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July 13, 2010 4:26 PM   Subscribe

QuarterLifeCrisisFilter: I've been thinking about my future career and considering going to grad school. I only have a vague idea of what I might like to study, but I know I want an advanced degree (preferably sooner rather than later). Is this a bad idea?

I turned 25 this year. Classic, right? I have a B.A. I've spent the last 5 years job hopping, moving a lot, doing random jobs that never made me much money or had much future.

I'm a seriously introverted introvert who likes lots of time alone, but years of working with the public have given me the ability to fake outgoing-ness. In a weird way, I do sort of like working with people. I like helping people learn about the human experience. I like helping people figure out how to use technology. I love to read and research, but I have the INTP tragic flaw - my favorite approach is to read a little bit about everything, find the most interesting parts, and move on to the next topic, rather than spending an enormous amount of energy on one narrow subject. Thus I am a jack of all trades and master of none.

I would like to master a topic, but A) I'm not totally sure what I'm most interested in and B) I can venture some guesses, but none of them are the path to a career that will make me much of a living. I like the humanities - philosophy, cultural studies, media studies, history, museums, libraries, and adult education. To give you an idea, the last two books I read were The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins, which I found extremely fascinating.

I have worked in a library and loved it, but I know what the job market is like. I have taught college as an adjunct and loved it, but I know what the academic job market is like. I thought about journalism, but again, it's an industry that's going down.

While I respect and believe the doom and gloom prophecies of the future of libraries, higher ed, journalism, and humanities fields in general...I'm considering applying to master's programs in public history, cultural/media studies, library science, or interdisciplinary education programs (like Stanford's LDT) - basically something that will give me credentials in a field that I might enjoy, and a stepping stone to eventually pursue a PhD and maybe try to teach.

I know there's controversy about the wisdom of going back to school, but I think I might really regret it if I don't at least TRY to pursue a career I'm genuinely interested in. I have been wanting to go to graduate school since I finished undergrad back when the economy was good. I love school, I love reading, studying, writing, and the academic environment (I know there are nasty political issues in academia, but I still somehow see myself being happy in spite of all that). I don't need lots of money. If I get an advanced degree and never land my dream job, I still don't think I would regret it. Then again, I'm only 25 and what do I know about life? So here are my questions for the hive:

1. Can you talk me in or out of my vague grad school plans or specific programs? Offer any suggestions for master's programs that incorporate my interests?

2. Have you ever regretted your advanced degree?

3. Given the state of the academic job market, I am aware that I would have to prepare myself to fail. Is a PhD in humanities or education completely useless in the real world? Especially for a flexible, hard-working, open-minded younger person?
posted by funfetti to Education (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
QuarterLifeCrisisFilter: I've been thinking about my future career and considering going to grad school. I only have a vague idea of what I might like to study, but I know I want an advanced degree (preferably sooner rather than later). Is this a bad idea?
This is not an unusual reason, but it's a textbook statement of pretty much the worst reason to attempt a higher degree. Doing it for this reason would be a very efficient and expensive way of wasting your twenties on the remote possibility of finding something that sparks for you and/or a job in a competitive field. Everything else in your question is details. I would say only consider this if someone else is paying.
posted by caek at 4:43 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Graduate school is very expensive.

If you can pay for it out-right, then go get it. But if you are taking loans, then you definitely should have a clear plan as to how the degree is going to help re-pay for those loans.

Do not take on massive student debt just because you feel like you want a higher ed degree.
posted by Flood at 4:46 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Graduate school is for suckers and rich people. Avoid it like the plague and invest in yourself. Unless you can get a full scholarship, in which case, go do whatever you have an interest in.
posted by 2legit2quit at 4:50 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here's the problem:
I would like to master a topic, but A) I'm not totally sure what I'm most interested in... I know there's controversy about the wisdom of going back to school, but I think I might really regret it if I don't at least TRY to pursue a career I'm genuinely interested in.
How can you go back to school to pursue this career you're "genuinely interested in" if you don't know WHAT you're interested in??

This makes no sense. Before you go back to school, you need to at least figure out what you're going to be able to focus on for 2+ years, and still want to engage with when school's over, and will have been worth the money, time, and effort at that point.

Also, consider that maybe what you're really going through is just getting used to being an adult. Childhood and adolescence (extended, in our modern world, through various forms of school) is about having options and having potential. Part of the deal with growing up is that you gain expertise through making choices and surrendering options - developing your potential in one area means losing it in other areas, since there's only one of you and only so much time in your life.

It sounds like you just generally have an amorphous desire to have the "option" to go to school, without wanting any particular thing you can actually accomplish by going to a particular program at a particular school. Figure out what your goal is, and that will tell you where (or whether) you should go back to school.
posted by rkent at 4:52 PM on July 13, 2010


I would not go to grad school unless you have a fairly clear idea of what you would like to study (at the very least). It's not like college where you can change from philosophy to chemistry at the drop of a hat. Also, spendy, so you probably don't want to slog through the whole thing and then discover that you have no interest in a career in that particular field.

Spend a few years exploring what you think you'd like to do, or at least what sort of graduate degree you'd like to get, and in what area. It's not like this is the last year to apply, ever.

In fact, I've heard tales of woe about grad school acceptance being difficult right now because of the number of people applying due to the economy, as well as about job prospects upon graduation being poor for the same reason. It seems like a great time to wait and see and decide in a year or so if this is something you're serious about.
posted by Sara C. at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2010


As someone who has been to grad school, and spent the better part of my 20s getting the degree, I would say that you should only go if you really, really need an advanced degree to achieve your dream job. Grad school is thankless, you will be poor, and you will be 10 years behind your peers in getting your house downpayment/401K/etc. started. And I say this as a scientist, who received a stipend and a tuition waiver. I was still too poor to go out and do things. That's no way to spend your youth.

A PhD in the humanities is a tough sell; if you are going to teach, great. (And you already know that those jobs are few.) If you are going to do anything else, be prepared to explain why you are not too esoteric to translate those skills into a job where you have to do things like manage people. You could easily spend the years gaining experience in a more pratical way than just study and research.

My advice would be either: 1) Get just a master's, which will take only 2-4 years, so you can figure out if you really need a PhD for Dream Job. 2) Get the PhD/Masters in something really practical - economics, business, public health, school admin., in short, anything that has a direct application and literally funnels you into a job path.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Graduate school is VERY expensive.

Do not do it in hopes of finding something that sparks your interest. You will end up two years later no further along in knowing what the hell you want to do, and in-debt to go along with that.

If you're really interested in pursuing further education (which is great! go get educated!), see how you can do so as cheaply or free as possible.

Many institutions of higher learning will have good programs in the humanities. I am currently employed by a university, getting a masters degree in Education. This is my third shot at a masters program - first tried an MBA, didn't like it; then I tried another degree, didn't like it; now I'm currently in the midst of my "third time's a charm" degree and just about to graduate. The only thing I wasted at this point by skipping around from program to program has been time (I could have my masters by now if I had just decided!) - my workplace has paid for every single cent of it. You don't have to work at a higher ed institution to get your employer to pay for your degree, either. Tuition reimbursement of some type is listed in a lot of corporation benefit packages.

Oh - two years later, I think I might go back and re-start that MBA. Things change quickly when you're 25.
posted by kellygrape at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


The trouble with credentials in a field you might enjoy is that if you don't end up enjoying it, it will be incredibly difficult to get anyone to believe you. The hiring manager at Business, Inc. will look at your resume, see the MLA and think ahh, her dream is to be a librarian - and the minute a library job opens up she'll jump ship and we'll lose time and money. Not worth the risk! Credentials can work against you - not to mention the incredible loss of time and money and opportunity you'd incur by getting a degree that you don't end up using.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:07 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Grad school is not expensive if you're getting paid to be there. If there's one piece of advice you should take out of this thread: Don't go to grad school unless you're getting paid. This is true in the humanities just as in the sciences (although, granted everybody in the sciences gets paid more than the best-paid humanities students). In order to convince someone to pay you, you will need to convince a prospective advisor and admissions committee that you're someone who is going to be super-productive and totally worth them investing time and money on. To do that, you're going to have to decide what you're passionate about and make a convincing case for your passion and likelihood of success in that little tiny niche.

I have been the INTP who wants to study anything and can't bear the thought of specializing. And then I discovered stream ecosystem ecology and knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. You might try something cheesy like What Color is Your Parachute? or other vocational things to help you narrow down what common thread ties your disparate interests together.

All that said, the academic employment market truly sucks. While I have grand hopes that the sciences market will pick up again once the states aren't all bankrupt, the humanities tenure-track employment market has been shrinking for decades as they turn increasingly to adjuncts. That is not going to change and you are not a special snowflake (I'm not one either). Unless you do find that one little niche that you are passionate about and better at than anybody else, it is highly unlikely you'd be able to get a tenure-track job in the humanities. Which totally sucks. Sorry.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:10 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


How can you go back to school to pursue this career you're "genuinely interested in" if you don't know WHAT you're interested in??

Thanks for pointing this out! I meant to differentiate between general things that interest me - the fields and subjects I listed - and things that interest me SO MUCH that I want to spend years and years researching in minute detail. The former I want to pursue, the latter not quite yet - but maybe after I get some life experience.

I also meant to differentiate between "stuff I like" as opposed to the types of jobs I'm qualified for now. I know a master's degree is not the only way to break into industries like museums and libraries and higher ed, but a lot of (even entry level) jobs do require them.

It seems like a great time to wait and see and decide in a year or so if this is something you're serious about.

This is true, and I've told myself every year that I would wait and see. So far I have.

You don't have to work at a higher ed institution to get your employer to pay for your degree, either. Tuition reimbursement of some type is listed in a lot of corporation benefit packages.

This is probably my ideal situation, but so far I've never had a job that offered tuition reimbursement. However, I'm actively looking for a new job right now, so maybe I'll get lucky.

Thanks everyone for your comments! Sometimes things seem clear in my head, then I write them out and they seem much sillier, then I get feedback and what seemed perfectly rational in my brain has way less clarity or logic online.
posted by funfetti at 5:15 PM on July 13, 2010


I know a master's degree is not the only way to break into industries like museums and libraries and higher ed, but a lot of (even entry level) jobs do require them.

If you're specifically interested in work along those lines, why not try to get a job in one of those areas and speak to someone who can advise you on how to get where you want to be?

Once upon a time, I worked in the bookstore of a museum. They did a lot of internal hiring, and you could pop up to HR anytime to speak to someone about what else you might be qualified for, as well as how to get the necessary qualifications for a particular job. They literally had a binder of job listings, and each listing spelled out in plain language exactly what qualifications were needed. I think they may even have had tuition reimbursements for certain kinds of things at certain levels. I'm not sure if all museums work this way (and have no idea how libraries or higher ed work), but it couldn't hurt to try.

This is true, and I've told myself every year that I would wait and see. So far I have.

If you've been mulling this over for years, and you can't narrow it down at all beyond "maybe something in the humanities", maybe grad school just isn't in the cards for now.
posted by Sara C. at 5:24 PM on July 13, 2010


Do not go to graduate school. Even if you get it paid for. Because you don't really get it paid for.

Search AskMe for all grad school related posts and you'll see.

- About to be done with grad school
posted by k8t at 5:28 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


You need a better idea of what you want to do with your life. Grad school will still be there when you figure it out.
posted by caek at 5:33 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is my understanding that an advanced degree is most likely to be useful if you're in it for the academia.
posted by aniola at 5:43 PM on July 13, 2010


I finished a graduate degree in the sciences several years ago, but here are some things that I’d suggest that you may want to look into:
• Nthing the poster above that said “look into jobs that offer tuition reimbursement” – you may also want to see if there are any jobs in a department that you like that offers a chance to do some research in a field that you may be interested in plus tuition reimbursement. To be honest, you may want to look for employment at a university as this is a common benefit.
• If you think you are interested in academic field X,Y, or Z, it isn’t books that you should be reading to test out your interest …..go to an academic library and read publications in that field (or online journal if you can get access to online articles) – primary journal articles, though, not text books. If you are located near a university, see if you can participate in a journal club.
• IF you like to teach, at minimum, go somewhere that offers you a full-ride teaching assistantship (this means your tuition is covered plus living expenses)
• Also, I think there is something that you don’t understand about graduate school (and I didn’t either – nor do a lot of people). It isn’t just about “loving to read about field X, studying field X, taking classes.” It is also about doing research. You will spend several years focusing on a topic that probably no one outside a few people in other academic institutions knows about (so it can become very, very isolating). If you enjoy reading about a topic and move on – that option doesn’t really exist if you are working on a dissertation project that takes years to complete. I would go search previous askmetafilter questions looking for terms like “dissertation” “PhD” and “quit” I’m just saying this to give you a realistic expectation of what you will be expected to do in graduate school and what it will feel like no matter how much you love your particular field of research.

Even though I just said all that – in response to your question #2 While finishing the dissertation/research, hell yes I regretted it and had metafilter been available to me, I would have posted a “how to end this now/should I quit” ask metafilter question. Now that I’m done, though, I do not regret it . I was very passionate about my field (although I disliked the research component) and wanted to learn more about it. Also, it really has opened many more doors in terms of jobs/careers – I’ve completely changed jobs/career tracks more than once and (provided you can present the why), employers gave me a chance – I know that on a few occasions the graduate degree was a deciding factor.

posted by Wolfster at 5:54 PM on July 13, 2010


1. Can you talk me in or out of my vague grad school plans or specific programs? Offer any suggestions for master's programs that incorporate my interests?

I am a librarian and I am a little torn about what to say to you.

On the one hand, the job market for librarians is really not good at the moment--as you stated.

On the other hand, the job market in general is pretty terrible at the moment and if you see being a librarian as something that you would really enjoy then perhaps you should still consider pursuing it. Given the degrees you are thinking about, an MLS might actually be the most practical simply in that you have to have an MLS to be a librarian whereas, as far as I am aware, there is not a profession that specifically requires any of the other masters degrees that you listed.

2. Have you ever regretted your advanced degree?

No. There are two big reasons for this: I got a professional job in my field after I graduated and I did not accrue any debt in grad school. However, for both of these things to be true I moved across the country for grad school and then again for my first job. If you are not geographically flexible at the moment, and do not expect to be in the future, then you might want to be particularly cautious about pursuing degrees which will only make you qualified for jobs that are very scarce.

3. Given the state of the academic job market, I am aware that I would have to prepare myself to fail. Is a PhD in humanities or education completely useless in the real world? Especially for a flexible, hard-working, open-minded younger person?

Most PhDs do not land tenure-track positions and outside of academia having a PhD in the humanities on your resume is probably more likely to hurt than help you. I think you should be really passionate about a subject area to seriously consider pursuing a PhD and you do not seem to have that kind of focus.

In general, my thoughts on grad school are that it is reasonable to go so long as you take it seriously. By seriously, I mean that you really focus on using it as a springboard to what you want to do next by taking advantage of any networking opportunities, any internships/job experiences that you can get. Do not use it as a fun personal growth experience where you can explore your wacky esoteric interests to the exclusion of any real life concerns, and do try to get it funded or pay as little as possible for it.

Having said all that, given that you do not know what you want to do next, you might want to hold off on grad school for a while.

I know a master's degree is not the only way to break into industries like museums and libraries and higher ed, but a lot of (even entry level) jobs do require them.

Well, for libraries a master's degree is almost always required to get a professional librarian position. In some libraries you can do some interesting stuff without being a librarian but in others you will end up just checking out and shelving books.
posted by pie_seven at 6:01 PM on July 13, 2010


Grad school is not expensive if you're getting paid to be there.

For most people, it's still expensive, because of opportunity cost. Graduate student stipends are generally much lower than what you'd otherwise be making.
posted by Jahaza at 6:30 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just going to tell you what is happening in my personal experience:

Wasn't sure what I wanted to do, for a variety of reasons I applied to grad school with the stipulation that I would only go if I got a fellowship -- that way if I decided it wasn't for me I wouldn't feel like I had "wasted" a lot of money. Yes there is an opportunity cost to going and being unsure but there is also an opportunity cost to not going. Who knows, maybe I would love grad school and find the career that I will be super passionate about for the rest of my life during my studies. To use a 90s catchphrase, "Hey, it could happen."

I applied to a bunch of places, I got into a few great places with no funding and one good place with lots of funding. I took the fellowship and I'm starting in August. Maybe I'll hate it and drop out. Maybe I'll love it and continue. I don't know, but I don't mind finding out for myself.
posted by blue_bicycle at 7:19 PM on July 13, 2010


I chime in a lot in these threads in defense of a PhD in the humanities or social sciences IF

a) you are fully funded
b) it is truly your calling, your passion, to do research and teach
c) you are truly very smart, write very well, work really hard in a self-motivated way, and have some personal charisma when passionately engaged
d) are willing to sweat the hard decade before you really get a career going knowing the opportunity costs involved (not just monetary -- you will likely have to defer starting a family, for example, and live in places you don't choose)
e) you have a clear project, at least in broad terms, at the *outset*
f) you get into a top program

I advise PhD students in the humanities. I've had about 14 finish the doctorate under my supervision so far, and the vast majority have tenure track jobs or top postdocs, the couple who don't are good enough that they will, this in less than a decade (my first advisee just got tenure). This is in a field that is notoriously risky as a career.

All my students are fully funded, we're a top program (maybe the top program, because almost all our students get jobs and that's what makes a top program), and we mostly have a really strong community within the program.

The humanities/social science academic career is not for everyone, not even for most people, but the naysayers and doom prophesiers are overstating the bad stuff. The US still needs higher education faculty members and will for the foreseeable future. If you do highly relevant, practical work, entrepreneurial, creative, smart, and know how to bust your ass, you can have an academic career. It's hard. It always was. These aren't even the worst of times in recent memory (that would be the late 80s/early 90s in my field).

It is far better to enter grad school with this path in mind later in your 20s than earlier (though it gets harder once you get into your 30s to compete with all the 20-somethings, who are just freer and have more time and energy) if you don't yet have a clear, vivid trajectory to a very strong dissertation project. If you need to know a foreign language, for example, learn it well before you go into a PhD program. Travel, read, become deeply immersed. You don't have time to find your direction once you enter grad school the way it used to be. Don't be in such a big hurry; plan carefully, prepare incessantly.

I agree with the majority opinion that the OP is not yet ready for either a professional track program that costs a lot of money or an academic career-path PhD program, but with your passions and interests, you shouldn't rule it out from fear alone. Know yourself and your abilities and what you are capable of, but test yourself too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:10 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Sure, you might get *really interested* in what you study for the MA but odds are that you're going to be sick of it by the time you graduate.

Companies will hire people with MA/MSc because they've demonstrated that their cognitive and communications skills are good enough to get a school to confer them a Masters.

It's almost like grade inflation - a C- student is now a college graduate, a B student is someone with a masters in anything but hard science/engineering (but even hard science MScs are having a hard time this year), and an A student is someone with a PhD, but crap - the company can't afford hiring PhDs/A-students anyway.

I used to be even more worried about my job prospects, but the more post-docs I meet in the wild, the more post-docs I meet who are fyking useless.
posted by porpoise at 9:11 PM on July 13, 2010


Doing a good job on your graduate school applications takes a lot of time and energy, but I guess it couldn't hurt you to apply to some programs and see if you can get funding. I'd apply for straight-up PhD slots, however, since you're more likely to get a ride/teaching package. Many MA programs are basically set up to fund the PhD ones (U. Chicago has a pretty notorious "terminal MA" cash-cow in humanities, but it's certainly not the only one).

So to agree with others, it couldn't hurt to see if you can get a ride but don't take on a penny of debt to do it, and don't listen to anyone who tells you than a humanities MA is an "investment" in getting into a top PhD program.

On the bright side, my hometown of Washington, D.C. is filled with people who dropped out of the academic career track to work for any number of government agencies, non-profits or think-tanks. Another thing I've noticed about former co-graduate students is that no small number of them (with either MA's or PhD's) ended up working in university administration. It makes perfect sense really, and some of them make a lot more money than you'd expect. A lot more than I expected, anyways.

"The US still needs higher education faculty members and will for the foreseeable future."

Sure, but this doesn't mean universities are going to hire a commensurate number of tenured faculty with full health and benefits packages. Why bother when an adjunct or a graduate student can do the same job for much less?
posted by bardic at 2:01 AM on July 14, 2010


Why bother when an adjunct or a graduate student can do the same job for much less?

Because a university's reputation depends on the quality of its faculty. It's not a simple cost calculation.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:50 AM on July 14, 2010


Hiring trends at American universities support my claim, even if it goes against our presumably shared principles about the need for high-quality faculty.
posted by bardic at 8:16 PM on July 14, 2010


Or more specifically, the need to treat faculty with the professional courtesy of a benefits package and a basic level of job security. I got an MA at a top-ten program in my field, and the writing was pretty much on the wall. Hires were being made for tenure, but hardly at a 1:1 ration of retired prof:new prof. I know for a fact my program wasn't alone in this trend. What was happening was more PhD candidates were taken on to teach the undergrads (like myself) meaning a) a ridiculous job market became even more competitive and b) professors were stretched to provide the kind of quality counseling and career advice necessary to support the PhD candidates to finish their thesis and then enter the job market.
posted by bardic at 8:20 PM on July 14, 2010


As someone who recently completed a Ph.D. in the humanities from an Ivy, let me say that I absolutely regret it now. I wish I'd gone to med. school. My problem is that I am simply not interested in my field anymore, and I absolutely hate it.

You might absolutely love doing your humanities Ph.D. Most of my friends absolutely love the field. However, I realized during my second year of graduate school that I hated it, but I stuck it out because i didn't want to throw away a Ph.D. from an Ivy.

Big mistake.

So if you get into a program, and you are fully funded, go for it. If you're going into debt to get a humanities Ph.D., don't do it.
posted by 630 at 2:49 PM on November 7, 2010


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