Should I Go Back to School? A Pros and Cons list from an Over-educated Work-a-holic
My sister was in law school when the 2008 financial crisis rocked the world. I remember us walking down the steps our shared Montreal 1-bedroom apartment, and spotting the above-the-fold headline from the Montreal Gazette. For those who may need a refresher, the 2008 financial crisis—or the global financial crisis— was the fallout of excessive risk-taking banks, increasingly unstable and unmonitored loans, and the bursting of the US housing bubble, which rippled across the globe, causing an international banking crisis. It has since become the subject of many blockbusters and Academy Award winning documentaries and biopics, including the celebrated 2010 documentary Inside Job, where Matt Damon’s dulcet tones will lead you through a fun house of systemic corruption that is the US Financial Market. Or The Big Short, where celebrities such as actress Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain, singer-songwriter Selena Gomez explained detailed financial products. But long before we gawked at these scenes from our couches, my sister and I were in 2008, worried about how this crisis was going to affect the job market. One of my sister’s law professors said something that has remained with me to this day: if there is a global crisis, the best place to be is in school. The reason being, if you are in school during a crisis, you enter the job market just as things are recovering; alternatively, if you’ve just graduated when the crisis hits, you may spend years treading water in an oversaturated job market. The logic is that it is better to walk into an interview having done something during the crisis; furthering your education is a safe kind of something.
Now, in 2020, we are in another kind of crisis: a global health crisis. And while the world is a very different one than it was in 2008, I have heard many of my friends and colleagues contemplate going back to school as a way through these ‘unprecedented times’. I also find myself, just as I was in 2008, on the job market during a global crisis, wondering if I should add another letter or two to my business cards. As someone who has a masters, two bachelors and a PhD, I know only too well the allure and downsides of having more letters after your name than in it. In what follows, I offer some ways to think about whether higher education is for you, and some tips and tricks if you’re contemplating returning to school during the pandemic. Should you go back to school? Let’s weigh the pros and cons:
PRO: All it costs is money and time
I don’t mean this facetiously. If you’re at home, on E.I., scrolling through Netflix waiting for your Premier to lift restrictions so you can get back to slinging beers — or if you’re working from home and feeling unfulfilled by your 9-5 now that it’s taking place 6 feet from your kitchen sink— then going back to school might be the kick-start you need to wrap your brain around the next phase of your life. Or, simply a change in pace might help you confront those dreaded existential questions, like “what do you want?” Or, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Or, (worst of all) “what do you need to be happy and fulfilled?” You can probably pay a therapist to ask you these questions: that will also cost you time and money, and might be a little easier than going back to school. But school is an option. If you have the time and money, you might as well put it towards bettering yourself. Or, at least, that’s what your mom would say. So it’s worth repeating here.
CON: Online line learning is…. not the best
While school has never been more accessible, it’s also all online. From my community of teachers, students, and grad school buds I have yet to hear one good thing about online learning. You know you better than I know you, so maybe online learning is perfect for you. And if you’re juggling a part-time job, or other domestic commitments (such as a child or a vibrant animal crossing profile) then online learning may provide the flexibility you need to—as the feminists say— do-it-all. While every class will be different, there is basically two established ways of conducting online learning:
- Synchronous: meaning that everyone is meeting at a designated time, probably on zoom.
- Asynchronous: meaning you can access the course content anytime, and make the class work around your schedule.
From what I’ve heard, classes tend to be a combination of both, with at least one weekly meeting, where your professor will beg the students to turn on their videos, and you will hold their happiness in you frequently washed hand.
CON: You aren’t going to get the typical school experience
If your favourite part about high school was recess, then I’d think twice about doubling down with grad school/ undergrad. You aren’t going to get the typical back-to-school experience at this time. There will be no trivia nights with your new colleagues, no beers at the student bar. More than that, lots of university programming is significantly reduced. While everyone is finding creative ways to pivot, the free yoga class offered by the 2SLGBTQ+ Student Association won’t really be the same online. Isn’t it the moments in between all the milestones that you somehow remember most? I can’t image my university experience without the countless times I was held up by the Teaching Assistant picket line. I can’t imagine any of my graduate school experience without the multiple times my union went on strike in order to fight the fact that our employer was trying to pay us less than a living wage. Oh, and the university system is really corrupt in general. That said, if you haven’t had benefits in a while, and need to go to the dentist, the university unions are the best (in grad school, not undergrad)! So that’s definitely a PRO. But you might have to picket for them; find out if it’s a bargaining year, just so you know, one way or the other.
PRO: If you were going to do it anyways, go for it.
This one is simple: if you’ve always thought about going back to school, and were waiting for a sign that it’s the right time, this is it. This is your sign. You clicked on this article. You read this far. You know you want to go. What are you waiting for? Go. There will never be a better time. Or, better yet, there will never be a ‘good’ time. So make it happen for yourself, because you deserve it.
PRO: Universities are in trouble; make this work in your favour (and grades be damned!)
The pandemic has affected everyone, and universities are not immune. Whatever they’re saving in not heating those big buildings during the cold Canadian winters, they are losing in the lower registration of international students. I’ve heard rumors of universities encouraging older tenured profs to retire earlier (at the same pension) just so that they can avoid paying them for this year. (Do you know how much tenured profs make? Google the Sunshine List, and never feel bad about asking for a reference letter again!).
But what does this have to do with you? It just means it is in the university’s interest to get you to apply and come to their school. To that end, I know a lot of programs (in the humanities specifically) that are open to alternative backgrounds and experience. So, have you always had your eye on that master’s program, but don’t have good grades from undergrad? Don’t stress: get a few stellar reference letters, pitch your work experience as industry experience (because, likely, it is), and go for it. Definitely call the grad program director of wherever your applying, and check that they’re open to alternative experience first (because every program is different and your time is valuable!). And fair warning, you’ll likely need to supply your transcripts either way. But you’d be surprised what new avenues and alternative experiences are considered in these applications!
PRO: Research, research, research & get that funding
Do not, whatever you do, pay for grad school. I know what you’re thinking: what socialist malarkey is this?! Don’t worry, I’m just as capitalist-minded as you, comrade. What I’m suggesting is that grad school is, in fact, a job. A job that you should be paid for. Every program worth their salt should have a funding package that accompanies your admissions offer. This should cover your basic living expenses. When I went through grad school (in a humanities department) the funding package was around $25,000 for the year. Subtract tuition, and it’s about $20,000. It’s not enough to live on, but it’s more than nothing. Typically, this funding package will come with an actual job! A teaching assistant-ship, a research assistant position, or something similar (department depending). On top of that, ask your department about what other funding is available to you. There are all kinds of entrance scholarships, internal university scholarships, and external scholarships. That money is just siting there! Get it! Get that scholarship money! No more funding available in your department? Reach out to the graduate scholarship, fellowships and funding folks and ask them for more opportunities (there’s typically a graduate scholarship coordinator who can help you!). Honestly, grad school is enough work. You shouldn’t have to find a part-time job on top of it.
PRO: Alternative school ideas
Maybe you have the itch to learn something, but don’t actually want to commit to a 2-year program. That’s fine! Check out continuing education, explore free webinars (offered on this very website) and other learning experiences. I was surprised how much content there is on LinkedIn learning, for instance! Honestly, there are so many alternative educational experiences available: treat yourself to a day of browsing a few, and decided what’s the best fit for you. You can always dip your toe in with a course here and there before taking a career-changing plunge.
PRO/CON: Just hop out of the capitalist hamster wheel for a bit, why don’t ya!
Neither a pro or a con, this final point is an invitation to take a step back from the minutia of your life and look at the bigger picture. Here come those existential questions again (what am I doing with my life, who am I going to be, etc. etc.). Put those aside for the moment (don’t worry, they will still be there when you need them). Instead, think about this year as the tiniest of blips on the radar that is your life. Think about the spectrum of experience that you have already lived. Think that, for a moment, you actually can step away from your job, your day-to-day, the capitalist hamster wheel that runs your life. Maybe this sounds naïve. But the money will come and it will go. If you need to get a job, you will get a job. If you need to pay the rent, you will pay the rent. You are resilient, and you will find a way to get where you want to go. So, for a moment, let’s think not about “need” but about “want”. What do you want this year of your life to look like? Some of my friends who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic are treating this year like some kind of reprise from their normal lives. A moment, or a breath, away from the hustle. You get this moment. You have time to take this breath. Whether you use this time to go back to school doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know that this is your time to do with what you want. Even with fixed income, even with immovable commitments, you still have a choice over what you do with your life. Whether you choose to use this time to write the next great Canadian novel, or to finish Cyber Punk in one weekend, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s your choice, and you get to make it. And if this article can sway you at all, one way or the other, it would be to remind you that you are ultimately the director of your life. And whatever you choose, it will be the right choice, simply because you chose it.