Why did you go to graduate school?

To be honest, my reasons were not very good:

1.  I wanted a job where I didn’t have to get up in the morning.  (Hint:  if this is your motivation, NEVER HAVE CHILDREN.  Jean Kerr must have been a much sounder sleeper than I am).

2.  I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

3.  I didn’t want to have to wear the same clothing as everyone else.  Consulting informational meetings were terrifying with all the women in the same but sliiiiightly different little blue suits.  Presumably they’ve moved to the same but slightly different pants suits these days.

4.  School wasn’t so bad and I was really good at my topic of discipline.  (Hint: undergrad classes are NOTHING like grad classes.  But… grad classwork is nothing like research anyway, so maybe it’s ok.)

5.  I wanted to figure out how the world works.  My subject area is as good a way to do it as anything.  This one is probably the best reason.

6.  I thought if I’d gotten a real job first I would never go back to school.  In retrospect, this is a silly reason.  So what.  Related was, given I’m going to graduate school I should do it now so I can have babies after tenure since infertility runs in my family (on the side branches).  In the end, things had evolved so that scholars are “allowed” one pre-tenure baby without people thinking they’re not serious about work.  Yay.  I had mine a bit early.

#2 had a different experience.  Almost none of the reasons above were mine.  (Well some of them, sort of.)  I went to grad school because there was nothing else in the world that I wanted to do even half as much.  I have known I was going into academia since before high school, though I changed my mind about the subject area a few times.  I wanted a career where I would be paid to think and read and be around smart people.  I like research.  I love the flexible schedule; I can’t for the life of me deal with a 9 – 5 schedule.  It’s a shortcoming, I know.  I like that I can work many of my own hours.  This often means I am working in my pajamas at 2am from my home, and I work on weekends.  Still, it means that sometimes I can sleep in.  I have tried other jobs during summers and times when I was out of work.  Working in the corporate world made me want to die a lot.  For the first time in my life, I was expected to concentrate while sitting in a cubicle with no door.  I can’t think that way.

My job now as a faculty member is to research the things that I want to find out about, that I am interested in.  There is a lot of freedom (and a lot of rules).  I am goal-oriented and I want tenure.  Academia is the best, perhaps only, fit for me.

#1 again:  The being around smart people is definitely important.  Though I figure whatever career I chose that would be the case.  Except (please don’t kill me, BFS) K-12 teacher.  I had some amazing teachers growing up, but I also had some who were not the brightest bulbs in the candelabra.  It is true that all it takes to get a PhD is perseverance, but the selection issue helps keep the smart/dumb ratio liveably high.  Corporate summer jobs also completely exhausted me… I would come home completely unable to do anything.   During and before high school I knew I did NOT want to be an academic… my mom is one and I couldn’t stand the petty infighting and the crazies.  Fortunately that isn’t quite as much of a problem in my field as my field doesn’t really attract creative types.  I’m not so goal oriented as #2 (though I do have a career bucket wish list) and though tenure is a nice perk it isn’t my reason for being.

How did you choose your career?  Did you plan it that way?  Did it work out?  Any regrets or plans for the future?

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14 Responses to “Why did you go to graduate school?”

  1. Nick at SAFTM Says:

    2 and 4 were unfortunately the main drivers for me. I wasn’t sure what to do and was in a comfort zone. I was going to take a year off and work, but a professor suggested I apply. I was already past the deadlines, so I sent in 3 applications thinking I would NEVER get in past the deadline. I guess someone didn’t notice the date in the admissions office because I got in! So I figured “why not.” It was in a subject I was interested and my protected debt would be less than my projected first year salary (including undergrad).

    So I went. I’m happy I did, but how I got there is kind of scary in retrospect. The only “analysis” I did was the loan/salary ratio after I got in.

  2. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff Says:

    #1 describes me really well except I chose not to go since I had the same reasons of not knowing what I wanted to do. I went the path you could have gone, but you ended up better, so yay for grad school. :-) BTW, you will never get an argument from me or Mr. BFS that some teachers aren’t just dumb…he’s had to be on the same lesson-planning teams with some teachers that made me want to smack them for him…

    #2 sounds like she knew what she wanted and pounced. I am extremely jealous since I have no clue what I’d want to do work-wise although I have fallen in love with blogging…maybe I’ll make enough off of that to quit my day job in 4-5 years…

  3. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    #1 here: BFS– What were you thinking of going into? I’m betting you’re on track to replace that income from blogging down the line… maybe not the fantastic benefits though.

    As a side note (and don’t tell #2 I told you this), I don’t think #2 so much as knew what she wanted and pounced as she’s generally a malcontent and academia was the least bad of all possible working hells. Unless they come up with a job where you’re paid to read novels, don’t have to write about them, and you get to pick which novels.

    Nick– That’s exactly how I feel. I’m happy I did it but it’s a bit scary in retrospect, especially with how everybody always tells you not to do it for reasons #2 and 4. You have to be driven, they say. That’s probably true in the humanities… since you’re giving up a lot more to get a humanities PhD. Heck, I’ve given that advice… graduate school is really not fun. But I’m not sure how good advice it is, since it kind of turned out ok for me. Though maybe I’d be happier if we’d moved to the bay area right after undergrade and had saved up to put 400K down on a house like our friends did instead of going to graduate school. Who knows.

    I do know plenty of people who were much more driven to go to graduate school and then dropped out when they changed their minds or they got a better offer or it wasn’t what they expected. But maybe they’re just more purpose driven people and able to make those changes to get what they want. I’m pretty procrastinatory about a lot of things and tend to wait things out before making a change. If I wait long enough the problem often goes away.

  4. frugalscholar Says:

    Let’s see…I loved to analyze literature. I don’t mind working a lot, but want to do it when I want to. I need a certain amount of autonomy.

    Plus, I was always so happy in school. Never wanted to leave.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Those sound like good reasons. :)

  6. Squirrelers Says:

    I went to grad school because I felt like I was underutilizing my potential. I knew I could do more, and felt like I could get into a good full-time MBA program. So….I took the GMAT, applied, and got in. I’m glad I did, as I had doors opened that wouldn’t have been otherwise. As an investment, it was worth it.

    I also learned a lot, and had the chance to meet some interesting people – some of whom are friends long after I graduated.

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Squirrelers– That’s awesome. Graduate school definitely makes you think and if you’re lucky introduces you to some great folks. I’m glad it opened doors and was a good investment.

  8. Z Says:

    I went to graduate school because I was neither emotionally nor intellectually ready to graduate from college. I had gotten a lot out of college but needed more of the same. Stable TAships were available where I was, and I already had an apartment, so going to graduate school was an excellent idea for someone with no money — nothing to move with, nothing to transition with. This was in Berkeley, a pleasant place, so I had no problem with that.

    Graduate school was fun and therapeutic but I had not gone for career reasons — there were supposedly no jobs, so I didn’t expect one, just did the program. I didn’t push too hard or suffer too much, so I didn’t end up being as competitive as some job candidates, but I was more competitive than I realized because I was despite everything someone with a very good PhD.

    I went on the academic job market for the same reason I had gone to graduate school — had not had time to think about what I might want, and did not have transition money so needed to work right away. This took me far from home, to a place that’s hard to get out of. It’s antithetical to me — rural, regional, Christian, and so on; I have survived but I have not been happy.

    I was always told the problem with academic jobs was you had to publish and you might have to live in a snowy place. These things did not deter me. Had I known some other truths — for instance, that the majority of Americans, including hip seeming academics, really are willing to live in rural suburbs and may actually prefer this, and that their urban graduate student existence is a mere phase for them, then I would have realized why I was not actually cut out to be an academic!

  9. Z Says:

    P.S. I’ve realized, too, that just because one is an intellectual does not mean one should be an academic; these are different things, really, although they can overlap.

  10. Z Says:

    P.P.S. Regrets: that I didn’t jump ship sooner. I knew right away that it had been a mistake to become a professor, but I was far from home or any city and had no savings, and owed money from the move — also we fund our own research here, so I was looking at more debt (despite outside grants, you do need some of your own money or funding) just to go on the job market and stay competitive generally. I figured out within five or six years what I wanted to do, but STILL haven’t figured out how to afford it — I need financial aid — and also, there are other factors:
    a) I do like my field, and am aware that if I could practice it at a higher level / in a different situation, I would be happy;
    b) I feel guilty about not being able to do well in field without a better situation — I feel one should be able to be mega enthusiastic and engaged no matter what;
    c) colleagues, friends, and parents all very horrified that I would consider not continuing to “use my PhD” … this added to my guilt for a long time.

    Plans: I’m working on it. I know what I want but it requires cash. It may not be possible. I’ve been daunted so far in my calculations. If it isn’t possible, I am not sure what I’d like.

  11. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    We both are also living in rural, regional, monochromatic Christian areas… not even suburbs or really even exurbs. We’re willing to live in BFE for our jobs but definitely dreaming of one day returning to the bay area where many of our pre-graduate school friends now live.

    Personally I’m saving up just in case the opportunity arises… though my mental math tells me I’d need a cool 10 million to be completely financially independent in the bay area. (Only need a million or two out where I’m living now, assuming some access to health insurance, but it would be difficult to not work out here.) That’s gonna take a while. But it does keep me from feeling completely trapped. And there’s always unpaid sabbaticals…visiting professorships…conferences… summers… All things worth saving for, seeking out, extending, getting a change of scenery.

    Man, I miss Trader Joe’s.

    Z– If you’re not up on personal finance stuff, I really strongly recommend Get Rich Slowly (see blogroll at right). The book, Your Money or Your Life (the pf one, not the healthcare one) is a life changing reading. Depending on your personality, there are a lot of other ways to get where you want to go in terms of savings and freedom. I think the personal finance blogging community is wonderfully supportive and full of amazing ideas and helpful tips. It really seems like many things are possible that I didn’t know about before. There’s even this group called the Yakezie Challenge that’s full of these wonderful people and wonderful blogs– you might be able to join them if you really want help moving forward. There’s a lot of hope and optimism outside of academic blogs. :)

  12. rustbeltreboot Says:

    I’m going so I can be a counselor. I’ve wanted my MSW forever.


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