Monday, October 8, 2012

Why I Shouldn't Have Gone To Grad School

Disclaimer: This comes from a privileged background.

Every autumn, around October, my inbox starts to fill up with a particular type of e-mail. They usually look something like this: "Hey designated writer friend, would you mind checking out my Harvard/Princeton/Yale/ essays for B-School/LawSchool/MedSchool?

I really like editing personal essays. My friends are a diverse group of brilliant people, and I learn amazing things about each of them as I strike out passive tense and push for an anecdote. Looking at their personal statements gives me insight into what experiences have moved them, at least the ones that are PC enough to send to the Ivy Leagues.

But I recognize the dissonance I feel when I think about graduate school -- a dissonance I chose, cowardly, to ignore two years ago and almost never lie about when probed.

My decision to go to Columbia stemmed from the wrong elements. Fear, for one. I was scared that not having the prestigious diploma, despite the crumbling of publishing houses and general pessimism of the journalism field, would be the reason I wouldn't make it as a writer. I remember hastily dashing off essays at a coffee shop in India so quickly that somebody would think I didn't even want to get into the school. I'm not sure that I did.

The other reason, of course, was external pressure. So many of the writers I admired had their MFAs (and when you're applying to school you forget that just as many don't), and my friends and family continuously asked me about grad school. Some women in my family sacrificed their shot at a Master's degree or PhD for family, children or financial reasons, and my own academic standing was an opportunity dealt at a time in my life when I had very little responsibility to anyone.

I remember the exact moment I got my acceptance letter. I was standing outside of a host family's door in Bapu Dham with my sister on the phone, wondering if I could pretend that the words Congratulations said something else.

When I think about the most powerful moments of learning in my life, they have never, once, been attached to a classroom. I have had some incredible professors, discussions and editors at school (mostly at University of Florida on full scholarship), but they can't make up for real life. International Relations was best learned in India and Brazil, and Reporting and Writing when I started to connect faces in front of me with print on my document.

Columbia, though flawed, wasn't to blame. It had most of what it advertised -- prestigious faculty, networking events, hands-on learning, access to New York City. And it was an ideal place for students who had never experimented with their local newspapers or agonized over a lead, or left their small, homogenous community to talk to someone completely different than themselves. But for students like me, it delayed the inevitable. And at the end of the year, as I watched my friends struggle just to land unpaid internships as we had after undergrad, I couldn't help but feel a little bitter.

During the election season, candidates talk a lot about access to education. I think graduate school should be a choice, but I didn't feel like it was. It is certainly an opportunity, and sometimes, a good one. Grad school is necessary for fields like medicine, pharmacy and law. It's a safe haven for students who haven't always had access to great institutional education. I think everyone should experience the camaraderie and structure of college at some point in their lives, and sometimes that can't happen until a 34-year-old laborer saves up for the dream degree that he wrote on a dollar bill when he left his parents house as a teenager.

For subjects like journalism, business, politics and religion, I think a healthy dose of library time, a group of people to workshop with, an apprenticeship, and an irreverent mentor can take you a great deal further and save you thousands in debt. I wish I had, Andy-Cooper-360 style, taken the Columbia money and spent more time in transit, pushing my boundaries in a way that didn't involve Brad's Cafe and an editing suite.

When I finally wore the blue robes and cap and filed into a bleacher overlooking the Columbia campus, the only thing that made me feel at peace was my parents' support and pride. My degree was a gift I gave them, and I'm not ashamed that I overrode my personal choice for family, even if they will dispute that statement to this moment.

Now I have a job that I really like with ample room for growth and writing and learning and solvency. I live in a city that I adore, one that serves as a microcosm for so many different societal forces. And without the structure of school, my curiosity has returned full force and I visit MLK Library as if it were going to be taken away from me in the sequestration.

With the freedom and independence that comes from graduating, I'm taking music classes and working on personal projects and attempting not to faceplant on the ultimate frisbee field. But I can't bring myself to credit graduate school for any small success I have now, or may have in the future. Maybe that will change. 


Saumya said...

I admire your honesty and courage in writing this. It's inspiring to see that you're getting the most out of your craft now! Go get 'em, gal!

Nikhil Dochania said...

This is good!! no actually very good. I guess we all ponder about our education and the value it adds to our lifes and often overlook the experiences around it specially if we have studied outside our homeland. Its great to know that you have got more out of your education than it was intended. Good work writing this and in your own way you are touching some vital cords. Keep up the goodness!! more strength to you.