What do I have to lose?
January 12, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I need to figure out what I'm going to regret more: getting a masters degree, or forgoing grad school in favor of getting to know myself a little better.

I have the opportunity to get an MA & a credential in Education from a well-known and well-regarded university in California for very little money out of pocket because I'd be living at home with my parents and because a great deal of my tuition would be paid for by grants. We're talking maybe $5k total for 13 months straight of grueling study, student teaching and all that kind of good stuff.

It is, ultimately, a logical and rational thing to go out for. Getting this MA is not exactly my life's dream or anything, but it would certainly put me in a different echelon if I were to apply for jobs inside the industry I most desire to work for (and outside of it, too). I'm not super jazzed about the actual university I'd be attending (I hate it, actually, and would rather go somewhere like USC), but it's the only one that'll offer me so much financial aid and really I think that I am just still feeling slightly embittered for having foolishly chosen a lesser-known institution for my undergraduate degree because it had a fun film school even though I got into UCLA, Berkeley, and MIT.

13 months of work, a shiny graduate degree and credential in education, and lots of doors opening in my favor. Sounds great, right?

Meh. The trouble is that I feel like I've only just begun to truly get to know myself, and I'd like to spend the next year or so doing some more of that. I desperately want to move out, for starters. I want to travel. I'd like to actually have the opportunity to break out of my shell a little more, without feeling guilty for doing so. I am fairly certain that given the course load of work that is necessary to complete this graduate program, these two ventures are somewhat mutually exclusive.

The Rub: if I don't decide within the next two months, I cannot take advantage of the free money I'm being offered to do the program and then the question becomes moot.

How can I determine what I'm going to regret more: spending 13 months getting a masters that will certainly help me get a higher paying job, or spending 13 months finding myself after 10+ years of being in an emotional and psychological rut?

If you've been in this situation, what did you choose and how do you feel about the decision you made?
posted by iLoveTheRain to Work & Money (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A year is a very short amount of time. Very, very short. Preposterously short.
posted by The World Famous at 3:11 PM on January 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Is there some reason why you can't spend the year *after* your graduate program "getting to know yourself"?
posted by madcaptenor at 3:14 PM on January 12, 2011

Do you have enough money to make option 2 a reality? In other words, if you decide not to go for the MA, can you really make that other stuff a reality or will you end up sitting at home anyway? If you have enough money for option 2, can't you just move out now and still do the MA?

I'm a big believer that grad school does not immediately mean that the rest of your life is on hold, though most people approach it this way. I traveled, met people, made friends, broke out of my shell more, etc. all *during* grad school, so it's not impossible. You just have to have some firm boundaries around your free time--scheduling it in just like you might a class--to make it work.
posted by BlooPen at 3:15 PM on January 12, 2011

A teaching credential makes teaching abroad much easier. Imagine if you could do your self-discovery somewhere like France or Japan or India. Maybe it would be worth 13 more months with your parents if you had a beautiful shiny end goal.
posted by chatongriffes at 3:20 PM on January 12, 2011

I don't usually like saying "yes, go to grad school" if the person isn't totally psyched about it, but it sounds like this is going to be more on the "apprenticeship" end of higher education and less on the "expensive book club" end. Factor in the lack (or significant lessening) of debt coming out, and I say go for broke.

Considering the workload you describe (and unless your parents are miserable peoplewho make your life hell) you probably wouldn't notice if you were living on your own, in a cage in the zoo or on the moon. God knows you'll probably be spending most of your time in the library anyway. And considering it is only a year, you'll barely notice it.

Of course, this all presupposes you're a person who can do great (or at least passably good) work at something they're not incredibly excited about. Which, by itself, is a life skill near the top of useful life skills.
posted by griphus at 3:22 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

As someone who faced a very, very similar choice in the past few years, I say go and get the degree. A year is nothing. Before I started law school I had these panics, like "if I don't travel now I will never be able to again. If I don't try X, Y, and Z I will never have the opportunity to again." Actually, that hasn't been the case at all and I realize now how silly it was to think that way. Plus, you never know what your life will be like a year from now. You may find yourself unexpectedly while you are in the middle of the program. You may find your life circumstances changing radically.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:23 PM on January 12, 2011

I wish so hard that I had taken the educational opportunities I'd had in my early 20s, rather than trying to fit them into my full time working schedule in my 30s. A year is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
posted by Zophi at 3:26 PM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you've been in this situation, what did you choose and how do you feel about the decision you made?
I moved back into my parents' house so that I could afford to do a history PhD for which I won a Government scholarship.

As it turned out, I'm not suited at all to postgraduate research, my topic was very poorly chosen, and three and a half years after I started I wound up in the position of not having nearly enough income to live independently, or enough time to find work on the side, yet being tied to a degree program I couldn't finish. It's not a good situation, and while I don't regret at all the study I did do, and I'm very grateful to my parents, I know that making the choice of I-might-as-well-study-since-I-won-the-scholarship-and-I-can't-think-of-anything-better-to-do was the wrong one.

I'm not saying this is likely to happen to you—a coursework masters' is very different to a research doctorate, and I think you've already thought through your options more than I did—but if you place as high a premium on your own social and financial independence as I did and do, it's a risk.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:27 PM on January 12, 2011

Count me in as another who thinks that going to school can be a great way to break out of your shell and get to know yourself. Honestly, I think it's part of what school is supposed to be about! Even if you are working your ass off due to the school workload, you'll be doing so along with your classmates and you'll likely make some good friendships (or possibly a roommate?) out of it.

Plus, I am guessing the degree will strengthen your ability to be financially on your own feet and get out of your parents' home.

As for travel, even the most strenuous grad programs include spring break. Some even incorporate some sort of a work-study program during spring break where the department will hook you up with an organization in need of your free labor and growing skillset for a few weeks.
posted by joan_holloway at 3:29 PM on January 12, 2011

I'm all about listening to your gut, but:

- 13 months is an eyeblink if you're busy
- you will still be you at the end of it - it's not like getting to know someone who can leave
- the grad school experience is so far removed from undergrad culture that hating the university (always the undergrad culture) is irrelevant
- limited-time offer for irreplaceable experience
- even with climate change, peak oil, and peak travel, the opportunities to travel will still be there in 13 months
- you will be more employable at the end of that 13 months, which will literally enrich your travel potential and your capacity to move out and live independently
- although you will not be able to party-party during grad school there will be people with whom you will be able to "come out of your shell"

If, after you look at the reasons people are raising in this thread, your gut still says "NO," you probably gotta listen to it. Unless your gut is saying "NO it's too hard I'm too scared" in which case, turn up your nose at its opinion.
posted by gingerest at 3:33 PM on January 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I loved grad school. I had an amazing time, I did well in the program, and I got myself into a hefty chunk of debt to do it. On balance, looking back, I would be happier if I could've done it on the cheap, but this is balanced against the fact that, at the time, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. It was hard work, it took up a lot of my time and energy, and I don't think I would've done anywhere near as well if I hadn't been right where I wanted to be.

So in your case, on the plus side, incredibly cheap MA. On the negative - how motivated are you going to be to put in the hard work at a school you don't particularly want to attend, when you'll have a constant "what if?" in the back of your head? Personally, I think grad school is too much work to do unless you really want to be doing it.

BlooPen makes several good points, though: do you have an idea of what you'd do with that year, otherwise? Can you make it work? And grad school can be very fertile ground for figuring yourself out, especially in an area like teaching, which should provide you opportunities to interact with a range of people, reflect on your performance, and figure out not only what works for you, but why. On balance, it's not a lot of time or a lot of money to spend, especially if you don't have a specific dream you'd be chasing otherwise.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:33 PM on January 12, 2011

For me, grad school was where I met all my professional contacts. Several times I've been able to say "we need to talk to someone at XYZ Place and they're not returning our calls? Let me call Bob, a grad school buddy who works there." Grad school was the first time I wanted to be friends with everyone I went to school with, because I was so into the topic and so into the program. And the learning I got has done a great job in preparing me for a variety of positions within the field, in a way that a more occupationally-oriented program may not have.

So, your "meh" feeling may translate into something important and valid, if the cheaper price tag comes with less value. Even setting aside happiness and self-actualization, if your goal is solely the cost-benefit calculation, having a grad school on your resume that is only so-so, and not leaving there with professors who can make calls for you nor smart and ambitious friends who will end up infiltrating the industry in your area, then this meh experience may translate into a harder time finding work, a job with a lower salary, and lower effectiveness in the job you ultimately get -- all of which could affect the bottom line fairly significantly.

Then again, it might not. It depends on many factors.
posted by salvia at 3:35 PM on January 12, 2011

Annnnnnd, another vote for "grueling study is a way of getting to know yourself." It's one very busy year that won't feel nearly as long as the previous rut-like 13. All new people, all new concerns, all new everything.
posted by Beardman at 3:36 PM on January 12, 2011

Go to grad school. I accepted a scholarship from my undergrad school for a master's program as an afterthought, knowing that I hated school and would never probably take the course. I ended up doing it anyway, and liked the experience so much that I went on to a PhD and am doing research that I love.

You have a lifetime to get to know yourself, but once you turn down a free education you rarely get another offer. If you end up hating the degree and living situation, is there a downside to just deciding to quit (i.e., some kind of financial obligation)? This is the only way that my answer might be different.
posted by _cave at 3:40 PM on January 12, 2011

I think you should go for the grad degree. It's going to open a lot of doors in a field you want to work in, and possibly other things that will help you find yourself. You might find yourself along the way of your studies, because you'll be meeting new people. Even if you don't, as others have mentioned, a year isn't very long. You have your entire life to find yourself, and I find it hard to believe that doing grad school is going to be a halt on everything in your life.

Another thing is that I'm not sure what your plans are if you DON'T do this degree... Do you have money to travel? It doesn't sound like it if you can't move out of your parents house. What is the alternative here? I think you'll have a better gauge on this if you know what your alternatives are.
posted by ribboncake at 3:40 PM on January 12, 2011

Is there any chance you could get a part-time job while in the grad program and afford to move out? Maybe just living on your own would give you enough mental space to find yourself and feel a little like a grown-up.

I agree with the others that a year is not that much time and with a masters, you're not absolutely committing yourself to a career. In other words, your situation is pretty much nothing like Fiasco is describing. Masters are not as grueling or soul-sucking as PhDs can be if you don't love it. And hopefully you're not trying to do something as futile as getting a teaching job in history (no offense, FdG!)
posted by parkerjackson at 3:58 PM on January 12, 2011

So you have 2 options (kind of).

1. Get A Degree Now
2. Travel Now.

Now if you take option one you will still have the opportunity to do option two. If you take option two right now you may not have the option to do one and complete both. If I break it down like this it seems like doing 1 then 2 is the only logical choice. As long as you're not collecting any debt you don't have to work right after school

Take this a step further. Option 2 may be better in a year! You can save money (maybe a part time job?), figure out how your trip around the world might work.

I didn't start my "career" until I was 27 as long as you aren't building huge mountains of student debt I'd go as long as you can before settling down and do both school and exploring.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:00 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Grad school. Free money/degree while young=more money while older.
posted by oflinkey at 4:19 PM on January 12, 2011

Wow, when an AskMe thread is full of "Yes, go to grad school" replies, you know it must be a good deal! Seriously though, you would be spending a negligible amount of money and time (it's only a year!) to do something that will likely increase your earnings, always good when you're looking to strike out on your own.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:58 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second what Chatongriffes said- do the cost-effective degree now, and use it to teach abroad. That way you can spend your year studying, preparing and anticipating the major adventure (that would be paid for via an international teaching job, so win win) ahead.
posted by bquarters at 5:44 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

i spent way more money than i should have on my MS, and I was miserable during the time I was doing it (2.5 years.) and i'm still telling you, you should do it. even though i hated being there, in retrospect i see how it really helped me develop a more mature, effective way of learning and thinking about things. i am constantly using the skills and knowledge i picked up in grad school. and i feel like these skills really give me a significant educational/professional edge. and yet, whenever i am getting stressed and miserable in my current situation, i can just think back on my days in grad school and i experience a vast wave of relief that "god, at least i'm not doing THAT anymore. that was the worst." so in a messed up way, it's a win-win. it taught me a lot about myself, made me a better person, and gave me a glimpse of hell that i can always treasure and be glad i don't have to do that forever. phew!

. . . and i spent a ton of money doing it, more than i'm willing to even admit on here. so if you can do it on the cheap, so much better! enjoy!

(in all seriousness though, i don't think you'll have as bad a time as i did. a lot of those reasons were my own fault. and since you'll be doing clinicals/ student teaching instead of a thesis you'll probably go less crazy. my point was just that even when it's horrible, good comes from it!) also, if it was a 2 or more year program, i'd say travel first. but since it's only a year it really makes more sense to do it now. since it's cheap, and since you're living with your parents anyway, take the opportunity to save as much money as you can for your year off following your grad program!
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:54 PM on January 12, 2011

It's kind of funny, I met up with an old friend from school who had recently become a teacher. He'd done the Peace Corp thing for a number of years, and is now in the classroom. He said that while he learned a lot about himself overseas, he's learning still more (different stuff) about himself as a teacher. It's true.

If you become a teacher, you will likely have summers to travel. You can do a fair number of things with a teaching credential + masters besides teaching (and I paid WAAAAAAAY more for my credential-only degree from a state school), so I say go for it IF you think you want to be a teacher.

Also, about the living at home thing: I happened to be living at home when I started teaching (broke up with fiance, was looking for a decent place of my own that I could afford, which took me about 6 months) and THANK FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER. The first year of teaching is absolutely brutal, and being spoiled rotten by my folks at home while I pulled 80-90 hour weeks saved me. So while I understand your desire to leave the nest, it's not the end of the world if you can't launch right away.

But all this is a moot point if you're not really interested in going into education; it's far too frustrating and emotionally draining a field to work in if you don't feel really passionate about it. If this is the case, then travel, screw the financial aid, and try to figure out what you DO want to do. Nothing in your post points to you reallyreallyreally wanting to make a difference in the world, advance your field of study, work for social justice, or the other things that keep teachers from screaming mad into the night. Even those who have these internal motivations often leave the profession--50% of teachers leave in the first five years (and I was one of 'em). So think about that, too.

Good luck! I know it's a hard decision.
posted by smirkette at 5:58 PM on January 12, 2011

A lot of getting to know yourself can happen in grad school. Sure, there is some getting to know yourself that happens when you're out traveling the world. But a lot more happens when you're living your life than happens when you're basically on vacation. That said, I strongly recommend a journey of personal discovery that includes sound life decisions, seizing fantastic opportunities for personal achievement and advancement, and working toward tangible goals for a good portion of your life. I also do recommend travel to a certain extent, provided that travel is the sort that is conducive to actual self-discovery and not just a passport-stamping exercise.

It would be a real shame if you lost out on the chance to get a degree you're interested in at no financial cost to you because you wanted to go on a trip abroad a year earlier than you otherwise could.

It would also be a real shame if you put off going abroad (or whatever) to go to grad school and then ended up not going abroad for one reason or the other.

So here's what you do: Go to grad school. And, the week before you start grad school, plan your trip abroad and buy the tickets. Make sure you schedule it with enough of a buffer that you will definitely get the degree finished.

With those tickets bought and paid for, you will accomplish a number of things,including:
1. You will have at least a partial guarantee that you will actually go on your journey of self-discovery - that you're just waiting a year, rather than canceling.
2. You will have a concrete goal toward which you are working while getting your degree. You will know that there is a massive, awesome reward at the end of that one-year tunnel, in addition to all the great benefits you get from working hard toward your degree.

If you get the degree and then go on your journey of self-discovery, you're going to have the degree, have the experience of getting the degree, have discovered a lot about yourself during the course of getting the degree, and you'll also get to travel and go out into the world. You win on all counts.

If you skip the degree, you run the risk of discovering that who you are is a person who gave up the chance to get a free degree only to find out, like so many others before you, that sleeping on trains and looking at cathedrals is pretty cool but not much to build a life on.

The thing is, you have to look at the degree realistically: Working on a graduate degree is a huge exercise of your own personal autonomy and identity. It is real, genuine adulthood, where you have colleagues and personal development in ways that you really don't in undergrad. You have to think of the degree program as a journey of self-discovery in and of itself.

Now, if what you mean by "break out of my shell a little more, without feeling guilty for doing so" is that you want to have your own little rumspringa for a while and just go hog wild doing irresponsible, foolish crap to get it out of your system or something, grad school won't do that for you. But three weeks in Europe will. Maybe you could do that before the first day of grad school.
posted by The World Famous at 6:06 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get the degree if you can do it for so little money.

Why? Because you can teach English abroad in loads of great places, and an MA is the difference between a) toiling in a shady private school where you may or may not get paid on time with very little vacation time and b) getting a university instructor position which, while paying the same amount, gives you two to three months of vacation a year for traveling, a much lighter teaching load, and a much greater amount of respect from the locals.

(Speaking entirely from personal experience.)
posted by bardic at 10:45 PM on January 12, 2011

OKAY. I'm gonna do it. Now to pull my crap together to make it happen. The thought of taking a year abroad with a MA under my belt just totally kicked me into high gear. I'm not sure why I didn't put two and two together before asking about any of this. I swear I'm bright and legitimately qualified to be a teacher of some kind.

I guess now the question is how do I parlay this degree into the job(s) I really want! Exciting times, guys. Thanks so much for getting my ass into gear.
posted by iLoveTheRain at 10:59 PM on January 12, 2011

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