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.