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.
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.