent that it seemed that my only option for a bit of stability was a funded PhD.
    I am struggling with social isolation having moved to a new place on my own for this, but I don't really see much other option for me currently. I would really like to get married and start a family but as one of the other reasons states it is hard to attract a partner with this kind of income and lifestyle.