Things to Think About Before Pursuing Grad School

This summer, I lived with a revolving cast of roommates, one of whom was going to go to law school in September. One night, my roommate mentioned that he was going to go through law school so he could “meet the right people,” and then he said he’d apply to med school because that was his real passion. I may have choked a bit when he said that. I was in college for seven years because I did a master’s program in English literature, followed by a Master of Library and Information Studies.

I’m not going to say that I’ve made better choices about grad school than he has (because he’s probably going to be a millionaire lawyer/doctor, and I may have to fight for funding forever), but I definitely worry about his reasoning and wished I had brought it up with him in the moment. A lot of people have talked to me while they’re applying for grad school, or when they’re considering dropping out. Here are my suggestions for people thinking about going back to school:

Have a goal before you consider more education.
It can be vague (“figure out what I want to do with my life”), or it can be specific (“get the required skills and degree to work as a lawyer”), but it has to exist. It may change with time, but you need to have a yardstick to compare reality with, and a carrot-and-stick to encourage you when you’re in school—especially when it gets overwhelming (it will get overwhelming).

When I applied for my master’s program in English lit, I was fairly sure I wanted to teach high school English and math, but I was also encouraged by a lot of people, including professors, to consider teaching in higher education. So I applied to both teachers college and a master’s of English imagining that I wouldn’t get into my master’s program (and not be able go on to get a Ph.D)—thereby shutting down the dream of teaching in a university. I ended up being accepted into both programs, which made me recognize that I still was dreaming about being a professor, and that an M.A. would help me if I decided that I’d rather teach at the high school level. Pursuing a master’s degree would allow me to keep my options open—especially since it was going to be completely free, which leads to the second point.

 

Decide what route will best help you with that goal.
Grad school is not always the answer. Sometimes, what you should do is get more experience (in life or work), or get a certificate that allows you to specialize in something. Do your research, and if you have a specific career goal in mind, talk to people who have the job that interests you and find out how they got there. Ask about their day-to-day, their least and most favorite parts of their jobs, and what they would recommend to people who are considering their career. They might suggest a completely different experience/education route than what you were imagining, or you might discover that you’re not cut out for the job.

At least 15 people dropped out of the library program in the first month, and although some people probably left because of personal circumstances, others left when they discovered that being a librarian wasn’t what they thought it would be. If they had done their research, they could have discovered all of this before and saved themselves a ton of time and money.

If you do decide you are going to go back to school, here are some things to think about:

 

Find a program that will work for you and your goals.
Try to contact students in the program (there is usually an official student contact, but I went with a friend of a friend) and become familiar with the program’s expectations and culture. Being privy to the idea that a lot of assignments were done in groups, and that most people are on the executive of a student committee prepared me for the culture shock of going from a mostly solitary English program to Library Land where everyone has to talk about everything at least 20 times to get things done.

 

Be prepared for disappointments.
On my first day of my English program, I was informed (along with everyone else in the Welcome meeting) that I was on “a sinking ship.” Three weeks later, we were told that “academia is a life of monastic devotion.” Honestly, within two days of starting my program, I realized that I was never going to be a professor, and that I really didn’t want to be one. I didn’t have the right mind frame to be one, and I never would. It was troubling to have that bubble burst, and have a career possibility taken away from me, but it was also freeing.

 

Be open to possibilities (and maybe new goals).
The summer before my English M.A. program, I met a librarian who worked at the hospital in my home town who was really open to talking to me. After that meeting, I kept running into librarians all over the place, and since I now knew I was never going to be a professor, I was open to considering how being a librarian would fit with within my goals. Librarians teach people (how to use technology, how to do research), help people, and encourage learning, which really matched what appealed to me about teaching. Ultimately, I decided I would be a better librarian than teacher.

 

Remember your goals (even if they change along the way).
Grad school eats up your free time, and it can be very stressful. I have met a few people who didn’t have a real reason to be in various post-grad programs, and whose goals did not fit with where they were. I definitely encouraged those people to consider leaving programs that weren’t the right fit for them. Your time should be spent in ways that make you better, and it shouldn’t be wasted just because you feel that you need to finish everything you start. Assess where you are and where you want to be. If there is a real disconnect then leave the program, try to figure out what will work for you and then make your next move.

 

And always remember: Experience is the most important thing you can get.
If your goal is to figure out what you should be doing with your life, chase down every chance available to you. Volunteer, get on committees, do internships or practicums, organize events, and look for opportunities to work. At the very least, experience lets you know where you don’t want to be. Sometimes it even helps you figure out where you belong, and it helps you make the connections you need for the future.

Even if you are overwhelmed by academic life, try to do one non-school related thing. If nothing else, it will make you keep to a schedule, which will help in the non-academic world. I also met a lot of amazing people through my experiences which included a practicum, being the treasurer and external liaison for a student committee, a part-time job and a lot of volunteering. These experiences were a big factor in why I was considered for the position I currently have. One of my best decisions was to try to get a part-time job as a library assistant. Since I was able to keep the job after I graduated, I was then able to cover my living expenses for the four months it took to get a librarian position.

I don’t regret the route I took at all, but I also understood and was prepared for the education commitment and career expectations. My M.A. will definitely help me if I decide to go into academic librarianship, and my MLIS is required for most positions I am interested in. I feel like I made the right choice, and I hope that other people feel the same way about their post-undergraduate choices, because they can be really costly in terms of time and money.

 

Ciara O’Shea lives in a big Canadian city but works in small towns.

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54 Comments / Post A Comment

cmcm (#267)

I agree with most of this, except that “figure out what to do with my life” doesn’t, to me, sound like a very good reason for going to grad school. I think it’s a really, really bad idea to spend (waste) money on if it’s just because you don’t know what else to do. You’re better off traveling, volunteering, working a series of shitty jobs and not running into debt.

Unless your programme is free, of course, in which case lucky you and I hate (read: am jealous of) you. x

EM (#1,012)

@cmcm Yeah I was coming down here to comment on that too. A lot of people I know are electing to go to grad school because they don’t know what to do with their lives; grad school, which is very self-directed and requires a lot more focus than undergrad, is not the environment for milling around pondering your future.

bgprincipessa (#699)

Fellow MLIS degree! I am in my program now. I wish I could spend more time working in the field (as you did), but unfortunately it’s not an option for me at the moment. I enjoyed this though and it is always refreshing to hear positive things about the field instead of the typical “Why do you need a Masters to shelve books” SIGH.

How was your English masters free/Is this just a Canadian thing? I was under the impression they generally weren’t funded in the states. But I also haven’t looked into it so could be way off.

Since this is a grad school post, has anyone out there in Billfold world pursued an MPH? Thoughts/advice/good/bad?

Congrats on figuring out what you want to do :) Librarians are the bomb.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@apples and oranges First, thank you for saying librarians are the bomb (even though I am not the author it is still appreciated). Second, I have never worked on an MPH but had a few roommates who did and work in a school of PH. I can’t say I have any advice for you, but I think it is a great field with a lot of potential and definitely an area where you can do a lot of good in the world. What focus would you have?

anecdata (#2,683)

@apples and oranges Yep! I got my MPH in epidemiology in 2009, worked for a couple of years, and am now back in school to get a PhD. Ask away, I’d love to help :)

RocketSurgeon (#747)

@apples and oranges I got my MPH (in statistics and epidemiology) in 2005 and really enjoyed it. Public health is a great field full of interesting people, and you can work in many different places. The Epi/data heavy side of things can mean a lot of time in front of a computer, so fair warning.

I was accepted to a couple great schools here in the States, but ultimately went to London for the degree because the program was shorter, and because I’d always wanted to live there. I’m not sure if it was cheaper, with the exchange rate being particularly brutal at the time, but it was worth it. I haven’t moved to do a PhD yet, but have considered it.

anorktopus (#2,498)

@RocketSurgeon Oh! I am also currently applying to grad schools (a motley crew of IR, development, and public health programs) and am considering one in London and one in Brighton. Because I would just love to live there. Did you move back to work in the States after, and if so did you find that employers took the degree seriously? The schools I’m applying to are extremely academically respected, but I’m afraid their one-year programs won’t help me as much in the job market. I’d go for development studies, not public health, so it may not be comparable, but I’m curious about your experience!

@apples and oranges In Canada as Masters is a requirement for most (maybe even all) PhD programs, unlike in the US. I think that figures into the funding. Most people I did my MA with had either a federal or provincial scholarship, and that left the university able to use their own scholarship to fund the other students like me. My scholarship covered my tuition plus 100 dollars each semester for textbooks. I also was guaranteed a TA position that paid my rent and phone bill.

amardine (#2,951)

@anecdata I’m about to apply to an MPH in epidemiology program but I feel so! overwhelmed! because I know what I want to do but am struggling to figure out how to get there. So basically, did you find there was a lot of flexibility in careers? Specifically, in more social research?

anecdata (#2,683)

@apples and oranges I think it’s very geography-dependent. I work in Boston, and here (I guess because it’s such a research hub and there are so very, very many people with advanced degrees), an MPH in epi/biostats pretty much qualifies you to work as a data analyst or research coordinator.

I decided to go on to get the PhD because I really wanted to do original research, not just analyze other scientists’ data. But it took me a couple of years working as a data analyst to figure that out, and I’m really happy that I did the MPH and then worked, rather than jumping straight into a PhD program.

As far as social research goes, I know lots of people (including me) working with MPH degrees in psychology and psychiatry.

My experience (and that of friends in similar tracks) is that it’s having statistical and programming skills/knowledge that will get you hired into a research job.

punzy (#160)

@apples and oranges The eternal answer: it depends! I got an MPH in environmental and occupational health, then worked for two years, and am now getting my PhD in epidemiology (hopefully this semester). The great thing about an MPH is how flexible it is. There are a lot of jobs that an MPH skill-set will apply to. But it depends on what you are interested in doing, and what schools you are looking to go to as they all have different strengths. Also, if you are in the US do not expect to get funding, aside form loans, for a master’s program.

EM (#1,012)

@apples and oranges I have an MPH! I am not an epidemiologist– I do prevention and health promotion research, which is much more social sciencey, although I had to do the whole biostats and epi training also. I came into it with an anthropology background, but a lot of experience working in sexual health and awareness/education. It was definitely a good experience for me and opened up a lot of careers that fit with my interests but weren’t very accessible with just a social science BA.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

@anorktopus I’ve never had anyone question the quality of my degree. I’ve had two jobs since grad school and interviewed for several others at big international organizations, so I think you’ll be fine with a UK degree. It could be more problematic to study at a lesser known, non-English speaking school. They do have degree verification services should your employer really be concerned about equivalency.

Mimi (#2,955)

@Michelle You’re me! Or, more like, possible future me! I have an undergrad anthro. degree, have done sexual health stuff over the years & am doing a public health americorps year right now. I’m trying to figure out where to go next… would you be willing to share more about your path with me either here or via email? No pressure, of course, we are total strangers on the internet after all!

EM (#1,012)

@Mimi Yeah no problem! I did my degree in Canada but would be happy to email with you if you think it would be useful. Can you send me a quick email at mesreid at gmail dot com? Then I can delete this mention of my email address on a public forum, ha.

@punzy Ahh, I wish I had seen this sooner! I’m applying for Ph.D programs in EOH (and some public policy) with an engineering background and I’m having a hard time figuring out the job market for the occupational health people…could I ask you some questions? We should all share our backgrounds, since it seems like we’re not actually all writers here.

Julia duMais (#2,957)

@anecdata ahhhh this whole thread is so great, thank you!

Jay Green (#2,099)

@Michelle @Mimi you two are both ME! I also have an undergrad anthro degree (with a concentration in race/gender/queer studies), did sexual health stuff in college, and work for a community health center now! I would love to talk to either/both of you about your experiences! Michelle, would you mind if I emailed you as well?

anorktopus (#2,498)

@RocketSurgeon Didn’t see this yesterday, but thanks for the reply! I am really excited about those schools and the idea of spending a year abroad, so glad to hear the one-year thing isn’t a problem. We’ll see what my options are come spring, though.

EM (#1,012)

@Jay Green Yeah go for it. Emails for everyone!

“Library Land where everyone has to talk about everything at least 20 times to get things done”
Ugh, that is god’s honest truth right there. I graduated last year with my MLIS, and I am generally happy with my degree. I live in an area that is saturated with library school graduates now, but I am for sure moving mid-year and hope to look for a real library job then. Right now I work in the same library-adjeacent job I had while in school, but it pays the bills and I am hoping I can apply some of the experience to working in a real library. I have been thinking about going back to school for a second masters (because I aparently have a deep-seated self-hatred) in art history or classics (my undergrad degree). I can’t decide if this is worth it or not. My hope is that I will be able to get on at a university library with an art history program where I can get free tuition. Ah, dreams!

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Punk-assBookJockey Your user name is probably one of my favorite things combining some of my favorite things, and I’m disappointed I didn’t come up with it first.

@bgprincipessa Ha, thanks. Some of my favorite things too!

Blondsak (#2,299)

I’m starting my final semester for my MLS this spring, and already I have so many peers who are job searching and having zero luck even getting an interview. The one thing they all have in common: zero to very little (which I would define as less than one year and/or 15 hrs or less per week) actual PAID experience in libraries.

As bgpincipessa above mentions, this is not something everyone can do while attending school. But I would HIGHLY recommend doing whatever you can to get paid work in your field while going to school. It is perhaps the one thing that will make you competitive in today’s Full-Time-With-Benefits job market.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Blondsak Sigh, yes. I have a lot of previous library experience from when I was younger, but none of it was full-time. And as a full-time employee (in a non-library field) and a full-time student, taking on a part-time or volunteer position is not really in the cards right now. I still have 1.5 years before I finish, so we’ll see if anything changes for me between now and then.

@bgprincipessa Good luck to both of you! I just graduated in May and it did take some time to find a job, and I had to move. One suggestion for not so time consuming volunteering that I do have, is conferences. If you live in a big city, or a place where there is a regional library association there is at least one conference once a year. It’s usually only for a few days, and you often only have to give a few hours of time, usually doing something like manning a welcome desk or helping people set up their presentations. You also usually get access to the conference for the day you volunteer, which is a great way to meet people and network.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@bgprincipessa I definitely understand. I have a friend who just graduated who is in a similar position (FT job not in the field but necessary for paying bills). She’s having a tough go of job hunting so far unfortunately, with over 40 applications put in and not one interview. However, your previous experience should definitely help you out. Is there any way you could look into even a 2-5 hr/wk volunteering gig? Anything to bridge the time between your last library job and graduation would be helpful.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@Ciara O’Shea@twitter Thank you! And conference volunteering is a great idea. I would also suggest, if possible, presenting an academic project at conferences. In February I will be at a conference presenting a poster of an earlier semester project I did; this is very little time and energy commitment since I’m not a formal presenter, but will still look good on my resume and give me some new experience/networking in the field.

@Ciara O’Shea@twitter Great idea! Anyone going to ACRL conference in indianapolis in april? ALA annual is in my town next year, but I will be moving a couple weeks before that, so that’s kind of a bummer. Hopefully I will be close to getting a job in my new town beby then, I plan to start looking in April/May or so.

jfruh (#161)

This is the part where I repeat the thing I always say on these posts which is: never, ever, ever take out loans to get an “academic”-type master’s or PHD (i.e., something in the humanities or sciences where the end game is to get some sort of academic job). Funding exists! Apply for fellowships! Only go where you’re funded! You’ll have to scrape/teach/live at a poverty level/work as an office temp between semesters, but it’s years and years and years of work, and the loans will mount, and the job market is dicey.

deepomega (#22)

@jfruh Also, never trust any advisor who RECOMMENDS academic-type grad school to you. The gap between what current professors think grad school and academia is like and what newly-minted PHDs are experiencing is astounding.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@deepomega YES. I had a 50-something professor in undergrad who took me under his wing for 3 years because he thought I should go on to be a English lit professor like himself. Cut to graduation, when I announce that I have no intention of pursuing an English lit PhD due to the terrible economy/job market, and was instead going for my MLS. He was so angry and disappointed that he called me a “sell-out” to my face, and we have barely spoken since.

deepomega (#22)

@Blondsak Haha, yes, an MLS is DEFINITELY selling out. All that library money!

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

@deepomega YES. Reasons I knew my favorite professor and senior essay advisor had my best interests in mind? He told me that if I could see myself being happy doing anything that wasn’t academia, I should try that first. And then he helped me as much as he could in figuring out what those other things could be. If I had told him that the only thing I could see myself doing was academia, he would have written me a recommendation no question, but instead he offered to be a reference for my job search straight out of school, since he had worked with me on such a major project start to finish.

chevyvan (#2,956)

@jfruh Yes yes yes. If you’re not willing to study for the GRE in order to get into a school that will fund your non-professional degree education, you probably don’t want that degree bad enough and/or aren’t a good candidate and/or won’t get a return on your investment. I’ve seen it happen multiple times. I’ve also been involved in hiring and wouldn’t look twice at someone who went to a grad department without a funding structure built in (e.g., a for-profit school.

And I agree with your 2nd point as well. My undergrad professors were hired in a much different job market than what I’m facing now. I’m a Ph.D. and live in a world where the best post-doc positions are given to people who have 2+ sole-authored journal articles b/c the academic job market is so backed up that people just stay in grad school and publish and publish until they finally get a job. These types of positions were originally intended for new PhDs who didn’t have a lot of publications so that they could focus on publishing. It’s pretty brutal out there right now.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

Um. Why is no one talking about the fact that you uh, don’t need to go to law school to go to med school?!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@aeroaeroaero I know, this makes even less sense than the people I knew who went to law school bc they couldn’t get into med school. Two totally unrelated fields, guys! The only reason to go to both is if you want to be a law professor focusing on medicine-related issues, and the one person I know who did that is boring as dirt.

sunflowernut (#1,638)

@WaityKatie At least half of the people I know who are in grad school right now are doing it because they are afraid to stop being students and join the job market (aka attempt to become successful in a field and potentially fail). I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy has the intention to just pile on a few degrees for the same reason. I mean, as a doctor, he can work on a few different specialties and not have to face the real world for a very, very long time.

While your post had some good advice about grad school, it started off INCREDIBLY judgmental. In fact it sounds like your friend was following your advice exactly. He knew exactly what he wanted from law school: to network before starting a career that doesn’t leave a lot of time for that for the first 10 years. In fact, you could argue that you Masters in English was a complete waste of time and money by your own grad school recommendation.

questingbeast (#2,409)

@Alex Shepard@facebook But isn’t the point of networking to make contacts in your field? What’s the point if you’re never going to work in that area?

Sadie (#700)

@Alex Shepard@facebook Going to law school just to network sounds like an incredibly expensive (and stressful) way to network.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

Oh my god, going to law school is a surefire way to meet the WRONG people. I don’t even speak to anyone I went to law school with anymore, because they were almost all terrible human beings. UGH, can I talk to this guy?

@ciara o’shea Thank you so much for writing this piece. I’m in the middle of applying for MLS programs (UW, CUA, UMD) and I regret to say that, with only 11 days until the first deadline, I haven’t done nearly enough socializing with current grad students or professionals in the field. I know what you mean when you say that you chose to be a librarian because you could still teach and encourage learning (yes!) – I feel the same way. I’ll definitely keep this article in mind as I complete my final edits and press those scary “submit” buttons.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@just so-so@twitter I’m in the UMD program :)

Blondsak (#2,299)

@bgprincipessa Me too!!!

Blondsak (#2,299)

@just so-so@twitter I can’t speak for UW, but I have a friend who went to CUA and she loved the program and professors there. Personally, I like UMD a lot too, though I feel I also simply got lucky in terms of professors.

Best of luck!

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Blondsak No way!! I’m actually in the online program, so I don’t interact much unfortunately. I am only starting my second semester – but so far, I’m happy!

ThatJenn (#916)

Also, oh my goodness, talk to recently-graduated people on your chosen career path about the degree you’ll pursue before you start applying. Find random ones and email if you need to! Don’t rely on just your undergrad/previous program professors; most of them got their degrees ages ago and don’t know what’s out there now. If there are faculty searches going on at your local university, attend and talk to the candidates about their background a little. I know so many people who started degree programs that were totally wrong for their goals because they didn’t know any better.

questingbeast (#2,409)

This is good advice, particularly about working out what you’ll be doing after. I realised shortly after (maybe even before) starting a PhD that I don’t want to be an academic. Now is definitely the time I should be getting some work/ volunteer experience of some sort: I find it far too easy to just sit around the library all the day. New resolution- move my fat arse.

vanderlyn (#2,954)

This article seems written without regard for the tremendous amount of debt and lost income involved in pursuing terminal master’s degrees. An important thing to consider when considering going into debt to pursue graduate school is return on investment, financial or otherwise.

Consider it this way: For every year you are in graduate school, you are not in the workforce, and thus giving up income. This is called “opportunity cost.” The opportunity cost of going back to school will vary widely. Those who chose not to pursue (or were never able to find) steady white-collar work after college will have a lower opportunity cost than those giving up a well-paying job with the potential for career advancement. So even if you have a full scholarship to graduate school, there is still an inherent cost to not working for the duration of your program, and forsaking promotions and career experience that could lead to higher pay and/or job satisfaction later.

If you are American and wish to study at an American university, you will probably have to pay for your terminal master’s, at least in part. Unless your parents/benevolent donors are paying for your education, you will have to take out loans totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars. The eventual hope is that the job you get with your newly-minted graduate degree will pay enough to give a nice return on all that student loan debt and lost income.

But what if it’s not about the money? What if you are going to graduate school fully expecting to make not a dollar more after graduation than you are now? What if the goal is happiness and satisfaction? It may be that spending all that money in tuition and lost income was worth it. You can figure that out fairly easily, by asking which makes you happier: your old job and no monthly payments on graduate school debt, or your new job and several hundred dollars per month of graduate school debt. It’s pretty straightforward.

But wait—who’s to say that graduate school will be worth it at all? What if you leave graduate school and can’t find any job you like, and have to take a gig you hate? What if you change your mind after graduate school and it turns out your real passion is something else, requiring yet another graduate degree? These scenarios are called “risk,” and represent the lack of certainty inherent both in your career prospects and your own sense of satisfaction. In finance, risky assets will sell for less, all things equal, than those that are not risky.

So let’s say you do the (pseudo-)math and determine that, while going to graduate school won’t increase your salary, a typical career after school will increase your happiness enough that it’ll be worth spending hundreds of dollars per month on loan repayment. What happens, then, if you can’t find a job for six months? For a year? For two years? What if you have to go back to your old employer at your old salary? You’ll have missed a couple of years of upward advancement, not to mention all the money you would have made. In fact, your take-home pay will be lower, because of your student loan repayment.

The life of the mind, being surrounded by smart people, learning for learning’s sake…these are all fine, but none of them inherently require huge amounts of money and lost income. Think about that before going to graduate school, particularly if it’s the full-time, humanities/soft sciences path.

pawnknee (#2,911)

@vanderlyn Thank you for this. Very well thought out and all important points. As someone who is struggling with ennui & dissatisfaction from my current career, AND considering grad school, this comment is sobering for me. I like the idea of the prestige from a secondary degree, but none of the other stuff you mention!

oldflame (#1,553)

I also did a Canadian MLIS and am graduating in the spring. I could have used this advice maybe in my third year of undergrad because at that point I thought I was going to do my PhD in psychology. I did the GRE and everything. By the time I finished the whole GRE thing and started the application process I decided I didn’t want to do that after all. I hate the research/academia environment! What do I actually like doing? Libraries. So that happened and everyone around me seemed very relieved. But I wish I had realized it sooner and saved myself a shit-ton of time, money, and energy wasted on those $%#@ exams and doing an honours thesis that I hated. (Context: in Canada usually you don’t have to do the GRE at all ever, except for Psychology programs. IDK.)

Some of the people I am going to school with now seem disillusioned about library school, but every bullshit thing it requires me to do is just a step towards my goal of graduating with this damn degree and getting a job. In undergrad I really liked that whole “learning for the sake of learning” thing, but you are going to HATE learning if you join grad school expecting that. Grad school is hard and it sucks and really not fun at all. So tl;dr, I totally agree that having a goal is necessary to living through this experience intact. And to avoid it if at all possible.

Law/Med School Guy is probably operating under the assumption that if he got into one degree surely the other degree will let him in too. But it still seems insane. Why would you do that to yourself??

Having a goal isn’t enough, can you actually get there is the real question. The risk has physical, emotional, and financial dimensions to it that some people underestimate to no end, I definitely did.

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