Should you attend graduate school, and if not, what should you do? Are there any good options at all? First, on the topic of graduate schools, Dean Fred Siegel of Claremont Graduate University (CGU) wrote a fine article last week about the rewards of attending one, such as CGU. I agree with him in general that a graduate degree can often be helpful for a person’s career, or even just be personally rewarding.
However, I do want to stress that graduate school is not a decision to be made lightly. Depending on the field, it can be a five- to nine-year process at a time of your life when your peers are probably making significantly more money in professional careers. The decision of which grad school to attend and in what field is also very important, but hard to navigate from the outside. Graduate school is not merely prolonging your liberal arts education. You have to make choices based on whom you want to work with; the number of people in your field at a particular program; the program’s ranking, placement, and graduation rates; and, most importantly, the program’s finances.
It may be demeaning to put a price tag on education, but realistically you should never pay for graduate school. Departments and programs that really want you can find a way to pay for you. The issue of finances should also be placed among the larger, national concern of student indebtedness. Student loan debt currently stands at $1 trillion, and it is the most odious kind of debt you can take on. Student loan debt cannot be disbursed through bankruptcy, interest rates can jump dramatically, and future wages and social security benefits can be garnished for payments. The current student loan system is set up to make you fail and accrue more debt, not for financing further education. All that said, there are still perfectly valid reasons for attending graduate school, as long as the necessary precautions are taken.
A different question to ask is what you should do after graduation if you are not going to graduate school. Perhaps it is my own particular experience at Pomona College that has made the working world much more nebulous to me than graduate school. I often think, “Why do people work in the first place?” Are consulting and management massive cons, or do people actually do productive things in those jobs? Is there a job for social justice-minded students that doesn’t involve teaching at a charter school to underprivileged students who deserve a vastly more qualified teacher than myself? That is not to say that there are not perfectly valid reasons for pursuing different options. For some people, the last thing they want is more school. They want to get out and experience the world, whether that means joining a Silicon Valley start-up or starting an organic farm. Others want to travel and see parts of the world that are not sunny California or wherever they happened to study abroad. There are also prudent matters, such as needing to earn money to support a family or pay off student loans.
These are just a few of the paths that may be taken after leaving Pomona; I’m sure there are many permutations in the interesting work Pomona graduates have gone on to do. This is all to say that there is no plan for post-grad life. The reality is that there is no economic security for the young anymore—or for most people aside from the one percent, for that matter—that dictates what the best options are. Science graduates can languish for years in post-doctoral fellowships, while English majors work as baristas. Our administrators and professors often give us the message that the value of a liberal arts degree is its flexibility, and that it instills critical thinking skills that can be used anywhere.
On one hand this is true, if we accept that this is actually what a liberal arts education does. I have never liked this explanation. Mainly, I think it accepts the economic insecurity and precariousness of contemporary times by saying, “We have taught you the skills to be an excellent surfer. Now go surf during a hurricane.” As Pomona students, we are probably very good surfers, with many other privileges besides, but that means we have to accept the unfair terms of the hurricane of youth unemployment. I would argue then that no matter what you find yourself doing after graduation, be aware that there may be other options instead of working at all those unpaid internships or prestigious jobs that happen to not have benefits. Working life is hard, and you deserve some recompense for your efforts. So, graduate school or not, always be aware of your own worth as well.