Why grad school failed me

Why grad school failed me
Image: AP Photo / Mary Altaffer
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Every autumn, right around now, my inbox starts to fill up with a particular type of e-mail from my friends: requests to edit graduate school essays.

The process is strangely enjoyable. My friends are a brilliant group, and their personal statements give me insight into what experiences have moved them, at least the ones appropriate for the Ivy Leagues.

But I also recognize the dissonance I feel when I think about graduate school—a dissonance I chose, cowardly, to ignore two years ago when I enrolled at Columbia University.

From the looks of recent enrollment numbers at graduate institutions, I’m not alone.

Last week, the Council of Graduate Schools reported that new student enrollment in graduate programs fell for the second year in a row, this time by 1.7%. Despite an increase in applicants, and overall students attending graduate schools, Moody’s Investor Services has already predicted the numbers could hurt college credit ratings and dampen the growth of tuition.

In the face of a weak economy and dismal job prospects, the idea of taking out loans up to $50,000 when post-grad jobs might not even pay up, is, expectedly, laughable. But in a world of online information and Kickstarter fundraising, there could be more at play when students choose how to be educated.

My own hesitance with higher education stemmed from a slew of conflicting elements. Fear, for one: I was scared that not having the prestigious diploma, despite the crumbling of publishing houses and general pessimism of the journalism field, would be the reason I wouldn’t make it as a writer. I remember dashing off essays at a coffee shop so quickly that somebody would think I didn’t even want to get into the school. I’m not sure I did.

The other reason was external pressure. So many of the writers I admired had their master’s in fine arts or advanced degrees (and when you’re applying to school you forget that just as many don’t), and my friends and family continuously asked me about applying. It seemed to have become a requisite in the system, rather than just a bonus or another door into the field. Moreover, some women in my family sacrificed their shot at a master’s degree or PhD to raise their families, and my own academic standing was an opportunity dealt out at a time in my life when I had very little responsibility to anyone.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t want to go. I distinctly remember looking at the words on my acceptance letter while in India, with my sister on the phone, wondering if I could pretend them away.

When I think about the most powerful moments of learning in my life, they have never, once, been attached to a classroom. I had some incredible professors, discussions and editors at school (mostly at University of Florida on full scholarship), but they couldn’t make up for the real life learning during a development fellowship in India, or interviewing a Wiccan priestess in small-town Florida as a rookie reporter.

Columbia, though flawed, wasn’t to blame. It delivered most of what was advertised—prestigious faculty, networking events, hands-on learning, and access to New York City. It was an ideal place for students who had never experimented with their local newspapers. But for students like me, it only delayed the inevitable. And at the end of the year, as I watched my friends struggle just to land poorly paid internships as we had after undergrad, I couldn’t help but feel a little bitter.

Every election season, candidates talk about access to education, and how every student should have the choice to get an advanced degree. But the idea of choice has been clouded by ambition and uncertainty.

Grad school is necessary for fields like medicine, pharmacy and law, and monopolizes most opportunities to conduct research. For foreign students, it’s often a gateway to a level of creative education they might not have find otherwise. On a social level, schools are a safe haven for students who haven’t experienced institutional education. Everyone should know, at least once, the camaraderie and structure of college, and for some that only happens after a first career and establishing a family.

But I strongly believe that for subjects like journalism, business, politics and religion, there are many innovative paths you can take for thorough education that don’t end in debt. It would require a healthy dose of library time, a group of people that will analyze and critique your ideas, and an apprenticeship. You may need an irreverent, relentless mentor for guidance, or to put your dreams into perspective. But the self-study and flexibility could take you a great deal further without loans clutching your future in their reigns.

In retrospect I could have listened to my intuition and, Anderson-Cooper-style, taken the Columbia money and spent more time in transit, pushing my boundaries in a way that didn’t involve simulated exercises and stories that were never published. But I didn’t. Instead I wore the pale blue cap and gown at the end of the year, knowing that only thing that made me feel at peace was my parents’ support and pride. My degree was a gift I gave them, and I’m not ashamed that I overrode my personal choice for family, even if they will dispute this for as long as I remain employed.

Now, I am one of the lucky people from my program with a full-time, interesting job with benefits—and with ample room for growth. I live comfortably in a city that I adore, one that serves as a microcosm for so many different societal and political forces. I visit the library, take music classes and work on personal projects.  And without the structure of school, my curiosity, temporarily dulled under classroom lights, has returned full force, manifesting in scribbled words and weekend trips.

But I can’t bring myself to credit graduate school for any small success I have now, or may have in the future. Maybe that will change.