Is going back to school a mistake I'll regret?
October 14, 2015 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I want to change my career, but I'm not sure the "go back to grad school" advice I'm getting is sound. The idea of tons of student debt (I'm debt-free now) seems unappealing and I have no idea what to study.

I'm a single lady in my early 30s, working a job as a copy editor and writer at a small newspaper in the Midwest. I'm happy with it most of the time, but the problem is I don't make much money and don't see much of a possibility of advancement at my current employer.
I know I want to do something else within the next couple of years, but all I hear from people is that I have to go back to school for a master's degree or I'm going to be making crap wages forever. My problem is that I'm not crazy about going into a ton of loan debt and I also have no real idea what to study. If I do go back to school, I want to know I will able to get a better-paying job once I'm out. I'm also aware I have to actually have an interest in my work, or it is waste of time. Perhaps I'm feeling like this now because I'm not tied down and now would be an ideal time to do something time consuming like school.
I have applied for jobs in related fields for years for positions such as corporate communications or public information officer with no luck. Perhaps employers don't see my skills are transferable or the economy still sucks despite politicians' spin. Or does everyone just think you need a master's degree for a job you could learn in a few months of training?
I guess I'm looking for some ideas of how to proceed with the future and if anyone has gone through something similar.
posted by greatalleycat to Work & Money (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Getting a masters degree is probably not in your best interest unless you have something very specific in mind. Like, if you want to be a nurse, or a teacher, or a librarian, or some types of engineer, yeah, you're going to need a masters. But just in general a masters degree doesn't necessarily increase your earning potential.

On the other hand, a graduate degree doesn't have to be synonymous with crushing debt; I went to school part time and took advantage of tuition reimbursement from my employer to get mine. I took out some loans but I think it was under $10k. (I am now employed in a different field that doesn't require a masters and I make 50% more than I did in my job that required a masters.)
posted by mskyle at 7:28 PM on October 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you don't know what to study then you shouldn't go to grad school. Suppose you pick a field of study and you hate it? You've just incurred debt for something you hate. Figure out what it is you want to do and then get the education you need for it.

In the mean time if you have the skills of being able to show up and being able to get along with your coworkers, you are qualified for most every job. Maybe talk to your friends and see if they know of jobs where they work.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:31 PM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

My problem is that ... I also have no real idea what to study.

Do not go to grad school if you're not sure what to study!!! You are right to be hesitant to take on more debt. In undergrad you can dick around and "find yourself" and try on multiple majors before settling on something, but GRAD SCHOOL IS NOT FOR THAT. Have a concrete interest and a plan going in or don't bother.

In some fields the Masters "is the new Bachelors," but it really depends. For instance, if I may assume from your copy editing job that you got an English degree or something, let me tell you that neither a Masters in English nor an MFA is worth a tinker's damn in getting a new job. Hell, it may hurt if it makes you "overqualified" for the next thing you apply for after graduation.

What specifically are you interested in other than "something else"? You MUST have an answer for that before you apply for grad school. Tell us what your interests are and maybe we can suggest some options for career advancement.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 7:33 PM on October 14, 2015 [15 favorites]

I won't say I'm anti-school (as I have a bachelor's) but.....this doesn't sound like a time to go to school. You say you've heard from "people" that you'll need another degree, but are jobs even asking for that?

Perhaps employers don't see my skills are transferable

It's your (and your resume's) job to MAKE them see that those skills are transferrable.

Are you writing resumes in terms of what the employer is looking for and how you're using those skills? If you have the skills and are doing similar things to the jobs you're applying for then I think there maybe a gap in terms of resume writing. (Not to mention it can just be really really tough to find a job so factor that in a bit.)

So if you're going toward project management but you currently copy write, then you need to describe how you also can streamline projects and deadlines in your copy writing job.

I'd see if anyone can get you in with a good resume consultant or similar (or I know there's people on Mefi who will look at your resume.) Try that first, then see if you get more interviews.

If that still doesn't work, or if you're being turned down for lack of experience, then see if you can spend some extra time volunteering, learning on your own, or taking classes without committing to an entire other degree and tons of debt.

As a data point, my husbands in IT, but he's a college drop-out and self-taught. Not too odd for the field, but he's gotten jobs that required degrees purely on his experience. He's climbed the ladder super quickly in only 3 years just because he's taught himself.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:45 PM on October 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

For now I'd recommend taking just one class in a subject or field that interests you. It could be hands-on or it could be a traditional college course (community college would likely be cheapest!), and see how you feel. Perhaps you'll quickly realize you're not feeling up to do all the work involved with going back to school, perhaps you'll fall in love and find inspiration to do a grad program, perhaps it'll be something in between or totally different. In any case, you'll be gaining experience and expanding your knowledge without a big initial commitment.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:26 PM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it's to get a better job then you need to look at the jobs that you want, and probably talk to people in the field, and find out exactly what education you need - then waste zero time while getting that education (bulk up on classes as much as possible to do it in the shortest amount of time).
posted by Toddles at 8:34 PM on October 14, 2015

Wow, what goofballs are telling you, "What you need is a master's degree in something! Doesn't matter what!" That is terrible advice. What you need is a sense of direction in your life. Once you have that it'll be a lot easier to determine whether you need a master's, and if so, in what.
posted by town of cats at 9:31 PM on October 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the answers, it helps to hear from others the trend of going to school with little direction wasn't a wise one. Taking a class, however, seems like that might be productive while only costing a few hundred dollars at most. I live close to a community college, so that sounds doable. Now to look at a catalog...
posted by greatalleycat at 10:10 PM on October 14, 2015

Start some MOOCS in subjects which take your fancy. No need to be picky - you can do these from home and online, do them in whatever spare time you have, they are free (avoid any that try and charge), they are no obligation and you can stop doing them at any point. That way, you have used minimal time and incurred zero debt.

If, and only if, the subject matter of one of them really appeals to you, then think (realistically) about pursuing this further at grad school.

- MOOC List
- MOOC providers
- Another list of MOOCS
posted by Wordshore at 2:10 AM on October 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Master's degrees aren't generally worth it unless your job requires it. If you write for a living, dear god, those are recreational. I second that getting a master's can actually be more likely to hurt you and make you "overqualified" in your particular skill set and career. If you type for a living, they'll see your master's and realize you won't want to settle for the peanuts they'll pay you, basically. I've gotten that "why don't you go to grad school" thing too because I'm nerdy, but it's truly not worth the expense and it's not going to make a writer/editor more money.

I suspect if you want to make more money, you'd need to leave your field and probably go into management, or one of those fields like marketing or HR. But hoo boy, is that not my area of expertise, so I can't advise you on that. If you do any classes, they should probably be along the lines of job training for something like that. You should probably be working on boosting your skills in other ways like volunteering and the like. It seems like financial jobs and event planning are the Big Thing these days, so if you get into those areas, you might have better luck.

I hear ya on "transferable skills," though, I haven't been able to get anywhere of late because employers want someone who's already done the job before and doesn't need training, and "soft skills" or "transferable" is nothing they care about when they can find a carbon copy of what they want very easily instead of giving you a shot.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:11 AM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Professional writer - in fact, journalist - here. I'd like to echo the sentiment that writing-related Masters degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Even if it's something that sounds a little more "practical" (I've heard of people getting Masters in things like communications or marketing), it's not likely to do you much good. Plot your own career change.

I've never heard of anyone going straight from copy editing to corporate communications or PR, unless it was in a role that heavily emphasizes copy editing skills. Ex-journos will go into those roles, but that's a different skill set. I have heard of people going from copy editor to staff writer, but that doesn't sound like something you want to do - and given the state of the newspaper industry, especially small papers, I don't blame you.

If you want something better paying with more advancement opportunities, I think you have two options:
1) Technical or medical editing. The Society for Technical Communication has lots of info on tech writing, which would probably be helpful for tech editing. I'm not sure how to break into or learn about medical writing - perhaps a class would be helpful there?
2) Work for a big organization that puts out lots of written material. The (somewhat nichey) trade publication I work for is owned by a large information services company which puts out loads of written material. Some of this is journalism, but a lot of it is consulting and research reports. We employ a whole team of production people for this stuff, many of whom are copy editors or copy editors who also do other things.

Basically, if you want to make a decent living as a writer these days, you've got to either be a superstar (which most of us aren't) or find a niche. My advice to you would be: find your niche.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:54 AM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good advice already here, but yeah, don't take on a bunch of debt without a very specific plan in mind that requires graduate school. That debt will take forever to pay off and in all likelihood, you won't be earning anymore money than you could if you just worked your way up somewhere for three years.

If you work at a newspaper as a copyeditor, have you ever been a reporter? If I were you, I would try to network as much as possible and try to find a job doing entry-level communications work. You wouldn't be speaking to reporters and managing the comms department, but you could write press releases, ghost-write op-eds, handle digital comms like blog posts or Twitter, and help develop media strategy. Your experience as a writer and in the newsroom is good experience that you should be able to turn into something else. Comms and PR is the most obvious one, but being able to write well is valued in a lot of sectors or jobs.

But I would focus more on networking than blindly applying to jobs. I personally have never gotten a job by blindly applying to a job listing on the internet, especially when I was pivoting to a different sector or field. I'd start poking around, getting in touch with your network of contacts, and let people outside your current employer know that you are considering a career change. Enlist your friends, family and former colleagues for help. You can find something new without crushing debt.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:05 AM on October 15, 2015

If you are interested in going into communications or marketing, then you will need some experience in those areas but a masters probably won't help you UNLESS it's to make connections that will lead to a job or give you practical experience (through internships, for instance).

The good news is that you can get the latter without going back to school. If you can write and edit well (which I assume you can since it's your job) then I bet there are some nonprofits in your area that would love to use your skills. You'll be best-off looking to a volunteer-driven organization. Offer to help with their newsletter or online communications. If there are groups you already have ties to (a group you're involved in, your church, a group a friend works for or has a leadership position in) then that's your best bet. This at least will give you some experience with this type of work and you can get some practice and see if you like it.
posted by lunasol at 5:27 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

(I say all this as a digital marketing manager. I would not hire someone without any marketing experience, but I would consider someone who had done really good work for a local nonprofit or two.)
posted by lunasol at 5:28 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Go to the local community college and get a simple certificate or two-year degree in something you see yourself doing. Do side jobs for free or on the cheap so you learn more and put a portfolio and references together. If you come out of this as an experienced writer and editor with something like fresh graphic design skills, you might be the complete package some companies need.
posted by pracowity at 2:48 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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