Is Grad School Worth It?

Right after I turned 18, I wrote down my life plan while snacking on some cheese on a July afternoon.  Some gems from that document include that I would get married at 23 (I’ll only be six years late to that party), have a nice three story house with “plenty of room” and publish a book at 24.  Let’s not forget that I’m supposed to have a 5 year-old, 3 year-old, 1 year-old and be pregnant with my last child (finally!  A girl!) at this very moment.  Instead, I have an 8 year-old cat and 5 year-old dog and rent due on the first.

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Of course, that was not exactly what would happen.  This was more or less my ideal future, as imagined by a very naïve but hopeful girl during the summer before she went off to college.  I always have a future-self floating around in my mind.  She is about 30 lbs. thinner and way smarter and has boatloads of cash and is super organized.  She would never spend an entire day on the couch watching Season 2 of American Horror Story with her fiancé, as my present self just did.

The glaring omission that I made in my life plan was in the education realm.  I assumed a four-year degree would get me where I wanted to go, but where was that, exactly?  When I was a college sophomore, I heard about the paralegal* field and was mildly interested.  What was a paralegal?  The job description matched up with a lot of what interested me.  As support staff to attorneys, I could write and research and interact with clients.  It was a fairly flexible job with relatively good pay.  Best of all, I could work my 9 to 5 and pack it up at the end of the day and slog away at my writing.  It seemed like a good fit.  However, my college didn’t offer any paralegal specific courses.  I found a one-year certificate program through the state tech schools and once I wrapped up my undergrad, I did the program in Green Bay.  But I still wanted to pursue writing.  I got into grad school for creative writing and moved to Minnesota for the next three years to study writing.

The Pros of Grad School

Real World Avoidance  For me, one of the pros was delaying the real world.  I wasn’t confident or mature enough to really establish myself career-wise.  I wasn’t all that passionate about being a paralegal, so grad school gave me some extra time to sort that out and make peace with it.

Some Free Time!    I had classes to attend and homework, but I had a lot of free time, especially at the start of my grad school experience.  One would assume I was reading and writing with that time, but Rock of Love was also on during those years.

Experiences  I made new friends.  I broke out of my comfort zone and did a crazy amount of presentations and demonstrations and readings.  I taught English 101 and also Creative Writing.  I moved further away from my friends and family and created a little life all by myself.  I also started working at a law firm and got my feet wet in the legal field.

The Cons of Grad School

Monies  Even with a pretty sweet scholarship deal, I effectively tripled the debt I had in student loans from undergrad.  What would have taken me three years to pay off had now blossomed into ten years.  Avoiding the real world did me no favors here.  If you can work full-time, get scholarships, or cash flow grad school, I applaud you.

Real Life Passing You By  While I was delaying the real world, my friends were getting married and starting careers and having kids.  It became harder to relate to them.  On an emotional level, it was hard to see people moving on to the next steps in life while I was “still in school.”  This may or may not have caused me to indulge in a public crying episode on a bus from Milwaukee to St. Paul.  I wasn’t eligible for a 401k until I was 26 because of my delayed entry into the workforce.  I still feel three to four years behind in almost every area of my life—buying a house, marriage, work.

Burnout  Toward the last year of my program, I was working 20-25 hours a week at the law firm, teaching a section of English 101, helping teach a creative writing class, and taking my own classes.  It was pretty stressful.  Because there were so many things I wanted to do and experience, it was hard to say no knowing the opportunity might not come again.

I’m now 3.5 years post grad school and have had enough time to decompress the experience.   Sometimes it’s hard to justify the fact that I went to grad school for creative writing and I now work as a legal assistant.  The money I spent was and is a lot.  It took three years of my life.  I am not employed as a “creative writer.”  However, that’s not to say my degree isn’t useful.  In all of my post grad school job interviews, it has come up and is a definite positive.  My salary is bigger because I completed grad school.  The attorneys I work for like the fact that I can write and will take a stab at drafting documents.  It has come in handy in my field, even though there isn’t an obvious link between creative writing and being a paralegal.

My fiance, Kris, had a different grad school experience.  He went on to get his masters in Library Science or, as it is otherwise known, “library school.”  Or, as I still prefer, “liberry school.”  His take on grad school:

For my two cents, I would say that I wouldn’t be in a job that I am enjoying without grad school.  I was able to challenge myself by taking more technology-oriented classes (coding, quantifying data, creating SQL queries) that have paid off endlessly.  For me, grad school was the next logical step for my career.  I had worked in a library for about three years, and knew that is what I wanted to do.   
 
I think that Library School is a little different than traditional grad school in that you are going to these classes knowing what kind of career you will be getting with them.  While the library degree can get you jobs outside of librarianship, the library program is still sort of seen as straddling the line between ‘grad school’ and ‘professional school’.   I agree that grad school was worth it, at least for me. The reason it was worthwhile was that I knew what I wanted out of the experience and tried much harder than I did in undergrad. 
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Is it worth it?  For me, yeah, it was.  That was three years of experiences and people that I otherwise never would have had in my life.  I got some solid legal field experience that would help me with my post-graduate career.  I sang karaoke.  I saw the Jolly Green Giant on  Highway 169.  I made some lifelong friends and braved Minnesotan winters.  I overcame my fear of public speaking (at least, as much of that as can be overcome).  I taught.  I was taught.  I got to spend some time growing up and pulling myself together so that when I finally entered the “real” world at 25, I was sort of, kind of, maybe, a little more ready.

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*I use paralegal and legal assistant interchangeably.  In my experience, the terms are interchangeable.  Paralegal sounds fancier, though.

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