Revisiting the Millennial worries I had before I did my MA in a degree that might not lead directly into a profession.
When I was getting ready to apply for an MA Creative Writing program, one of my professors asked me:
“…why are you going right into a graduate program? My advice is to live a little. Enjoy your early 20s. Get to know yourself a little better before signing back up for the academy. I believe most students entering MA programs are in their mid 20s — I could be wrong. You have time.”
I was just about to finish undergrad, and I had a lot of very good reasons to want to do a creative writing program: I’ve always been a writer, and the opportunity to devote a year to developing my craft was a dream that suddenly seemed possible. Since I’d decided to go to the UK for my master’s, it was much more affordable than I’d thought it would be.
But still her question struck me, even then: Why now?
It jarred against another question that was already plaguing my Millennial mind: Is it worth it?
Thinking back on that time, I know part of it was fear:
- I was afraid of what would come next.
- I was afraid if I didn’t do it then, I never would.
- I was afraid of making a mistake in planning my future.
There were so many things I didn’t understand as a soon-to-graduate, 22-year-old. Even looking back now, seven years later, the dialogue between my past and present selves can make quite a racket.
I was afraid of what would come next.
Until then, everything had been laid out for me. Throughout high school and college, the next step was something easily planned for, a progression from one level to the next. As an undergrad student I had indulged my deepest Hermione-esque desires, poring over class descriptions and getting excited about the fact that I could add an anthropology minor.
Was I stalling? Was I putting off the inevitable?
Adulthood seemed more arbitrary. I was prosaic in my comparisons of young adulthood to my preteen years, feeling the same sense of uncertainty, of being on the cusp of something. All the while adulthood loomed bigger and bigger, becoming ever more inevitable, and yet I never felt I could pinpoint its beginning.
It was equally exciting and terrifying.
I’ve felt I existed in various other transitional states since then, constantly temporary in where I was — whether waiting for a visa or looking ahead to an impending move (I moved eight times in 10 years, four of which were international).
While this not-quite-transitory existence was difficult at times, I know it’s made me who I am today, and helped me discover who I strive to be. All those uncertain times made me more resilient as a person. I realized I had to accept this fluidity — to embrace it — and once I did, I found what I could learn from it. After all my address changes, I know the value of a friend who sticks around. I can read an immigration document and (mostly) understand it. I’ve ended and started again more times than I’d like to think about, but I know I can do it.
There’s possibility in the uncertainty. It’s okay to not know exactly where you’re going. If you love something, find a way to pursue it.
I was afraid if I didn’t do it then, I never would.
I wondered if I would be able to dive back into academia after a hiatus. What if I lost my focus? What if other commitments, like a family, prevented me from returning? What if I wanted to go back and just couldn’t crack it? What if I did go back, and found I’d somehow lost my love for this passion, and it’d suddenly become an unbearable chore? What if I got to a ripe old age, ever regretting this missed opportunity?
I looked into an uncertain future, worried this would be my only chance — the only time the stars of affordability and time commitments would align, a transitional year to devote myself to something that had always been important, no matter its marketability.
After my MA, I wanted to do a PhD. I was considering teaching at the university level, and a PhD was the way to do that. I wanted to devote even more time to my craft, to further develop my writing as well as my understanding of theory, to do what my many writing teachers had done for me, and to emerge as a fully-fledged professor.
I chose a focus, put together a plan for a creative work and multi-disciplined academic study, and asked students in the program for advice and one of my MA professors for feedback. I honed my proposal, working on it for weeks. When I was invited for an interview, I read through my notes, asked for more advice, and generally worked myself into an extremely heightened state of anxiety as I prepared. A few minutes into the interview, I could tell the head of the program wasn’t interested.
It was a crushing rejection when I finally got the email confirming it.
I still would like to do a PhD, but as I juggle work, a small business, and home life, I wonder if I’d be able to manage it. I’m wondering the same thing I was worrying about seven years ago.
I know I wouldn’t be able to put other things on hold like I did then, and that my studies would not be my only focus. But I also know that it can be done — the juggling, that is. A lot of people do it. My own sister, she of the mighty science mind in our family, has gone back to school to become an IBCLC-certified lactation consultant, and she has three small children to contend with. I am incredibly proud of her, and as I’m pondering this question of mine, I look to her as an example and inspiration.
It can be done. But could I do it?
I guess if I ever do a PhD, I’ll have to let you know.
I was afraid of making a mistake in planning my future.
Since I had graduated from high school in 2008, pursuing a degree that might not lead directly into a profession felt foolish and wasteful.
My dad lost his job soon after the economy took a downturn, just as I was about to choose a college. It affected the one I chose. Like most Millennials, I embarked on my undergrad years with an acute awareness of how uncertain job stability can be. When Gen X had the rug pulled out from under them — of job stability and the heft of a college degree — we watched them fall, and some of us still followed the old path anyway.
My undergrad degree was in English, something I was constantly assured by websites and guidance counselors would be applicable to almost any position I wanted to pursue. It was a foundation to build on with work experience and/or graduate degrees.
So why I would I so greatly narrow my focus in postgrad? Did I really want to limit myself?
I won’t lie to you: getting an MA in creative writing did not lead me on a direct career path. For all the resilience I say I have developed, and the inherent possibility held by uncertainty, in times when I was unemployed it felt more like being stuck. During those periods I would often wonder, was it worth it? Should I have made a more practical decision in choosing a postgrad degree?
It’s a question everyone will have a slightly different answer to. Since my degree I’ve been a volunteer at a charity shop, a not-so-successful freelancer, a sales assistant at a glittery cosmetics retailer, and a barista/waitress at a local café. The real shift came when, while at the latter of these places, I started volunteering at my dream workplace: a writing magazine.
I’d first learned about the magazine during my undergrad degree from a professor who did some work for them, and I’d had the occasional subscription since. One of my fellow students on the MA degree had ended up getting a job there after graduation. While I’d like to think I got this volunteer position based solely on my talents and enthusiasm, I know she probably also put in a good word for me.
As a volunteer, I already felt incredibly lucky. It was exactly where I wanted to be. So I took a leap of faith — I left my job at the café and signed up with a temp agency, with the hope that my more recent experience in admin would help me get a new job. Before the agency could find me anything, the magazine hired me. I can’t tell you how wonderful those two years were.
But then my husband and I moved, and I was back at square one.
After five months of unemployment, I got where I am today — at a company in a sector I’d never even considered, helping put together operations manuals and emergency response guides for small businesses, franchises, and big corporations. And you know what? I love it.
I’m using all the skills I’ve built up through my degrees, various jobs, and volunteer work: editing, writing, and production. I even (occasionally) make coffee, but it’s from a filter coffee machine, and I don’t have to froth milk for anyone. A few months ago I was brought on to the book publishing arm of the company, and you can imagine how ecstatic I am about that.
This is all to say that you don’t know where you’re going. You can plan all you want, but you know what they say: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley.”
What matters is what you do when those plans go awry. Life is not an industrialized assembly line like school is, moving from one station to the next. The conveyor belt eventually ends. So what are you going to do next?
Was it worth it?
I’m glad I did my MA when I did, and I know I was lucky to be able to. I felt I worked much more closely with the students and professors in the program than I had with those of my undergrad years, and they had a definite, identifiable impact on the path I took after graduation.
It wasn’t always easy, and I have had many moments where I wished I’d chosen something that led me straight to an employer’s door, application and degree in hand, ready to conquer my chosen profession. But even that is not a given now, and seven years later, I think I’m realizing I wouldn’t want something that direct.
I want the unexpected workplace, where your coworkers are bursting at the seams with creativity and new ideas, where you enjoy tackling a problem with Google and ingenuity. None of my coworkers have arrived at our company by walking the same road, and it’s fantastic. We’re a collective of once-construction business owners and government workers; freelancers, artists, and aerialists; and in our own time we bake macarons, start indie presses, and stage live music and art performances.
If your stars have aligned, if you have the means and the ability to juggle, why not do that degree? Life is all about nuance. Shouldn’t your career path be too?