We find ourselves in the midst of yet another term, and life (and our education) goes on. The freshmen jaunt through campus from one class to the next like the forest fauna of a Disney film. For those of us nearing the epilogue of our undergraduate adventure, the dark riddle of our rapidly approaching post-grad futures has begun to put a despondent drag in our step. The rain hasn’t helped.
This is the point at which we truly ask ourselves if we are on the right path. Did I choose the right major? Will I love my career in that legendary Confucian manner so emblematic of “the dream”? Will I have a career to love at all? Am I actually thinking out loud, or am I simply drawing stares with my strikingly winsome features?
Ring a bell? I thought as much.
Having thrust myself with all of my heart and all of my money (including the promise of my firstborn) into the study of the humanities, I have been looking at life with the funereal sentimentality of one seeing their final days of safety slowly slip away. With skyrocketing grad school prices, a diminishing cutthroat job market and no preset career path, what lies ahead for me remains an unheralded campaign.
My undergrad focus has congealed into an inordinate concoction. I am majoring in English, with a double minor in writing and medieval studies. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.
My dreams have drifted from SFX makeup (which I pursued), to audio engineering(which I pursued), to professional ghost hunter (which I think I attempted with a friend once, but never really pursued). Regardless of direction, I have always come back to writing, dusty books and academia.
As my undergraduate degree path may suggest, I would love to be a historical fiction author. That by no stretch means that I plan on becoming one. I am far too irresolute to be bound for that sort of letdown.
I am the sort of fellow who wants it all. I want a wife to spoil and kids whose lives I can ruin with absurdly erudite names like Faulkner, Desdemona or Charizard. I’ve never lusted after power or great wealth, simply enough of each that I no longer worry about unfounded disrespect or whether I can afford to eat. I am not willing to gamble my security on the dubious probability that I may actually write something worthwhile.
This realization has dragged me out of the clouds and planted me firmly in the actuality of the life that I want for myself. It doesn’t mean giving up on myself, selling out or any other such capitulating expression. It means re-framing my dreams in practical means. I still plan on writing that novel. In fact, I have been for two years, but my grail lies nearer to home.
Well, sort of.
All of this thinking has thrown me headlong into the search for qualifications, expertise, job security and specifically, continuing education. My question becomes, thus: Is grad school worth it?
Having seen the wealth of articles that attempt to answer this question, my aim is to ruminate rather than provide a conclusion (as is the way of all waffling English majors). Even with a myriad of evidence that suggests one path or another, this choice is individual and highly emotional.
Most of what it comes down to depends upon your chosen field and the position to which you aspire in that field. I will use myself as an example.
Investing your major in the humanities is a precarious decision, but for most of us, there really is no other option. If you are like me, you simply can’t see yourself spending your days elsewhere. It then comes down to what you want to do. Do you want to write? Teach? Research? For medical and science majors, your educational provisions dictate precisely your career. The disciplines of history and English, however, apply to a dizzying scope of possibilities.
I have been and still am struggling with this very decision.
Do I focus on English and literature, bent on burying myself in academia? That leaves me bound to the violently political and competitive track of professorship if I plan on being paid.
Should I choose to steer my academic career toward the medieval history for which I have such affection? The potential for a decades-long tenure struggle are comparable. Government positions are also more likely, ranging from analyst, to translator, to consultant or expert witness.
Let’s choose medieval history. What would my requirements be? Like a select few other fields, education level in history dictates not only the positions for which you can apply, but how much you will be paid. This means grad school.
Now, having such a focused sphere of study, where would I apply, and for which program? Assuming that a majority percentage of state schools are lacking in graduate courses in medieval Europe and its respective dead languages, that leaves the option of applying to a “good university.” This essentially means paying more money and having a fraction of the chance of being accepted, but wielding the authority which said university commands in the scholarly world (e.g. getting a better job).
In that case, where better to apply than the heart of medieval study itself? England.
I don’t know about you, but this consideration floods my mind with all manner of terrifying possibilities. International tuition rates, visas, foreign vs. domestic acceptance bias. The list goes on. Is it getting hot in here?
Nothing looks better on a medieval historian’s resume than having received an M.Phil in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and a Ph.D with various research grants at Cambridge. Having no money for this, I would have to make applying for competitive fellowships and full-pay scholarships a 24-hour-a-day job, while simultaneously exacting a flawless GPA. Then upon acceptance, I would be looking forward to two to 10 of the most difficult years of my life.
I will ask again, is grad school worth all of that?
The only answer that rings with any truth is, it’s worth it if it’s worth it to you.
Not all worth equates to financial worth. A major factor that drives people away from grad school as an option is the extra debt. They say that a graduate degree more than pays for itself in your following career. I say, sometimes. The presupposition is that this career is one which caters to those with higher education (I don’t think you make more money for having a master’s degree in interior design).
The fact is, you have to balance practical rationality against your own emotional thirst for expertise.
I will spend my whole life learning, that much I know. I love it too much to steer clear of extraneous knowledge. The determining factor in where that learning takes me is a faraway man, and how much I want that man to be me.