When I was in an undergrad (UCLA, class of ’00), a lot of Generation XYers* would say something that really irritated me – “I’m just gonna teach.”

These folks were generally talking about teaching kids – elementary, junior high, and/or high schoolers. And this proclamation didn’t bother me because I was passionately dedicated to teaching Algebra to 14 year-olds (zero interest, actually), nor did it upset me because I was worried about the state of education in the US (though I should’ve been; I definitely am now). It irritated me because it seemed disrespectful to actual aspiring teachers, an easy fall-forward when coming up with something more fulfilling or fitting seemed too difficult.

Today, it seems like “I’m just gonna teach” has been replaced with “I’m just gonna go to grad school” – I find this troubling.

Cases in point, just last semester (Fall, 2013):

– A student told me she was going to get a Master’s (MA) in sociology because the job market seemed “too scary.”

– A student asked me to write a letter of recommendation to complete his application for a social work MA program. When I asked him if the current state of the California and LA County budgets made him nervous re his job prospects in 2-3 years, he looked confused. “Why wouldn’t I get a job if I have a degree?” he asked.

– A colleague advised me to shift my emphasis from general, theoretical sociology to criminology. Undergrad students were being funneled into that cluster/emphasis as a precursor to getting into an increasingly in-demand criminology MA program. Presumably, the crim MA helped with various law enforcement occupations; and again, I thought about the state and county budgets.

– A speaker in my “Gender & Work” course discussed his recent experiences getting a job with the state of California’s benefits department (e.g. CalFresh, CalWORKS, Head Start, etc). Though he was successful in his endeavors and did not have an MA, he was one of approximately 10,000 applicants for ONE available position.

And these are only *some* of the examples, presented just to me, from one term.

All be they unique in many ways, the rationales behind “I’m just gonna go to grad school” and “I’m just gonna teach” are certainly related. In my view, both seem to be rooted in uncertainty. But whereas uncertain teaching may have once afforded recent undergrads some form of career path, the uncertain approach to grad school seems like a surefire way to dig oneself further into the abyss.

Here’s the thing: grad school costs money. Professional programs (e.g. medical school, law school, social work, etc) are almost always paid out of pocket (vs via departmental funding or grant); and even if you go into a purely academic doctoral program at a research university, funding is tenuous. (academic Ph.D. programs are an entirely separate discussion) You will most likely incur a hefty debt…

..and then you’re done – so what?!! Regardless of whatever degree you’ve earned, a job is absolutely NOT guaranteed. In fact, given the massive shifts currently reframing our most basic occupational structures, I’m starting to wonder what “jobs” will even look like in a few more years.

So is it a good idea to get an MA just because? Without some sort of direction and wider world guidance (read: NOT from your favorite tenured professor or the career counselor in the student union), I’d say no.

Put differently, would you be willing to pay for an extra two years of undergrad, just because?

Need some school advice? Make an appointment for virtual office hours right here.


(pictured: not necessarily where grad school takes you… via shutterstock)

*Generation XYers is my term for me-aged folks – people who went to high school without computers but were masters (read: competent users) of the interwebs by their mid-20s, folks too young to be Gen X but too old to be Gen Y #1978

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