Miserable with a future, or on hold but with less misery?
March 1, 2007 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I have almost certainly won an eighteen thousand dollar award to do my Master's degree, but every day I find myself semi-wishing that I don't win it so that I don't have to do my Master's. Do I suck it up and advance my career, or turn down more money than I make in two years and end up working at the mall?

I am a pretty smart cookie, I love school, and I love the fields that I majored in. For the past several years, though, I have been a research assistant for Dr. M, and when the time came for me to pick a supervisor, he seemed a natural fit. Smart, well-known, friendly, a good boss. Since then, though, we have had some conflict. I have had to change my topic from the area I am passionate about to the area he studies (I know, this is fairly typical) and he micromanages every step of the application process. As an example, he wrote my scholarship application for me and then seemed insulted when I made changes. He made all the decisions about who would be on my committee without consulting me. He has already decided the theoretical framework and methods for my study (as it happens to coincide with his). Anyway, bitching aside, the Cole's notes version is: I am unhappy with my supervisor, I am unhappy with my topic, I will very likely win a bunch of money to do this work.

Switching to another prof so that I can study what I want is not an option, as for various reasons I am tied to this one city (which only has this one school), and my department is quite small. There is no one here who specializes in my interest, and the department is so small that I really can't afford to step on anyone's toes, especially not Dr. M who has invested so much in training me these past years. I feel like I owe him.

If I do turn down the award, my degree is not such that I am qualified for any particular position. I would probably end up working at a call centre or something equally fulfilling. At this point, though, all I really want is to get away from the Uni. I have been there for so long that I have grown to hate it, hate research, and hate writing.

I can suck it up and do this degree, but I am sure it will not be a pleasant two years. Still, it will be two years, a short amount of time in the long run. I will have the award to put on my CV, plus some publications. All-in-all, good for my career. Do I do this, put my academic potential first and suffer through two years, or do I put my career on hold for a bit (turning down a large sum of money), and experience Life After School?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think that only you can answer that for yourself, really.

Consider that school is a negative, boring experience for a bunch of people from the get-go. You might think of yourself as lucky that you're only getting to that point with 2 years of applicable, useful and worthwhile school left.

Then again, you might suffer from the worst case of senioritis ever and regret diving in.

I think that even though you're growing weary, you're close enough to the goal that you should try to power through. Think of your entire academic career as a pass/fail. If you drop out now, you fail, and it was all for naught. That doesn't seem like the best use of your time, and it seems like it might kneecap yourself later on. True story? You won't have fun in a call center.

Perhaps try to come up with ways to become excited about your research? Brainstorm, play around with it, and take heart that you were bright enough to earn $18k for someone to pay you to learn. It's unfortunate that you can't do it in your first choice of a field of study, but on the other hand, you've got a lot of great advantages, like an adviser who is passionate about helping you succeed, a bunch of cash, and again, only two years left on your sentence.

If deferring the reward and continuing the program is an option, I suppose it'd be something to consider, but you'll lose the cash and a) won't return like you think you will or b) will upset/lose favor with Dr. M.

What about a vacation? Or a sabbatical? Is there any way you can take a month to step away and relax a bit? Recharge and come into the degree program head-on and without such a bitter taste in your mouth? Even if it's a shorter period of time, put it towards being creative and recharging yourself. Do things you enjoy, spend a small amount of time considering what the career opportunity will really provide you with, but otherwise, push it out of your head entirely? I think that would work wonders, and let you power through the 2 years.

Life after school won't be what it's cracked up to be if you entered a field and exit into something completely unrelated, minimum wage or not-much-better, and disenfranchised. I say finish through, suck it up, do some sanity checks to make sure you have some fun along the way, and come back in 2.5 years and tell us if it was worth it.
posted by disillusioned at 10:53 PM on March 1, 2007

disi-lu is very wise: take a vacation/month/sabbatical/step back.
Things will be clearer then.
posted by Dizzy at 10:57 PM on March 1, 2007

Do it. Take a month or two for yourself, just doing something you enjoy, then dive in. Hey, maybe someday you'll be the one pimping grad students out to your research interests!
posted by chudder at 10:58 PM on March 1, 2007

Would you love to do the degree? It doesn't sound like it, given that you're not happy with the advisor. Grad school has a lot to do with your advisor. Is it possible your advisor is pulling all these strings because it will further your academic career? Dr. M may see it as doing you a huge favour, not controlling your life.

There's nothing wrong with saying no to school right now, if you'd rather try something else. You might discover new sides of yourself. $18k is not that much money to turn down. If you got a good job, you could save up $18k in three or four years and use it to go to school later, if you're still interested. Could you get a job at the university? They often hire alumni.
posted by acoutu at 10:59 PM on March 1, 2007

Eek. What a horrible situation.

I opened your thread expecting to say 'do your masters! it's free!' but have come to a very different conclusion. If you don't like the field, you won't like it any more when you've spent two years studying it under a Prof. you are in conflict in, at a uni you hate and with such a negative feeling it since before it even starts.

You sound like you know the career you want, but you aren't able to start it where you are, with the supervisor you have. So I think you know what you need to do - and it's not throw in the towel and work in a call centre. You need to back out gracefully NOW, and try to salvage what's left of your relationship with Dr M in the hopes of getting a decent recommendation to a program with the focus you want. Alternatively, as you say you're sick of research, writing etc, you could go and have the 'life after school' experience. But do something worthwhile.
posted by Lucie at 11:18 PM on March 1, 2007

Find the part of your studies that interests you, and do it with passion. Drudge through the rest.
posted by markovich at 11:24 PM on March 1, 2007

Have you told Dr. M how you feel? Does he know you are not passionate about your current research? The advisor-student relationship is supposed to be mutually beneficial. The advisor wins because he has students to do his research and write papers for him. The student benefits because the advisors connections help the student get published and established in their chosen field. Notice - chosen field. If you spend all this time on a degree working on topic X, you will become a researcher of topic X and you will be part of the academic X community. If your goal is an academic job (such as a professor) you had better make damn sure you become an expert on a topic you are passionate about, and not something that only Dr M is passionate about.

That said, this is a Master's degree, not a PhD, right? And if you are about to begin a two-year process you are not very far into it. It is common for most students to have only a vague idea of their research interests at this stage so M. is possibly only doing the standard routine, not even knowing that your interest lies in another area. In any case if you establish a strong research record during your Master's (which it sounds like you would) you could probably go for a PhD in a different school which is better suited to your interests. You could even do a little of your own research on the side while you work on Dr. M's stuff. But be prepared for a lot of hard work and misery when the deadlines pile on. (personally, my price for 2 years of hell is a lot higher than $18,000).

And finally, if you have several years of experience as a research assistant, and are smart enough to win such an award, you can certainly find a better job than a call center.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:35 PM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

What would the master's qualify you to do?

Would it qualify you for a PhD in your subject, followed by an academic career? Take some time off, then. If you hate research and writing now, spending another 8 years in grad school followed by 6 years' trying to get tenure will make you hate it all the more. When you get the master's will you be able to go to a different uni for the PhD? Based on your question it doesn't sound that way. This sounds likea recipe for 8 years' suffering under a supervisor, and with a topic, that aren't suited to your needs. (If you think he's overbearing now, it will only get worse. And if he's capricious, imagine how bad it will be if ALL you have to rely on for professional advancement is his subjective evaluation of your performance and promise. Nightmare.)

Would the master's qualify you for a specific non-academic job? Is that a job you would like to have?

You say that your undergraduate degree doesn't qualify you for any particular job. That's true of most undergraduate degrees. If you go out into the world of work, by all means get a mindless job for a little while, but understand that to get an interesting job you'll need to get an entry-level job in the kind of work you want to be doing in five years or so. (Eg want to be an editor? try to get an entry-level publishing job. Want to be a social worker? try to get an entry-level job in a clinic, to see how you like it. etc)

The worst-case scenario here would be forcing yourself to do the master's just because it seems like "moving forward" on a familiar path -- and have a miserable time with your micromanaging supervisor -- only to discover when you're done that you face the working world with the same lack of a plan that you have today.

1. Ask people in your field, or find professional publications of the job you'd like to have and see if they have message boards etc -- find out if the master's will be a concrete qualification for a job you want.

2. Find out if this fellowship can be deferred by a year, so that you can take time off from school.

3. If the degree DOES provide a real advantage in getting a job you want, then it might be worth it to do it. If it doesn't, then ask yourself why you would stay and do the degree. What goals of yours does it serve? (Answers having to do with feelings of obligation to your supervisor are not admissible at this stage.)

4. If you leave school -- either for a year (deferring the award) or open-endedly (turning down the award and the grad program), do two things:

a. get *a* job quickly, even if it's a dummy job (call center, retail, whatever). This will ward off the stage where you're lying around the house feeling worthless. It gets you the hell out of the house, meeting people and generally living life.

b. within 6 months, try to think of a non-dummy job that you might like to have in about five years. Take steps toward getting that kind of job -- look in job listings, find the relevant online resources, network among people you know, etc. Try to get an entry-level position that will give you some experiences and contacts that will help you reach that goal (even if it's only a temporary goal).

c. remember you're not a "failure" for not going directly to grad school. A lot of bright students end up in grad school because they're good at school and can't figure out what else to do. This leads to a lot of wasted effort, and they get out in a few years still not knowing what to do. You can always come back to grad school later, once you have a concrete idea about what you want the degree for -- and you'll do better at school that way.

Good luck!
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:55 PM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

That's life in the world of research. Today, the Western world is filled with people working at call centres and Borders who left their research or professional track. Suck it up, you will be pleased that you did, ten years from now.

Make sure your family and friends know that you need their support. Don't let Dr M take over your entire life.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:25 AM on March 2, 2007

So what comes next? A PhD supervised by Dr M?

I found the whole MA + PhD process pretty difficult even with a supervisor who's a really good friend and a terrific person, not to mention extremely non-coercive.

Not an answer, obviously, but maybe something to think about.
posted by Wolof at 12:29 AM on March 2, 2007

LobsterMitten is on the right track, I think. There are sometimes reasons to spend two years of your life doing something less than ideal, and one that you may find compelling is the prospect of a rewarding job at the end of the line. (If you don't like research now, you're certainly not going to like it after these two years, as I'm sure you've already realized; so academic career advancement is obviously not a good reason.)

Not every masters will help you get a job, though; and even those that will help, will probably only help within a certain band of potential career choices. I think it would be worth your time to sit down and assess what the actual benefits of the degree would be in terms of your employability (as you say, you're a smart cookie; I'm sure you can do it). If you tell us your field (perhaps have an admin post it) we might be able to help you out with that.

Another option: go and talk frankly to your supervisor about all of this (unless he is on the committee that decides about your scholarship, in which case wait until you have been selected). Supervisors are people too, and you say your prospective supervisor is friendly. If you tell him that you're worried about him micromanaging your Master's degree, tell him that (gently). You can also tell him you're not thrilled about changing your topic; he may well accept that you stick with your original topic (you are certainly under no obligation to stick with what you wrote on your scholarship application). If he does, you need to be prepared for the possibility that sticking with your original topic will mean less direct supervision and guidance from your supervisor; part of the reason he wants you to work on "his" subject is because he already knows lots about it and it is easy for him to supervise. He may just feel too busy to take on another project, but I hope he wouldn't actually force you to work on a certain thing if you made your objection known from the start. If you take the route of talking to him about all this, be direct, honest, and gentle from the start. Obviously, the less adversarial things become, the better.

Email me if you want to discuss more; email is in my profile.
posted by Fat Charlie the Archangel at 1:18 AM on March 2, 2007

You can't sell a masters once you have it, and you can't buy happiness with it either. There are always opportunities to do things you love. Stop doing things you hate, and start doing something you're passionate about.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:22 AM on March 2, 2007

So you are stuck in your current town, and it sounds like most of the employment there is in call centers.

What happens after you get the masters? Will you still need to stay in your current town, and the masters help you get a job there doing something you enjoy? Would this be less frustrating than having worked at a call center for 2 years, and looking at continuing to work at a call center?

Fast forward to what will happen down the road, because if you do work in a call center I can almost guarantee that whatever you are thinking, it won't be "gosh, I'm so glad I put in 2 years here instead of being in school".
posted by yohko at 7:40 AM on March 2, 2007

Of course, you should look at your situation to see if there is some other option that you would actually enjoy, but you make it sound like your options are limited for some reason. Perhaps you are a bit unhappy with whatever is keeping you in this one city?
posted by yohko at 7:44 AM on March 2, 2007

for various reasons I am tied to this one city (which only has this one school)

One thing to keep in mind: if it's an academic career you're thinking of pursuing, you're sure to have to move at some point.

Suppose you finished your masters and a school halfway across the country offered you funding for their Ph.D. program — would you take that offer? If you stayed at your current school for a masters and a Ph.D., and a school in another city offered you a tenure-track job, would you move then?

(If it's a non-academic career you're considering, the bit about moving could still be true. It all depends on the field and your hometown. But in academia, it's pretty much a given that you'll be hopping around the country or the world until you get tenure somewhere.)

I hate to be negative — and maybe I misread you and you will be free to move after a few years — but there's no sense making yourself miserable for two years to open doors that you won't be free to walk through, you know?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:55 AM on March 2, 2007

Couple things that no one has pointed out yet that bear some consideration:

1) Did I read that right, that 18K is more than you make in two years?? I don't know where you live, but that's damn near the poverty line even if you're only supporting yourself, and it is deeply impoverished if you have a family. They say money doesn't buy happiness, but lack of it can certainly make you miserable. Reassess your life and see if lack of cash (and all of the collateral consequences, like never going out and eating crappy food all the time) is what's really at the core of this. Would Dr. M be more tolerable if you could just leave him at school at the end of the day and have a decent life afterwards?

2) Kind of related but distinct, you say that your undergrad degree doesn't qualify you for anything. I think you're underestimating the value of a BA; a lot of it is just a signal that you're the kind of person who's motivated to finish college. I was just reading an article to this effect the other day, that the real value of a college education is that you learn how to learn, but damned if I can find it. Anyway, don't sell yourself short on being able to find a job without your MA. You might have to branch out away from your target field, but if you've been living on 9 grand a year doing it, then maybe going elsewhere is a good idea. See point one about poverty making you miserable.

If the only jobs in your area for college grads are call center jobs, then maybe it's a problem with the area more than with you. I think you may have set yourself up with a false dichotomy: dropping out of your program and having a miserable job in this town vs. sticking with it and having a miserable grad school career in this town. Can you pick up the aspects that tie you down and take them with you? Maybe you need to examine what's tying you to this place that has led you to such a narrow, miserable set of choices.
posted by rkent at 9:54 AM on March 2, 2007

I spent two years in a master's program and only found out halfway through it that I wasn't excited about doing the work. What a colossal waste of time, which I regret extremely. I wish I hadn't done it - and I was handed considerably more than 18K.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:26 AM on March 2, 2007

Friend of mine is currently in a master's program working on a project she dislikes for an advisor who sounds similar to yours. She's the sort to keep going (and occasionally call a friend and kvetch), but if you're completely displeased with the situation, that may not be for you. The good news is, a master's program is usually relatively short. Weigh the costs of committing to it against the costs of failing to follow through -- I can nth that working in a call center isn't particularly pleasant, which is why I'm eagerly awaiting grad admissions news, myself.
posted by Alterscape at 12:01 PM on March 2, 2007

I'm going to disagree vehemently with the hive here...

I took the year off. I regret it wholeheartedly. If you love school and learning, then you will eventually get to where you want to be, hating anything that isn't school all the while. I find myself being jealous of students pulling all-nighters for midterms, wishing I had signed up for ANYTHING just so that I was in school. Since your degree "doesn't qualify you for anything," I have a feeling you'll feel like me. I have a liberal arts degree, so pretty much every job hits the same or similar level of suckage. I'd rather study the physics of snot-rockets than do most of the jobs I qualify for. Sure it would be a nice sabbatical if you didn't go for the Masters, but say you get 2 months into it and you realize you've made a huge mistake; you have to wait an entire year for that boat to come around again, and it most certainly will not if you passed it up once already (advice straight from my undergrad adviser...graduate programs want to pick candidates who they know are worth the investment, not someone who's going to waffle, throw it away, or otherwise flake out).
There are so many people that would kill for that $18K to be able to study anything...in fact, don't go, and send the money my way. Because now that I'm just about in a program, I need the freaking funding.
posted by messylissa at 1:43 PM on March 2, 2007

18K total for your MSc (?) program, or 18k per year (limited to 2 years)? The Canadian 'minimum' CIHR grant is ~20k per year; MSc awards are limited to 2 years. American schools typically pay better. Also, will you have to pay tuition out-of-pocket?

On one hand, your potential supervisor sounds like the kind who'll have you graduate in 2 years and you won't have to work/think all that hard. It's not a bad thing, per se.

On the other hand, a MSc may very likely take longer than that; will your potential supervisor fund you past the award period?

A science (it sounds like your in science) BA/BSc doesn't go very far, in science. Otherwise, a bachelor's is a bachelor's and one doesn't necessarily need to pursue a career in science. A MSc won't really get you very far, to be honest, unless it's a professional MSc.

Have you considered why you're tied to your city? You don't have to accept the award to put it on your CV. You can list it as having been awarded it without having to actually accept it.

If you're serious about your interest in your area, have you considered investigating other researchers who are interested in your area - and see if they'll take you on as a PhD student?
posted by porpoise at 2:46 PM on March 2, 2007

Is the money tied to the content of the proposal you/Dr. M put together? Many fellowships, including the NSF ones, require you to write a proposal for evaluation purposes, but there is no requirement that the fellow actually do the proposed work or stay with the same advisor.

If that is true in your case, then you may have a lot of options for staying in school but getting out from under the micromanaging thumb of Dr. M. Most advisors, I suspect, would be delighted to have a student who brings his/her own support, and you would be free to align yourself with the people/projects that are most appealing to you.
posted by janell at 4:04 PM on March 2, 2007

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