Here are three truths:
One, it’s still a miserable economy, and the competition for sought-after jobs has risen to bloodsport levels of cruelty.
Two, when we’re 18, most of us have a pretty lousy sense of self-knowledge and limited wisdom about what careers actually entail and how to build one.
Three, grad school is expensive. Even if you’re fully funded, you’ll need to bust your butt to cover living expenses because you’ll be giving up whatever salary you could be racking up if you weren’t studying.
Put these together, and you begin to see the faint outlines of a common conundrum. Many young people flail in their early careers or are shocked by the realities they face—and by their own lack of preparation. Going back to school once you have some idea of what you’re facing (and who you are) can be tempting, but it’s a big step.
If you’re thinking of rebooting your struggling career with a trip back to get another degree, consider these questions first:
1. Am I hiding?
Brazen co-founder Penelope Trunk is one of the most eloquent (and outspoken) voices calling out many trips to grad school for what they are—a way to avoid the uncertainty and unpleasantness of an early career. But grad school won’t help you discover what you want to do, and, unless it’s something very specific like medicine or engineering, it probably won’t help you get there. Here’s a typically forthright passage from Penelope:
“If you don’t know what to do, and you go to grad school to buy time, and then you figure out what you want to do, you will always have to answer the question, why grad school? It will be hard to come up with an answer that doesn’t reveal that you went back to school so you didn’t have to deal with adult problems. Better to flail in the work world and learn what you like than put it off.”
Take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you really just don’t want to send one more resume out into the unresponsive void or take one more unpaid internship. If you’re looking to hide out, reconsider sending off those applications and look for other alternatives.
2. Am I wearing rose-colored glasses?
And if you’re the dreamer type who’s driven by a passion for a subject that overrides more “sensible” career considerations? “If worse comes to worst, I’ll teach!” you tell yourself. Just know that only one in four grad students end up with a tenure track job, and 54 percent report feeling so depressed they have a hard time functioning. Be sure you’re as passionate as you think you are.
“Test your interest first,” suggests grad school returnee Andrew Price on GOOD recently. How? “If you’re considering culinary school, for example, maybe volunteer in a restaurant or bakery or construct some sort of cooking curriculum for yourself first. In other words, find a low-commitment version of the thing you may want to do and do that first.”
3. Am I prepared for the lifestyle change?
Will it bother you if your friends outside of academia rack up all the trappings of success while you argue with your roommates about who ate the last pack of Ramen? Because grad school will set you back financially.
“Going back to graduate school, especially after you’ve been in the workforce for a while, will put you behind your peers. For a while, you won’t be able to afford the same things your friends can, and you’ll be stuck in the library on the weekends, especially if you need to hold a full-time job at the same time. This can be jarring if you’ve been used to corporate life, and it’s something you should consider,” a recent post by The Pyramid Consulting Group warns.
If you’re expecting to keep up with your usual routine of dining out or weekly pedicures while you’re in grad school, you’re going to get yourself into the unenviable position of carrying a humongous debt burden (unless you have very generous support from somewhere).
Get real about what your life will be like or risk saddling yourself with the kind of financial liabilities that will seriously limit your choices after you graduate (forget that stint as a low-paid anything).
4. Which of my existing skills can I leverage?
Okay, so you’ve got your financial ducks in a row and you’re sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. You have a concrete sense of where you want to go and a solid idea of how another stint in school can get you there. How do you succeed? A little reflection can reveal ways your seemingly unrelated experience can benefit you.
GOOD’s Price explains, “I studied philosophy in college; now I’m doing computer science. What could be more different, right? One’s all about logical reasoning and working with abstractions and uncovering inconsistencies and the other…. Well, the other is fundamentally also about those things. Actually, the differences are sort of superficial… Even if you’re going from medieval history to astrophysics, there will be skills that transfer. At the end of the day, there are a few really important general cognitive tools—conceptual analysis, facility with language, mathematical reasoning, creative thinking—and most of them are useful in most contexts.”
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, writes for Women 2.0 and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.