Just Two Ladies With Bachelor of Arts Degrees, Talking About Life


Meaghan: So we published a chat today between Jessica Gross and Merve Emre about the book Should You Go To Grad School, which is a thing we talk about all the time here on the site, perhaps because it is impossible to resolve. But it made me wonder: Did Ester go to grad school?

Ester: Naturally! And the answer is no, I did not. I almost did a couple of times. Once straight out of college, when I was accepted into an MFA program in Boston, and then once a little later when I thought about taking classes at night to get a Master’s in — get ready — Humanities AND Social Thought. Because in two years you could totally become a master in both of those ultra-narrow subjects!

Meaghan: Ha, you are already a master of social thought in my eyes. No student loans necessary.

Ester: Ha! Thank you. BUT so Meaghan did you go to graduate school? Are you a Master in anything? (Besides awesomeness?)

Meaghan: Only a masturbator. Ha. No, SORE SUBJECT, I applied to MFA programs for this fall and didn’t get into any of them. I also did right out of school to the same results. I am ambivalent about the whole grad school thing in general [for ME, for writing] but I still hold onto it as, yep, a projection of all my idealizations. No working for two years! Something that forces me to write! Then I could be a professor???! And maybe have health insurance. Even though that seems to work out for pretty much nobody but…?

Ester: It’s a sore subject for me too. Seriously. Every year around this time when my Facebook feed explodes with pictures of people beaming with joy and accomplishment I can feel my scowl hardening on my face. Of course I’m happy for my friends. I want them to succeed. I just also somehow feel left further and further behind. It’s such a specific kind of laurel, one that measures worth in a very concrete way, you know?

Meaghan: You are talking like a first-born daughter, Ester!

Ester: Hee! Well, I was always very competitive with my older brother, and he has a JD.

Meaghan: Ooh. So you feel lame with your measly B.A.?


Meaghan: Maybe one day we will be awarded honorary PhDs for our groundbreaking Billfold chats.

Ester: Our contributions to the Liberal Arts! Yes! Maximum accolades for minimum work. That’s the American way.

Meaghan: In capitalism there are winners and losers. No but, like Jessica and Merve talked about, grad school in the humanities (which is what we’re really talking about) offers a few things. The ones I think about are structure and a network of support. I feel like I have a lot of writerly friends who I can send early drafts of things, or who check up on me — “How’s writing going?” — which motivates me. But I do want STRUCTURE. And now I guess I have to invent it for myself.

Ester: Absolutely. And that’s hard for everyone. Grad school allows you independence within a very specific framework. You get constraints but you also get liberty. It seems kind of perfect.

Meaghan: SIGH.

Ester: BUT I know lots of people who feel very ambivalent about their graduate school experiences. Lots of the lawyers I know, for examples, feel frustrated with practicing law, and that’s putting it mildly. One friend of mine has two MFAs and she is still struggling with her day job. A degree is not a guarantee of anything, unfortunately.

Meaghan: Right, and part of me is SO grateful that when I applied to programs right out of college I didn’t get in anywhere. Because I had no real concept of money, I mean I had worked through high school and college and was working as a nanny, but my rent had always been paid, and my student loan payments weren’t even due yet. I knew I would be in debt but I didn’t know the real pain of actually paying down that debt. I didn’t know what it would feel like. And I am *sure* that if I got into a program that wasn’t fully-funded I wouldn’t have been able to say like, “You know what, no, I’m going to keep nannying and then see what happens.” So it was kind of like when a shitty dude doesn’t call you back and you’re upset, but later you realize he saved you from yourself.

Ester: Totally. And maybe this is a good time to check our privilege! Because wow, I am amazed I even applied to non-fully-funded programs straight out of school. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking, I guess, except in the privileged la-la-la way I thought about college: Apply to the places where you could get the best education no matter the cost. To be fair, my parents encouraged that, but I wince now remembering it.

Meaghan: Yeah, mine did too actually for undergrad. I will never forget my mom telling me that no, I should get out of the state and go far away. ESCAPE. I guess she was living vicariously through me and fantasizing, too. For better or worse. But this go-round I only applied to fully-funded places and LAUGH at the idea of paying however much a year to Columbia or wherever so that I can graduate and what? Try to sell my short story collection for a few thousand dollars at best? I mean it works for some people! But the odds are against me. And leaving the workforce for two years, uprooting Dustin from his job and the city, that seemed like something I could only do if it was free. And stipended. And insured!

Ester: I too would only apply to fully-funded MFAs if I tried applying again. But I would also ask myself very clearly what I wanted to get out of a program besides that vague feeling of self-worth that comes with checking off a box on the Upper Middle Class To-D0 List.

Meaghan: Yeah screw that box, that box will not make you happy!

Ester: Like most boxes!

But yeah, that’s me. Some people do really need or want to go to graduate school and have excellent well-thought out plans and more power to them! Although even they should probably appreciate the bitter reality of the job market and how um challenging life is for adjuncts these days. (Why, colleges? Why??)

Meaghan: It does seem like awareness is building around the issue, if nothing else. That said I still want to go to grad school for writing one day if I EVER GET IN. Or maybe grad school will continue to be that guy who never calls me back and that’s fine. It wasn’t meant to be.

Ester: The point is that you are a worthwhile person with or without that bonus degree. In fact you may be a better writer before or without an MFA, like that fascinating recent NYT Op-Ed about how a novelist’s MFA class broke her down and neglected to build her back up again into something better.

Meaghan: And then she got a Times Op-Ed out of it? WORTH IT. (Just kidding.) (Or am I?)

Ester: You could get a Times Op-Ed without an MFA. I believe in you. That will be your 1 Thing for next week!

Meaghan: Oh my god. I’m turning 30 in like 10 weeks, guys, and it is obviously on my completely uncompleted 30 Before 30 list that I typed out on my iPhone one afternoon. LET’S DO THIS. I just need to work out an Opinion.

Ester: So excited to help you brainstorm! An Op-Ed. That’s how you look 30 squarely in the face and then rugby-tackle it and pummel it into the mud.

Meaghan: “Meaghan O’Connell, 30, ONLY HAS A B.A.” That will be my bio for the NYT.

Ester: That’s okay. I didn’t go to my five-year college reunion because I was afraid my intro to everyone would be, “Hi, I’m Ester, I only have an MRS.” Which is an exaggeration but still.

Meaghan: Oh my god this is getting too dark.

Ester: Dark is our middle name here at the Billfold! Anyway, “Ester, 31, still no graduate degree, AND THAT’S OKAY” signing off.


19 Comments / Post A Comment

gyip (#4,192)

AHHHH you are tapping into one of my darkest insecurities. Everyone keeps telling me, “I always thought you’d be a professor, Gloria!” but yeah, I’m admitting to myself that it’s not really a good idea. I’ve been on and off thinking about this for FIVE YEARS and only maybe this year I’ve thought, “Hmm, perhaps not?”

Even though he’s the one who said, “You should think about it”, my former professor concluded I’d go insane and break down and it’s not a good idea :| He also hated grad school.

Beans (#1,111)

There is a running joke in my family that while one segment of my extended family is winning in the PhD category, another is winning in NYT Style section appearances. (i am part of neither, alas)

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

1. Congrats ladies! The site did not break! Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves!

2. It’s so different hearing people talk about grad/professional school in a “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” way because, for me, getting in is the culmination of years of “Burn the Ships” kind of focus, and graduating will give me entre into a world of work sufficiently renumerative that I guarantee that my children (lolWUT) will be raised in the upper-middle class.

Mine is the standard immigrant kid story. (Oh Hai Mike!) My parents came here with high school educations and you’d have to go for miles and miles before hitting any patch of non-brown folks. So advanced degrees are, like, game-changing for me?

Like they’re not things that might saddle you with debt and to be approached with caution, but rather things that must be scraped, clawed, and fought (happy mother’s day tiger mom!) to achieve.

Anyways, please excuse the lack of coherence, been staring 548,090,234 cells in Excel today.

WriteBikeBobbi (#3,938)

Most important sentence in here: “A degree is not a guarantee of anything, unfortunately.” I have an MFA. Three year program, full funding, teaching appointment. And now – whoopdedoo! There are about a million other folks with MFAs, all battling over the perhaps three quality teaching jobs in the country. Masters degree doesn’t = professor, and it sure doesn’t = a great creative writing position. Though if you want to work your butt off teaching comp for $20,000 a year, well then – an MFA could be just the thing for you! I am thankful a full-time tenured teaching gig was not my goal.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

I continually refer to my MFA as my “bad decision.” The one thing I did right: turned down Big Famous Program that wanted me to pay them ONE JILLION DOLLARS in favor of Small State School Program that offered full funding.

I mean, maybe if I had gone to Famous Program I too would be famous? But… um… probably not.

readyornot (#816)

It is so strange to me to consider grad school as providing MORE structure! I am currently a Ph.D. student in my 3rd year (that’s the “begin writing your dissertation” year), and I have never felt so unstructured in my life.

But back to the decisions at hand. When I was thinking about whether to go to grad school and in what form, I thought about what I wanted grad school to give me. In my case, a future social science researcher, I wanted to run my own research projects at a think tank, an NGO, a governmental agency. For that, I need to have a Ph.D. There is no way around it, the credential is required. So in exchange for five years of my life, along with my blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of brow furrows, I get the chance to find meaningful answers to questions I’m interested in. There is no debt cost here, the kinds of grad school I was thinking about were fully funded with stipends.

It’s not so clear to me what the real career outcome is for grad school in the humanities. Is the goal to write a book/publish in the New Yorker/teach writing to others? And then, how much easier would the degree make it to reach that goal? Finally, is the cost (in terms of time, uprooting, opportunities foregone, and student loans) worth it? I think the reason a lot of people struggle with this decision is there is a high degree of uncertainty around a lot of those things (in particular, the payoff at the end), but it is worth it to do step one and focus on what you’d like to achieve (which is what I think Jessica and Merve discussed).

ALSO ALSO ALSO: only 2,900 people were granted master’s of writing, general or creative in 2011. That is a tiny amount! It is a tiny fraction of the total number of master’s degrees! (over 730,000 in that year). The largest fields for master’s, BY FAR, are business and education. (Numbers here: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_317.asp)
The reason, probably, is that you have to have the credential to move up in careers in those fields and, for business at least, the increase in your salary is worth the time and tuition cost of the degree.

@readyornot That’s absolutely true. There is less discussion about graduate degrees in STEM fields precisely because they are less optional. Though even then there can be regret and do-overs. My father-in-law got a PhD in chemistry, taught for a while, then went back and got an MD; he now practices as a psychiatrist. What you learn in Humanities programs, especially writing programs, though, can be more nebulous. The rewards can be more nebulous too.

clo (#4,196)

I’m turning 30 this year too Meaghan so I know how you feel! My wife is doing grad school (science, funded) and that experience has shown me how much I don’t want a humanaties graduate degree. I only think you should go if 1) it’s funded and 2) you really want/need it for your profession

Stina (#686)

@clo Mostly agree with this. I went for a two-year public policy degree that doubled my income potential yet wasn’t funded. I think it was $18,000 for the two years so not crazy expensive either. But totally agree with “you really want/need it for your profession” because while only two years, that was a hellish two years.

clo (#4,196)

@Stina Yeah people kept trying to talk me into going and honestly I’m happy where I am. I make ok money and have good quality of life – I just don’t see the point of going back to school and losing potential income, stalling my career, etc when everything is fine as it is. It was never really pratical finacially for me to stop working to do so when I had fewer responsibilities either. I do freelance writing and I’m sure I would benefit from an MFA, but I think my regular paycheck is probably the best gift I can give myself to keep me writing.

Karebot (#5,803)

I considered grad school only because I was an overachiever like Ester and I assumed that was the path my life would take. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school, and folks, heavy is the head the wears the (meaningless) crown. Thankfully I didn’t do it, mostly because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up / legitimately study for a Masters degree.

The hardest part for me was redefining my identity as not the “smart” kid I was in my youth in favor of the person I am now. That is, a person who doesn’t have a headline to use to describe myself and instead has had to flesh herself out with… Personality? An ability to adapt? Ugh, I don’t know who I am.

moreadventurous (#4,956)

@Karebot this is EXACTLY how I feel about everything. People always tell me I’m so smart and that I have all of the potential, but it means so little when I don’t know what to do with my life. Ugh.

I’m about to apply to grad school lolol. In kind of a “look I’m being decisive! finally!” sort of way. But, for a MS! (…in urban planning.) So, it’s totally okay. Yep. Uh-huh.

SnarlFurillo (#2,538)

@Karebot I’ve felt exactly the same way. I always thought the skills I was rewarded for in school (reading, writing, THINKING ABOUT STUFF) would turn into some kind of important job,. I applied to law school this year, even though I didn’t really want to go, and spent a lot of money on the project before admitting to myself that what I really wanted was to still be recognized as “a smart person.” It sounds so silly when I type it, but I really do want that, and sometimes I want to just make decisions I KNOW are bad in order to fulfill that desire.

@SnarlFurillo It doesn’t sound silly at all. It’s the same thinking that drives people into marriage because they think it’s Time rather than because they’ve found a truly great life-partner, or into college in the first place even if it’s not the best fit for them. We think we have free will, and to an extent we do, but we’re all immersed in and colored by our culture far more than we’d like to imagine. I too was told I was “smart” as a child and have been terrified ever since that someone would snatch the label away from me. I have to remind myself even now that it’s okay to try something hard and not succeeding doesn’t mean I’m not “smart.”

boringbunny (#3,260)

@SnarlFurillo Me too! I realize I went to law school just to feel smart and successful. And now I guess I have that – and just wish I hadn’t spent $200k to get that. I’m very fortunate that I have been able to pay off most of my debt in 2 years so I have options. But if my job prospects had changed a little bit, I’d be totally screwed, but at least everyone would think I was smart!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Ester Bloom (and everyone, of course!) If you were left in a vacuum with only your own competencies and expectations . . . Would you still feel smart? The idea that other people could “snatch the label away” is interesting. What repercussions would that have? Sorry if this is Heavy for Monday morning.

rebeccasue17 (#6,627)

A week from now, I’ll have two master’s degrees: an MLIS and a M.Div. Both qualify me for entry level positions in the library field and being a pastor in the ELCA. I did my MLIS right out of college — the best thing I ever did was go to an in-state school and rush through in one full academic year. Library science wasn’t too bad, but the comprehensive exam over the summer was killer. An M.Div was four years — three of school and one doing an internship in a church. But at least this go-around I have a husband who can pay the bills while I studied. Some of my fellow students are graduating with around $40-100K in debt (including undergrad) and I’ve got significantly less. So hard if the master’s degree only qualifies you for entry level positions.

nell (#4,295)

oooof this is hitting me right in my most insecure place…I’m youngish and will probably go to grad school at some point, but my fiance is a bit older than me and has a master’s degree and so do an unsettling majority of his friends and his family. My class obviously graduated into a crappy economy and lots of people I know went straight to grad school, and I now have friends who are full-on lawyers. Of course a lot of them are in a ton of debt, and going to grad school because there’s nothing better to do is an awful reason to go to grad school, AND formal education is not a real measure of intelligence but regardless… I sometimes feel like a dummy.

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