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Grad school or trades? (Snowflake details inside).
February 28, 2012 2:04 PM   Subscribe

What do you think: should I pursue grad school or a trade?

I am a 26 year old female in Vancouver, BC. I have two BAs (one as a double major in art history/classics, another in anthropology) and I am currently waiting to see if I've been accepted into grad school for classical archaeology.
I love everything that has to do with this field, except for all of the baggage that comes with academia: schmoozing, politics, funding, poor job prospects, etc.
I have been researching trades and thinking perhaps doing an electrical trade would be pretty excellent. I have always enjoyed working with electronics and circuits and, despite what my prior degrees might suggest, am strong in math and physics.
I'll admit that I would really love the prestige and the satisfaction of getting an MA in a field I am passionate about, but I also don't want to screw myself later on in life. Obviously I haven't made all of my life decisions based on monetary rewards and I am not too concerned with being super wealthy - but living comfortably for once would be nice.
If I get an MA and decide to do trades later on, I fear being a little old by the time I finish an apprenticeship.
Something else I'll admit is swaying my decision is that I have a very overbearing Chinese mother who will remind me constantly of being a failure if I go the trades route - although that is likely no matter the path I choose. Sigh!

Anybody have experience ditching grad school for something more practical? Anybody think going to grad school is a worthwhile experience? Any insight would be fantastic.
posted by thebots to Education (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Why not pursue an engineering degree? This is purely anecdotal but all the engineering students I went to school with had amazing PAID internships (mostly during summers) and were actively being recruited by companies upon graduation. I'd say if you want to work in a "trade", why not put that interest and ability to do something that could be interesting, well paying and I guess more importantly, make your mother happy?
posted by loquat at 2:14 PM on February 28, 2012

There's nothing that says you can't try some things and then go back and get your masters later after you've gotten some life experiences. That's what I did and I don't regret it. Turns out what I got my masters in was completely different than what I would have studied right out of undergrad.
posted by Kimberly at 2:20 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know a trade, and I don't know the prospects of your particular trade, and I don't know you. But! You gave some really concrete awesome reasons for wanting to pursue a career in the electrical field (heh), and some really vague, cliched reasons for getting an M.A. in...something.

I'm in grad school studying my passion right now. Though I really enjoy it, from the outside looking in it's a lot easier to imagine that "prestige" and "satisfaction" come with the territory when it's not actually so cut and dried and easy at that. It took me years to decide on a good program that properly matched my interests and goals, and I still have a lot of uncertainty about my career prospects. Plus, I realise that I am surrounded by bright and awesome people who will soon be my direct competition for a small supply of well-paying jobs.

Right now you have enthusiasm and drive for studying electronics. I say go for it! Universities will always be there to take your money if you decide to get an M.A. :).

On preview: An engineering degree is also a great idea, but it might be good to gain some type of experience first to determine your fit and exact interests in the field, especially since your first degrees were so different. From a friend's experience you might have to take several prerequisites before you even qualify for an engineering program, and that's quite a commitment in itself.
posted by sundaydriver at 2:40 PM on February 28, 2012

You should point out to your mother that the job prospects in classical archeology (particularly for non-Europeans) are much poorer than they are in any of the skilled trades, and the earning potential is lower as well (faculty at Canadian and American universities can start as low as $30-40k/year - lower for contract lecturers). If your mother is worried about you being a financial and social success, she should be pushing the trades. Moreover, if you went the academic route, PhD students in archeology in the United States (Canada is likely similar, having a similar system) are expected to spend 8-10 years on their PhDs, rather than 4-6 (as for other disciplines) - that's a huge amount of time. So if your mother also wants grandchildren sooner rather than later, she should be pushing you towards the trades.

that said, it's not your mother's life. I'm just pointing out that your mother may not understand that academic archeology is a very precarious field money/job-wise and also takes a long time to qualify. It is a rewarding field, but not a way to automatically "succeed", despite the prestige of higher education.

There is work in archeology that is non-academic and open to people with MAs rather than PhDs - but that's largely cultural resources management and rescue archeology, which you are probably well aware of. I knew someone who worked in this in the Toronto area - she loved her job, but she also had difficulty getting enough hours to support herself.
posted by jb at 2:43 PM on February 28, 2012

I was told the thing about archeology PhDs being expected to spend 10 years on their degrees by a recently hired faculty member at an American university - unlike other fields, where finishing fast is considered a plus, he said that in archeology people would look askance at anyone who took less than 8 years. He did 10 years, and had an excellent position. It's a weird field.
posted by jb at 2:46 PM on February 28, 2012

I have always enjoyed working with electronics and circuits and ... am strong in math and physics.
The electrical trades doesn't involve much math past arithmetic. I remember in the journeyman electrician training class I was in, we had to go over "10 x 1/2" a few times before some of the folks got it. There's also not much in the way of electronic circuits besides "connect the power here." There are some niche areas that could involve control circuitry and relays panels and such, but most electrical work involves cabling up things that are 'black to the black, white to the white, hide everything else' levels of complexity. On the other hand, it's good work and rewarding.

You might look at mechanical contracting, too - besides all the tin-knocking, they get into control systems probably even more than electricians.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:44 PM on February 28, 2012

Figure out what you want to do first, and if you need a graduate degree for that, it's worthwhile. However, I struggle with that myself because I found grad school to be excruciatingly dull even though I enjoy my subject very much, but I know I will need the master's degree at some point so my new plan is to work, possibly look into whether or not I have ADD(my inability to sit through 3 hour seminars is what really did me in,) and finish the degree part-time. I figure that will at least give me more motivation since I won't be a full-time student.

I haven't decided 100% to finish the degree though and am working on learning programming and figuring out an alternate goal/career path to work towards.

I think my real advice would be to carefully consider whether or not you really want to go to grad school - at least as a full-time student. If you're questioning it now, don't just push those thoughts away. I never thought I would hate full-time grad school as much as I did.

Good luck to you!
posted by fromageball at 4:23 PM on February 28, 2012

One of my sons dropped out of a PhD program in nanotechnology and is now an electrician. He is happy with his decision. I'm happy he's happy. You're young enough that you can easily change course in a few years if you don't like being an electrician.
posted by mareli at 4:36 PM on February 28, 2012

I am an electrician.

Go to trade school. Not only is it a practical and career orientated choice, but it is a choice you will likely succeed in - most of the people working the trades are under-educated. Many people working in trades were forced into it by lack of other options. ( I know several reasonably successful tradesman who can not identify the 5/16 hash mark on a tape measure. They just never really learned fractions.)

When you have a skilled tradesman who is also highly intelligent - as in capable of getting advanced degrees, certifications, and designations, like you - those tradesman advance rapidly.

Further, according to the Dept of Labor, we are approaching a critical shortage of skilled tradesmen in many fields, including electrical. As the baby-boomers retire, and few Gen X'ers became tradesmen, the US is going to have a problem. In 15 years, there may not be enough qualified electricians to maintain the current power grid.

Plus, electrical is under-going a revolution right now. Energy efficient. The incandescant light bulb is being phased out - I mean, the very symbol of electrical power for all - is going to disappear. In 20 years, there will be kids who will have no idea what an Edison incandescant light bulb looked like. ("The bulbs were hot enough to burn you, that is so weird?" they will say.) Such an important industry, at such a critical time of change - working in electrical is interesting.

You are intelligent and interested in a profession that is facing worker shortages in the near future. Sounds like a good option to me. You will do well at an electrical trade school. The career center will have 50 options for jobs for someone like you. If it take the academics as seriously as an MA program demands, you will be at the top of the trade school class, guaranteed.

Or, you can follow the expectations of your parents, get a degree that has limited practical and financial value. And hope that someone at the career center calls you back with at least one lead for a job.
posted by Flood at 5:21 PM on February 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

Maybe someone else can link to the persuasive "don't go to grad school" article that I can't find right now.

I grew up watching my mother wade through academia (masters to PhD to job market) and I don recommend grad school unless you have obvious job opportunities outside of academia when you're done.

Trades are practical and pay well.
posted by whalebreath at 6:13 PM on February 28, 2012

Thanks, everyone! All of your input is really getting me thinking about things. I suppose I should even see whether I've even gotten into grad school to make a more informed decision, but this is all fantastic information.

For those who have been suggesting engineering: that is certainly an option, but I am drawn to trades because you can do an apprenticeship and thus work while learning. Investing another $20,000 is another reason I'm hesitant to do grad school, so an engineering degree wouldn't be the best option in that regard. (Although I realize there are tuition costs and so forth for trade school too, but not nearly as terrifying).
posted by thebots at 6:20 PM on February 28, 2012

Wow, you could niche yourself out a nice boutique career with an art history degree and an electrician's ticket. There are lots of gorgeous heritage buildings in your area that need electrical TLC in order to support the kind of renovations owners want to do.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:38 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

My electrician is a former software entrepreneur. After working on his own for a while, he opened his own business and employs a few other excellent electricians who now do most of the work while he runs the business. He makes tons of money and he's happy. So I agree with Flood -- if you're smart and capable, and you have the specialized knowledge you'd learn in trade school, I think you can do really well for yourself. (And when you're 30 and employed, point out to your mother how many of your lawyer and doctor friends are struggling!)
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:15 AM on February 29, 2012

Coming to this late, but you might find Richard Steffy's story interesting. He was a small-town electrician until he was nearly 40 years old, but had always had a passion for ancient ships. He was able to parlay that passion into a mid-life career change and, ultimately, a legacy as the preeminent expert on the analysis and reconstruction of ancient shipwrecks. Remarkably, he never finished college, yet he went on to win a McArthur Grant for his work.
posted by bassomatic at 7:12 AM on April 27, 2012

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