Grad school vs Peace Corps?
June 17, 2009 12:50 AM   Subscribe

Graduate school vs Peace Corps?

I have about 6 months to decide what I am going to do after graduation...Grad school or Peace Corps? Graduate schoolers, do you wish you started right after undergrad or do you wish you had more life experience before you started? How much more difficult was your life if you had to pay for your own graduate school?

I've always wanted to be in the Peace Corps. I also want/need to go to grad school.

Pros to going to grad school next fall...

1. Parents have agreed to pay for grad school, but it's a now or never type deal. I am on my own if I don't start next year.

2. Will help me get a better job.

3. I'll be done with school FOREVER in 2 years.

4. Learn more about what I am passionate about and get more expierience in the field.

Cons to going to grad school next fall...

1. I have great non-profit work experience for my age, but I don't have any legit experience in the field I am going into. I will be working in the field at least part-time through grad school though.

2. No fun time if I go right away. I'm 21 I've worked A LOT through college and never really had down time. I've never had the typical college experience so I would be going straight into the real world. People generally think I am 10 years older by the way I act...this is the only chance I have to be young and not worry so much about the future.

3. I want to learn Spanish in the Peace Corps, learn about myself, become a better person, and have more life experiences before I become an "adult"

4. If I go to grad school right away I may never go into the Peace Corps...but maybe that's okay?

I just don't know what the hell I am doing. I know that I want to do one or both of these things. I just don't know which is the right thing to do now. The thing that sticks out is that my parents will pay for school right now...that's about $35,000 that I will never have to worry about.

I'd love some advice from people who went to grad school right away, paid for their own grad school, or were in the peace corps and/or went to grad school. Oh, and of course I've thought about the possibility of not being accepted by either-but let's pretend that isn't possible ;)

posted by pdx87 to Education (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you can go to grad school for free, and you know what you want to study and don't need to think about it, and if you feel the drive to grad school, do it now. I know many people who put themselves in crippling debt paying for their education, and if you can avoid this without being dependent on scholarships, it seems like a good chance.

If you have a free summer, you can use it doing volunteer work for NGOs (not necessarily Peace Corps, but programs like The Andean Outreach Program) in Latin American countries so you can improve your Spanish, travel, an do all that stuff without putting your free education at risk.

Food for thought...
posted by mateuslee at 1:58 AM on June 17, 2009

this is the only chance I have to be young and not worry so much about the future. [...] I want to learn Spanish in the Peace Corps, learn about myself, become a better person, and have more life experiences before I become an "adult"

If I was in your position, I would be asking myself whether that was worth $35,000 to me.

If I go to grad school right away I may never go into the Peace Corps...but maybe that's okay?

If you're serious enough about going into the peace corps that you'd spend $35,000 to do it, I'd have thought you're also serious enough to put the peace corps plan on hold for two years and then pick it up again.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:04 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why are your parents insisting you start school next year? Have they actively opposed you taking a year out? If you can come up with a good project plan (it doesn't have to be Peace Corps, there are many NGO-type projects you can be involved with), they might be flexible on the fee payment timeframe.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:38 AM on June 17, 2009

As soon as I got to the part about how your parents would pay for grad school, I didn't even need to see the rest. That's a wonderful gift that very few people have the privilege of receiving. Especially because you'll still be having some field work while you're in grad school. As far as the "fun" thing, well, you've put so much work into your education so far, and you just need to put in a little time more. 23 is not dead. You can still have plenty of fun then. And finally, you can most definitely learn Spanish, learn about yourself, become a better person, and have more life experiences AFTER grad school. There are tons of travel opportunities that will give you all this, (WWOOFing in South America comes to mind) and now you can do it knowing that when it's time to "become an adult" you've got a great education foothold to get you going.
posted by dithmer at 4:27 AM on June 17, 2009

Most graduate programs are very specific preparation for a career with a particular set of skills. You need to go in with a clear sense of what you want and where you're headed, and it can be painful (and expensive!) to discover that you were wrong. And if you're not positive that you're headed in the right direction, grad school will test the fuck out of your faith.

On the other hand, peace corps is meant to be — and is recognized as — all-purpose personal growth and development. If you spend your time in the peace corps digging ditches and then put it on your resume for a job in a bank, it'll still reflect favorably on you. (It also looks fantastic on grad school applications.)

Given that, I'd try to figure out a way to do peace corps first. If all goes well, you'll go into your grad program with a stronger application, a clearer sense of what you want to learn, and enough confidence in your goals to get you through the nasty stuff. Worst-case scenario, you discover your real goals lie elsewhere — in which case, hey, you haven't wasted any time or money on non-transferable stuff.

(But I say this because I suspect that freya_lamb's got the right idea. If your parents still have the money when you get back from peace corps, I'd be shocked if they refused to help with tuition just to spite you. You know them and I don't, but for most parents, it's easy to make these sort of social-engineering pronouncements — "I'll only help with X if you do these arbitrary things Y and Z" — and hard to resist helping with X anyway when they see what a good opportunity it'll be for their kid. But you know them. If you think that we're wrong and they're really gonna take the money away just because you spent a few years making the world better, then you might need to give that more weight in your decision.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:34 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, when I was checking into the Peace Corps a few years ago (2004ish) I was told that there were enough fully bilingual applicants that only people that were already fluent in Spanish were being sent to Latin America.

I had three full years of High School and three semesters of University-level Spanish and that wasn't enough to merit consideration for a placement in a Spanish-speaking country.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:21 AM on June 17, 2009

What is the field you want to go to grad school for?

When you say "Forever" and "two years" that says that you're only targeting a Masters, not a PhD. Why?

If you're looking at any field where being "current" matters, do you really want to go to grad school and then let all of that go stale while you're doing the Peace Corps thing? In Biochemistry four years ago is like the stone age.

What is your parents logic for the now or never thing? (When people try to force my hand I tend to respond VERY badly, so this would damn near clinch Peace Corps for me.)

Right now, due to the economy, the competition for graduate schools is fierce and getting a stipend is going to be proportionally tougher. In a year or so that may not be the case. If you're thinking about an MBA, remember that everyone and their dog is going to have an MBA in a few years and that a lot of them will separate students from tuition money and not much more. (Just something to consider.)

What are your finances like right now? Is there a massive student loan hanging from your neck like the proverbial albatross?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:34 AM on June 17, 2009

FWIW, when I was checking into the Peace Corps a few years ago (2004ish) I was told that there were enough fully bilingual applicants that only people that were already fluent in Spanish were being sent to Latin America.

I had three full years of High School and three semesters of University-level Spanish and that wasn't enough to merit consideration for a placement in a Spanish-speaking country.

I don't know the situation as of this minute, but this was not the case as of earlier this year when a friend with minimal Spanish was accepted for a Peace Corps position in Latin America. These things change constantly; talk with a recruiter rather than believing us random internet people.

Back to the actual question, why is this such a total either/or? Have you asked your parents directly about doing grad school directly after PC (with the explanation that being a RPCV will give you a huge leg up in the admissions process for many grad school programs)? Have you looked into the Peace Corps' Masters International program, where you combine PC service with getting a master's degree?

And why are you so sure that going to grad school means you won't join the PC? From Peace Corps' point of view, right now pretty much all you have to offer is your energy and flexibility (plus whatever useful skills you might have learned in summer jobs or working on your uncle's farm as a kid); with a graduate degree, you will (hopefully) have a bit more to offer. I had lots of friends in grad school who joined PC after finishing their master's, as a way into international development work. It's a common path, and there are good reasons for it.

So I'm saying that you are trying to paint yourself into a box where you have limited choices, when really you have lots and lots of choices. Expand your options and listen to your heart -- you only live once, and you don't want to spend your life saying Coulda's and Woulda's all the time.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 AM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Would your parents still be willing to give you the money if you applied for grad school and deferred enrollment for your year abroad? Most good schools are willing to do this and you'll have committed to go to school as soon as you get back, so your parents might agree to it?
posted by B-squared at 6:02 AM on June 17, 2009

One point that hasn't been raised is that going into Peace Corps with a graduate degree is a very different experience from going with an undergrad degree. If you want the hands-on, living in the village, working with the common people experience, you should go before grad school. People with graduate degrees that are useful in the country (anything from science to engineering to social science to international relations) frequently find themselves working in the government as advisors. I have no doubt that's a fascinating experience, but it is not the one most people think of when they think of Peace Corps.

As someone who waited a couple years before grad school (to do AmeriCorps) and now has been in grad school a very long time, I strongly encourage people to take some time off between undergrad and grad school. Unfortunately, US college life does not actually prepare many people for the grown up world. Having a few years doing something besides school and really becoming self-sufficient, as well as refining your career goals, will put you in a much better place when you start grad school.

Also, unless by grad school you mean a professional program like law or medicine, you shouldn't have to pay for it. If you're going into the sciences, don't even look at programs without full funding. Even if you're going into the humanities, your tuition should still be waived although your stipend for an RA/TA may be measly.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:05 AM on June 17, 2009

As a former Peace Corps volunteer who also got his masters, I'd say my Peace Corps experience has been far more valuable both personally and professionally than my degree!

Professionally speaking, it's been 13 years since I returned from the Peace Corps, and I have YET to have a job interview that didn't focus almost exclusively on my two years in Central Africa teaching science. It's a HUGE differentiator that speaks to your ability to think and work independently in difficult situations and with limited resources. Employers are often looking for candidates with a broad background and the ability to be flexible, patient, and persevere when things are tough. The Peace Corps absolutely requires those skills.

Graduate schools love Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as they rarely quit and generally have a much stronger focus in terms of career and personal goals. Their papers often have wild and crazy stories from personal experiences, and they provide a cross-cultural perspective that is difficult to find by simply mixing American-born and international students in the same classes. Someone who has done a bit of both is an asset to a graduate program in a unique way.

Personally, it's undeniable that spending two years in a foreign country and culture forever changes you as a person. In many ways, the personal growth happens after you return to the US, as the lessons you learned return to you time and again at each new stage of life, with different and sometimes deeper meanings in successive iterations.

Finally, the Peace Corps makes you an interesting person. Not that people who don't go into the Peace Corps are uninteresting, of course, but it's an experience few people have, and so most of my friends and colleagues want to hear about it (in small, easily digestible learn about that when you prepare to return to the US).

A final word of advice...don't go into the Peace Corps with your sights set on graduate school. You must have your whole heart set on the Peace Corps experience/adventure. If your mind is always living in your post-PC world, you will likely be a poor volunteer and have a terrible time.

The Peace Corps is definitely the toughest job you'll ever love, but you will never regret it, and probably benefit from it long after you thought it would be ancient history.
posted by stephenlyle at 6:20 AM on June 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Someone may have already suggested it, but why not do both at the same time? For example, the University of Washington has a Peace Corps master's in forest resources. You take your coursework in Seattle and do your research project while you're a volunteer.
posted by shrabster at 6:28 AM on June 17, 2009

Most of my friends (in Washington, DC, seeking work in international orgs and the federal government) who did area studies graduate degrees have been passed over for jobs because of their lack of international experience in the places for which their degrees really matter. In that respect, I would recommend going to the Peace Corps. Don't forget that it's a government job with low pay but lots of training and other benefits including medical care. I think honestly that most people see the Peace Corps as a "way out" professionally, but if you time it right you will be able to gain enormous benefits from the time spent abroad and return with much more significant preference for jobs within the Department of State and other government sectors.
posted by parmanparman at 6:35 AM on June 17, 2009

I took a year off to work between college and graduate school. While I'm glad I did because I needed to save up some money, I gotta tell you--my graduate school experience was essentially a constant party. This varies highly according to the type of graduate school program you go into (I was in a writing program), but seriously, though it was also a lot of work, it was a lot of drinking and socializing, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:40 AM on June 17, 2009

It would be helpful to know what discipline you plan to go into for grad school, because for some it really helps you get a job afterwards if you have PC experience (i.e. international development.)

Without thinking deeply about this, my gut says do PC first. If it's a life long dream to do PC, do it now. Anecdotally, I took my grad school admission test and passed, then did PC, then went to grad school. (I took a year off in between, but I knew people who went straight to grad school.) I would never have gone to PC after grad school; it was before or never. There are lots of reasons why, but I have met quite a few people who tell me they wish they had done PC before grad school, because for various reasons they don't feel like they can go now. (Reasons include: easier to get a job straight from grad school, with the grad school's networking an resources, than from some remote country; in relationship and/or thinking about settling down, having kids after grad school; etc.)

I'm thrilled that I did PC first. I got a "break" from school, and I also learned a ton about myself and the world. When I went to grad school, I brought that experience with me. (Also, as someone else said, PC has helped me immensely in my career; comes up in every job interview, and I've definitely gotten jobs/interviews bc of PC. But then again, PC is relevant to my field.)

I'd cajole my parents into setting the money aside for grad school. If I had to get admitted and defer (can you defer 2 years?) first, then I'd do that. Peace Corps was a wonderful, life changing experience. Definitely worth $35,000 in my book, but I can't imagine there isn't a solution re your parents financing grad school.
posted by semacd at 6:52 AM on June 17, 2009

And re Spanish and Latin America...

I had been studying Spanish since first grade, minored in Spanish in college, and studied abroad in a Spanish speaking country my junior year. I had beginner French. PC sent me to West Africa because of the French.
posted by semacd at 6:53 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have one lasting regret in my life: not taking that year with Canada World Youth. I rushed into school instead (which I don't regret doing at all). If I had it to do over again, school could wait a year.
posted by bonehead at 6:58 AM on June 17, 2009

I can see it both ways but the money would really tempt me. Have you talked to a PC recruiter at all? Its my understanding that it can be tough to get in so maybe you should talk to someone before you worry about deciding because you might not even get into PC. I also thought it was a bit of a process to apply... Best case scenario would be to defer school while you do PC if your parents will still pay.

However, having met tons of PC'ers while traveling the older ones with more life experience/skills always seemed to be doing more useful work. I met quite a few who were mid-life and wanted to make a difference or change careers and even some older retired folks so its not only for college-age kids. Every person I met said they applied for Africa and a lot were sent to places like Mongolia, YMMV.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:18 AM on June 17, 2009

I wrestled with the grad school/Peace Corps choice right out of college and chose grad school. Wish I'd going into the Peace Corps instead.
posted by Elsie at 8:09 AM on June 17, 2009

A free ride for a master degree is a hard thing to pass up. In 2 years you will be 23-24ish. You will still be young enough to do whatever you want. Get your MS and then join the peace corps after. Trust me we will always have a need for peace in this world.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:32 AM on June 17, 2009

First, grad school isn't for everyone. It is expensive (although it appears that you have that covered already) and for many fields, having an MA doesn't increase your salary level enough to justify the cost of graduate school.

Second, a lot of workplaces pay for graduate school.

Third, the Peace Corps specifically pays for RPCVs to complete graduate work.

Finally, don't have your heart set on Spanish. Placement is really arbitrary.

I'd apply to both at the same time. If you don't get into Peace Corps, go to graduate school, have your parents pay for it. If you get into Peace Corps, defer your graduate admission. Tell your parents that a gift with strings attached isn't a gift and then when you get back from Peace Corps, go to that grad program or (more likely with the PCVs I've known), you'll have a totally different interest and you can get Peace Corps to pay for an MA for that OR you'll get a job and can get the MA later.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 8:36 AM on June 17, 2009

As soon as I got to the part about how your parents would pay for grad school, I didn't even need to see the rest.

Agreed. There are a lot of great reasons to do other things rather than go straight into grad school from undergrad. There's a lot of good things to be said about the PC as a personal and professional development path.

None of them justify forgoing $35,000.

Maybe you're interested in a master's program that could coincide with the PC. Maybe you'll end up in a job that will pay for your master's. Maybe the PC will make you more likely to stick it out through the master's program.

Maybe maybe maybe. The money from your parents is a certainty.

My advice is that you gather up your supporting evidence and sit down and tell your parents that you will take them up on this offer even if that's the condition they attach to it. Then ask them if they're willing to talk to you about why you think doing the PC first is a good idea.

Your parents are putting this condition on you because they think it's the best choice and, for whatever reason, doubt your judgment on this. You'll go a long way towards persuading them you're not being capricious if they believe you're giving this the weight it deserves. And a free ride through grad school? It deserves a lot of weight.

Good luck. Either way, the PC isn't going anywhere and it'll be a valuable experience for you either way. It'll be good experience for you if you go earlier and you'll have more knowledge to apply if you go later.

I will add one thing - when you pitch it to us as something you want to do because of the work load and seriousness you've carried up till now... that's not a real compelling argument, for your parents, us, or the PC. The primary reason they're sending you somewhere and footing the bill is to accomplish some positive impacts. Your personal growth is important too, but a chance "to be young and not worry so much" isn't going to be in anyone's top ten reasons to place you.
posted by phearlez at 10:21 AM on June 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice. The reason I have the time limit for grad school is...well my parents would like to get on with their own lives without paying large amounts of money for my school. They'd rather just keep paying for a few more years than stop, live a comfortable life w/ out college bills, and then have to pay more money in 2 more years.

And phearlez, yeah I didn't pitch my PC very well, those aren't the main reasons I want to go into Peace Corps. I know it's not all fun and party time in the PC :)
posted by pdx87 at 10:51 AM on June 17, 2009

Seconding everyone who said Peace Corps. I know it's awfully hard to back away from free money, but going to grad school right after graduation means missing out on a ton of experience. Also, I don't know if you've applied yet, but now is a particularly hard time to get into grad school, because, with the recession, many more people are applying. Conversely, now is a great time for the Peace Corps or Americorps, because the Obama administration just quadrupled the financial support.

My parents insisted that I not take any time off from undergrad, and that if I did they wouldn't continue to pay for it. I caved and did what they wanted, and really regretted it. Now I am sure that if I had been more persistent, and really explained that taking time off was what I wanted and needed in order to figure out my life, they probably could have been convinced.

My advice would be to apply and defer, if you can get your parents to agree to it. But really - and I know their decision is rooted in what they want in addition to what you want - they must want to do what is best for you, right? Spend the time to explain it to them.

Because the worst thing is spending all of that money to go to grad school before you're really sure, and then being unhappy. Because then that money is totally wasted anyway, and so is your time. You should really only go to grad school if it is what you _really_ want to do.

Also, if their gift may not be your only chance of going to grad school - most schools have merit and need-based scholarships, and you can maybe also convince an employer to help cover some of the cost if need be. Plus, taking on some debt for an investment in education down the line - if you are sure it's what you want to do - is totally standard and reasonable.
posted by lunit at 12:20 PM on June 17, 2009

pdx87 - I never believed it was your main reason, and in fact I think it's a pretty damned good one. I worked my way through school and of all the things in my life I wouldn't change #1 would be the year and a half I took at age 30 to leave my professional career and tend bar. Laying down your burden and walking a different path is a valuable experience.

But you're never going to sell it to most people, particularly parents worried about your Future. So not only should you keep it to yourself, you may want to emphasize the different burdens and hardships this path will have. There's a strong protestant attitude about work in the US that's hard to overcome. Be very careful about expressing any desire to slow down.
posted by phearlez at 12:48 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

My impression has been that PCVs have always been burdens on the people they are trying to help and the PCVs tend to get more out of the experience than the people they're supposed to be helping. I always thought it was more of a PR campaign than an effective program.

I'd go to graduate school if I were you. I know a few pals from college and work that are PC dropouts. It seemed like an unnecessarily terrible experience for everyone involved.
posted by anniecat at 1:12 PM on June 17, 2009

Conversely, now is a great time for the Peace Corps or Americorps, because the Obama administration just quadrupled the financial support.

Actually, as a counterpoint, my friend is a PC recruiter and she says PC is placing tons of pressure on her to only make offers to people who already have a M.A. Not sure how true that is across the board, but that's her experience.
posted by semacd at 1:18 PM on June 17, 2009

My impression has been that PCVs have always been burdens on the people they are trying to help and the PCVs tend to get more out of the experience than the people they're supposed to be helping.

posted by semacd at 1:19 PM on June 17, 2009

My first reaction is that if someone has offered you a free master's degree and you're thinking even for a minute about not taking it, you don't want it badly enough.

Maybe don't give up on your parents yet. If what they want is to be done, maybe they can stick the money in a CD. If you never go to grad school, it's more for their nest egg. Either way, you know and they know that they're done. You'll probably have to make a really good case for them - if you can find people in your field who could tell them that a prior peace corps experience will make the grad education and future job prospects better for you, I'd start with that.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:16 PM on June 17, 2009

"My impression has been that PCVs have always been burdens on the people they are trying to help and the PCVs tend to get more out of the experience than the people they're supposed to be helping."

The Peace Corps has three overarching goals:
1. Helping to meet needs for trained men and women in interested countries
2. Promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
3. Promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

It's no secret that the PCVs get more out of their experience than the people served, but that's usually the case with any type of humanitarian service. Serving is life changing--being served meets a need, but is not transformational.

In my experience, though, the biggest impact on the Africans where I lived was simply the fact that I chose to leave my country and live next to them and experience their way of life for two years.

I was teaching their children about science at a school that would otherwise not have a science teacher. So, that's fairly substantial; but my willingness to leave my cushy lifestyle and hang out in a rural village, get to know them, share meals with them, and basically communicate with actions the message that someone in the US actually cares about their plight and situation--THIS is what seemed to be most valuable to the people where I lived.

Thus, expect that you get far more out of your experience than you give; but don't make the mistake of thinking that makes it unworthy, or that it would be best to just not go.

It's true the Peace Corps is now highly selective in choosing applicants. I don't know about today, but in the 90's it was more competitive than the best colleges with an acceptance rate of below 15%. That's because they want to send truly skilled people since goal #1 is about skills transfer. However, enthusiasm and creativity go a long way in a tough situation with limited resources, so the right person for the job is not always the most "qualified" on paper.

Go for it. If you're the right person for the job, they will pick you and you'll never regret the decision.
posted by stephenlyle at 6:33 AM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

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