Should I go back to school?
2023-10-07

I’m two terms into a Masters in English and am wondering how I made such a bad decision.

There are a few things that are obvious: I was excited to start something new after a long few months of hardships and health scares, I liked the feeling that I was “working towards something bigger” aside from projects at work, and I idiotically believed the degree would help me edit books and have more credibility as a “writer.”

(That last point is a reasonable assumption, and to some part probably true; I may get a call back from certain organizations if I have a graduate degree in English than if I didn’t.)

But what I came to realize was that going back to school was easier than researching and writing a book, which is what I want to do. Writing a book is difficult; going back to school is less so. It’s still hard, sure, but for different reasons. If you’re trying to write a book, there is an infinite amount of uncertainty involved. You have to pick a topic, you have to organize an outline, research, write, and re-write, all without any (or very little) outside accountability.

When you go back to school, the uncertainty is near zero. Your program’s classes are pre-planned, all homework assignments have detailed prompts and grading rubrics that, if followed, will always guarantee a good grade. If you fail to do the assignments, you get punished, which creates an unmatched level of accountability and incentive to get the work done. This is why people who spend their 20s and 30s getting a PhD struggle in the real-world. The real-world sucks. It’s confusing and uncertain and there is almost never clear instructions. (Just think of tax season.)

My new heuristic, and what I’m telling anyone who asks, is you should go back to school if it opens up opportunities for you to do things that would be impossible for you to do without the degree. I put special emphasis on the word “impossible” there. I mean truly impossible. It has to be the case that you would not be able to do whatever it is you wanted to do no matter the amount of money or time you have without a degree or more schooling.

For example, my sister wanted to be a psychologist. She hates school, but it’s impossible to be a psychologist without a Masters degree, so she went back to school. That’s a great decision because it allows her to do something that was impossible for her to do before she got the degree.

In my circumstance, I can edit a book without having a masters degree. I can write a book without having a masters degree. I can get a book deal without having a masters degree. Would having a masters help in some of those situations? Absolutely. But doing any of that is not impossible without said degree.

A few other things come to mind: You can’t fly a plane without getting a pilots license and taking classes. So if you want to be a pilot, go back to school. The same can be said for becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Sometimes, going back to school offers opportunities within your current role but higher up the totem pole. This is another reason to go back to school, but only if you want to move up that totem pole. My mother was a Spanish teacher for a lot of my childhood, but she wanted to become a principle. Becoming a principle is almost unheard of without some sort of higher education, so she got her masters.

By no means am I saying this is a simple process. It’s still a difficult decision. It might be even harder now because the question changes from should I go back to school? to what do I want to do with my life, and will going back to school make it possible to do that thing?

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