Is grad school a good idea?

Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she's talking to twenty-somethings and I'm a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.

The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task--rightly--for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point -- if you don't have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you -- it was a carelessly thought out remark.

As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that's what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world -- your bosses, your peers -- that you do in fact know what you're doing.

My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it's been a transformative experience for him: he's made great local contacts, he's extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.

For myself, I have enjoyed my master's experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I've grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I've found my professors to be up to date on what's happening in the big ol' world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.

Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?

That's the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.

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Links 25-May-2008

  • Penelope Trunk has an excellent post on how she got her current favorite mentor, to complement her other posts on the topic. As a forty-odder among twenty-somethings, I find that my mentors are not just the professors, but my peers who have longer experience of being a student, being at SILS, being connected to many other students who they think may be good for me to meet. I have a couple of trusted mentors -- including, of course, The Illimitable Cassidy -- both 20 years younger than me, who provide me with excellent advice and guidance.  I hope to be of use to them one day, or to pay it forward in some way.
  • I recall an author reading I went to years ago; she'd written a book about the Book of the Month club. Her opinion at that time was that literate book-culture was seeing its history growing smaller in a rearview mirror, hence the explosion of books about books, books about reading, books about bibliophiles. There's a strong flavor of sadness and melancholy in these books. I thought of this when reading the UK Guardian review of Alberto Manguel's "The Library at Night":

The traditional library was a citadel sacred to the notion of omniscience; the web, by contrast, is 'the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence', like a supermarket that boundlessly proliferates in space and deluges the planet with its tacky wares. 'The library that contained everything,' Manguel laments, 'has become the library that contains anything.'

  • In junior high school, I got hooked on the Doc Savage novels with the James Bama covers. William Denton somehow located the author Lester Dent's Master Fiction Plot Formula for any 6000-word story. While you're there, check out William's library science pages. And I'll probably try his index card system for organizing my school work this fall. Update: I tried it for a while but it duplicated other systems for tracking work and reading that were more convenient, so I dropped it.
  • Susie Bright is looking for odd book titles. (Susie's site is fun, but its ads could be classified as NSFW.)

Advice for a Forty-Odder from a Twenty-Something

At the Kilgour lectures, OCLC President Robert Jordan said some rather challenging things to the assembled SILS throng. As an MBA and business guy, he up front admitted that his ideas might rub people the wrong way (but then, so did Fred Kilgour's). One of his ideas that stuck with me was his notion that, since UNC SILS requires a student to take more hours and do more work than comparable programs, it's reasonable to ask whether the degree will make you more money or give you a chance at a more prestigious institution when you graduate.

That idea rattles around in the back of my brain during my classes, even the fun intellectual ones I take. And then, so do articles like this one by Penelope Trunk, on what to do in college to be more successful in your career. Of course, she's talking to twenty-somethings rather than forty-odders, but let's see how much of it I can apply to my situation.

  • Get out of the library. Hm, well, the point of my going to back to school is to get out of the office and spend time in a library (and it is a library school, after all). I have a lot of work and life experience, but I want the education to formalize what I know and give me a framework to learn new things.
  • Get involved on campus. It's tough to be involved with many school activities because I don't live on-campus, parking is a joke, and I have to give up the hours I would normally work to be on campus for special events. I read somewhere that being involved in career-oriented organizations--like ACM or ASIS&T--are preferred over school-related ones, given the brief time I have to devote to extra-curriculars. Also, although I'm plenty involved with outside groups, I've never been asked about such participations in an interview and I don't put them on my resume. At this stage, I have plenty of career experience that takes precedence.
  • Separate your expectations from those of your parents. I would amend this to include co-workers and friends. I would also amend this to yourself. Some older adults going back to school see the degree as the end-all and that the degree will, on its own, open doors to new opportunity. It won't. My expectations are that my pursuit of the degree will open the doors--the hours spent studying, reading, thinking, meeting people, and so on. By the time the degree is handed to me on graduation day, I should already have plans in place for what happens the day after.
  • Try new things you aren't good at. Just going back to school is a big new thing. To me, any other new thing is a little new thing.
  • Make your job search a top priority. Ye-e-es, I agree, to a point. If you hate your job, or don't have a job, getting a job should be the most important thing. In my case, since I'm already working, I'm more concerned with meeting people affiliated with the school and its mission who are in a position to offer jobs. So I would say that meeting people and expanding my network is a top priority.
  • Take an acting course. I used to act in community theater and in college; it's a great place for meeting people. I think most people, though, would get more out of an improv comedy course: learning to think on your feet, under pressure, with people watching you, is a great experience to have. I took one at Dirty South Comedy Theater in January 2006 and it was a great experience. I actually felt my brain make new connections and re-shape itself. Bizarre. I'd like to take another course again.
  • Get rid of your perfectionist streak. My goal in school is to get B or better grades so that I can 1) get tuition reimbursement from my employer and 2) not obsess over my schoolwork. As one of my managers drilled into me, "Just give me 80 percent. Your quality level is already high enough that it'll be better than someone else's 100 percent." The key is to balance effort against value: if it's a paper that only counts 10 points, it'll get less attention than the presentation worth 30 points. Depend on your teachers/teammates for feedback indicating if the work isn't good enough.
  • Work your way through college. Heh. Next.
  • Make to-do lists. I'm performing much better in school having spent the last 20 years learning about productivity and efficiency systems. My favorite methodology at the moment is Mark Forster's book Do It Tomorrow. (Mark's Blog.) Considering that I'm now juggling a full-time job, family, banjo practice, and school, efficiency and productivity help me keep it all together.