How to Make Plan A Work (for those going to graduate school)

This post is specifically about graduate school. I’m not referring to artists, because my experience is that, when people want to be artists, they know exactly what they want to do. Moreover, I have no experience with trying to be an artist or advising people planning on the artist life. I do have plenty of experience with graduate school.

After the discussion of the necessity of Plan B, I thought it might be useful to talk about how graduate school should fit into a Plan A.  My day job, teaching test prep, is all about helping people reach Plan A. In doing so, I’ve learned quite a bit about how people think through graduate school and thus their Plan A’s.

I’ve learned that most people don’t.  They instead just go to what feels like next.  Others have a generic idea that it will make them more prosperous, without considering the costs, both in terms of tuition and “opportunity costs”. Yet others think that going back to school will take away the difficulties of a bad economy or job. Most of the time, graduate school is in and of itself Plan A, without any thought to what comes after.

As in the last post, this is also personal experience.  I went to grad school (the first time) with a vague idea that I wanted to work “in politics”.  I was sick of being a bank teller, and knew I wanted “something better”.  I applied to a local Political Science Master’s program, was accepted, and graduated on the Dean’s List. I then found myself no more employable than I’d been with my Bachelor’s.

The problem was that I hadn’t made a plan past “get a Master’s.”  When I was nearly done, I made a plan to get a PhD.  Why? Because it seemed like the next thing.  I wasn’t too far off from this kid:

Once I was rejected (because I didn’t think through my applications or engage in any networking), I moved on to applying for jobs. However, I hadn’t spent my time in graduate school working on the skills I’d need.  I hadn’t considered what kind of jobs I’d want, or what I was qualified for. I hadn’t prepared in any way for the time after.

This is not to say that everybody, everywhere must have a detailed Plan A. In some ways, the many different jobs I’ve held as Plan Now have been helpful and have made Plan A more likely.  However, the first time I went to graduate school cost me 2 years and $50,000 that did little for me, because I didn’t have a plan. It took another graduate program (with more focus and planning) for Plan A to become at all likely.

Graduate school is a terribly expensive investment in both time and money.  I want to sit down and talk with every single one of my students and make sure that student has a plan. For those that don’t, I want to talk them out of it.  (This is doubly true of those who pursue a business degree.)

The “tl;dr” version is simple: Graduate school should never be an end in itself, and it is not an automatic pass to anything else.  Make sure you’ve planned out exactly what you want to do before going.

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3 responses to “How to Make Plan A Work (for those going to graduate school)

  1. DolphinedSea

    As an artist, it’s been interesting to find many people asking where I plan to do my MFA, even when they’ve not seen my work. I had the opportunity to do it straight out of my bachelors, but I decided to hold off until I required it to advance my practice. I wanted to see how I operated outside academia with an art practice, rather than going from one structured course to another. It’s strange that many people expect artists to get an MFA, when in itself, it adds no more legitimacy to one’s work. I have an institute picked out, but I don’t feel I’ve reached a plateau in my work that would require the resources of a new course. As well, being in fine art, the MFA is still widely regarded as a terminal degree, though PhD’s do exist. Once I get to a point where my practice is successful and feel that I’ve learned enough to give back, my MFA will at least afford me the paper qualification for a lecturing or professorship role, though not necessarily in the US.

    I’ve seen many of my friends go deep into debt to get their masters in more fields than just the creative sector, only to be in the same jobless, low-paying, and/or underemployed positions I’ve found myself in over the past three years, with a lack of resources available, invariably going to the aforementioned Plan B that they could have taken on with their bachelors with a lot less debt at the end of it. I think there still persists the mentality that you go to college, get your degree, and get the job for which you become qualified, via your line of study. Unfortunately in this economy, it’s simply an exclusive factor for employment in not having a bachelor’s or in some rare cases a masters, rather than the degrees themselves being the ticket to success or gainful employment. I made more money in high school than I have in any position since my bachelors. From what I have observed, nothing often falls into your lap at the end of any degree without much prior planning, and as you said, a clear objective beyond graduation.

    One last note in regards to your comment on the business degree: as a former sales/marketing recruiter, MBA’s had no bearing whatsoever on the hiring process. We didn’t bother to log the degrees into our systems in most cases, because, frankly our clients didn’t care. They were actually more interested in the graduation date of the candidate’s BA, so they could approximate their age. I’m not making this up, and this was dealing with multi-billion dollar industry giants as well. It’s a sad fact of the hiring processes in sales especially.

    • Yeah, the MFA and MBA both strike me as really strange degrees. I have yet to hear someone tell me that either one gave them the skills or knowledge they needed to get their dream job. The sad thing is I deal with many students who get an MBA because they want to make money, without realizing how little the MBA does. (There are exceptions, and there are particular career routes where an MBA is useful, but those are just that: exceptions.)

      • DolphinedSea

        I’ve seen people get a lot out of MFA’s, but they’re generally the people who have very carefully chosen highly regarded institutions, like the Royal College of Art, in more practical art centers, like London. I think the best thing they gain is through the networking with both peers and professors, and the doors that open up that way. Other friends who weren’t quite as selective about where they got their MFA’s didn’t often benefit in the same way. As well, I’ve been looking at Burren College of Art through the university in Galway, Ireland, which has strong ties with the Royal College of Art, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and various galleries in Dublin, even though it’s in a very (very) rural area. Still access to Dublin is easy, and you can utilize cheap flights to Europe from there. They currently have about fifteen people in postgraduate study, from residency and certificate level up to PhD, so it’s highly selective and the student to tutor ratio is favorable, with exchange programs in London and Chicago. Still I’m waiting on that investment until I can definitively determine it’s something I require.