With almost a month under my belt at the new job, I’ve had some time to reflect on the pros and cons to working full-time. For me, this is completely new. For the past twenty years of my life, I have been in school of some kind. When I graduated from high school, it was a no-brainer to go to college. When I graduated from college, the obvious next step was graduate school. Some of my relatives call me a professional student, meaning I love school, I love learning, and I could literally do it for the rest of my life if I had to.
During the past two years, as I worked toward my master’s degree in English literature, I learned and grew in more ways than I can say in a blog post. However, as much fun as grad school was, it was also very hard. As in straight up HARD sometimes. The stresses of balancing graduate-level coursework with writing a 100+ page master’s thesis, teaching freshman composition, working an extra job or two, and trying to somehow scrounge up enough money to live on every semester without sinking into the pit of student debt past the point of no return could be intense at times. I endured some of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, including the death of my grandmother and our sweet little dog, Georgie, which for me was like losing another family member. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, which, thankfully, continues to improve as it has for the past fourteen months, but which provided some very dark times for me nonetheless. All in all, I dealt with health problems, family issues, financial worries, relationship heartache, friendship loss, depression, counseling, and crazy students (I had the privilege of filing a police report twice during my first year of teaching). And all of that fell second to the always-increasing, somewhat insane reading load for school. So, by the time January rolled around this year and it came time to apply to PhD programs, you could say I was a little overwhelmed. For one thing, I was by the end of my master’s program in some pretty serious debt, and I knew the interest would just creep higher and higher if I continued on in school for the next five years (crazy that getting a PhD in Literature takes that long). For another thing, hadn’t I JUST moved to a new town, without knowing anyone, having to start all over, not two years earlier? I’m not gong to lie to you: moving to Abilene for my master’s degree sucked. For the first three months I lived there, I was miserable. Adjusting to the shocking workload of a graduate program is hard enough without lacking any kind of support system to speak of. I worked hard over the next two years to build up friend groups, learn my way around campus and around Abilene, and put down some roots, however shallow those roots might be. Now that I finally felt connected and comfortable, I was supposed to just do the whole routine all over again? That didn’t set well with me. So this past January, I put my PhD applications aside and decided to do something I never in my life would have predicted I would do—take some time off from school.
At first, I second-guessed myself. I felt inferior to the friends around me for whom committing to another five years in academia was no issue. Doubts crept into my mind. What if the real reason I wasn’t continuing on was because I wasn’t SMART enough to? Smart people don’t have commitment issues to education, right? I also had to kiss goodbye the idea of being that “cool” 28-year-old professor with a PhD. And, to top it all off, I soon realized that “sky’s the limit” is a phrase that doesn’t apply to people bound to their student loan debt. That ruled out traveling the world, becoming a missionary in South America, or spending a year by the seaside, meditating and writing a best-selling novel.
As the summer began, I returned home to live with my parents. It was not the ideal situation; my family and I get along better the more distance we put between us. Still, it meant I could live cheaply and be close to my boyfriend, and amidst the adjustments of post-college life, my job search officially began. At first, I assumed I could get a job as an adjunct professor, hopefully at a school within driving distance of my home town, and that would be the end of it. I did get three offers to adjunct at various universities—one of which was in my home town, which would have been the easy transition I was looking for—but I was shocked when I found out just how little adjuncts are paid. It’s highway robbery. Not only is it impossible to live on an adjunct salary, but you also have to wave goodbye to benefits, health insurance, and job security. All of those factors were deal-breakers for me. I revised my career goal: find a full-time job at or close to a university, so that if an opportunity to adjunct arises, it serves as supplemental income, not as my livelihood. I proceeded to apply to over twenty different positions all over the South, until I finally accepted a position as the editor of a magazine at Harding University where, ironically, I’d graduated with my bachelor’s two years earlier.
My end goal has always been to end up back at Harding, but never in my life did I imagine I’d be back so soon. Although I thought it would be an easy adjustment, it has been surprisingly more difficult than it seemed. Harding is both the place where I met lifelong friends and spent the best days of my life, and the place where I now feel utterly alone since all of those lifelong friends are gone. In fact, I think that contradiction might be the source of a future blog post. At any rate, slowly over the past four weeks, I have begun to realize that even though working full-time is a huge transition for a scholar-at-heart, there are still some big advantages to working versus being in school. Here are my top picks for why it might be a good idea to consider working before pursuing a graduate (or another graduate) degree:
1. No more insane schedules
The best thing about grad school is the flexible schedule. And the worst thing about grad school is the flexible schedule. Sure, it’s nice to have whole days during the week with nothing to do but study, and it’s convenient to have a four-hour break in the middle of your day for that much-needed nap since your sleep-deprived self went to bed at 4 a.m. the night before. But it’s also a pain to have night classes that don’t end until 10 p.m. and then have to be up at 7:00 the next morning to teach. Not once, even on the weekends, did I ever feel like I was actually caught up on my work with nothing else to do. NOT ONCE. The result is a constant guilt trip you place upon yourself so that, if you ever do anything that is not related to school (i.e. actually have a weekend), you can’t even enjoy it for feeling like a horrible human being. Everyone understands the grad school guilt trip, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. Often my schedule required me to be up at 7 a.m. to teach, go to classes and meetings, crash in the afternoon, and then go to work or more classes in the evenings, followed by several hours of homework and lesson planning, putting my bedtime, on average, around 3:00 a.m. It’s not a good way to live life.
Now that I’m working full-time, it is glorious to be done working for the day at 5 p.m. Sometimes I actually have all of my work caught up by the end of the day. Even if I don’t, it’s ok. It’ll be there waiting for me the next morning, and I don’t have to think about it again until then. Every evening, I have a pure, unadulterated six or seven hours to do precisely whatever I want. Want to go hang out with friends? I can do that. Want to go to the gym and then get all my errands done? I can do that, too. Want to go home and not do a thing for the rest of the evening besides watch How I Met Your Mother? That is also an entirely realistic option. There’s never anything I need to get done in the evenings that pushes my bedtime past 12:00 a.m. (unless, of course, I get caught up in that How I Met Your Mother marathon. Let’s be real.). It’s a very freeing feeling.
2. Jobs make money go up. School makes money go down.
During my six years in college, I sank deeper and deeper into debt. And that wasn’t because I was an apathetic borrower or for lack of trying other options. I initially came to college on an academic scholarship that, while it wasn’t a full ride, did cover about $10,000 a year toward tuition. In addition to that, I had numerous other smaller scholarships, including Harding-based ones, music ones, and a Sam Walton scholarship. I also worked a job (two, if you count the 20+ hours a week I put into band activities I was paid for). My family, though financially tight themselves, helped me by paying for my books and giving me a little spending money each semester. All of that to say, I did everything I could have possibly done to earn money for college. And I still came out of my undergraduate degree with more than $30,000 in debt. Over the next two years of grad school, it was the same routine of looking for scholarships and working two or more jobs in any given semester, and again, at the end of my degree, my debt had grown exponentially. The interest accruing on the amount of money I owed at that point was frightening—a key reason why I decided not to continue on with my education. I began to question whether or not an education was worth the financial burden I was under.
At the same time, I was dealing with a chronic illness and couldn’t go to the doctor because my family did not have health insurance. It was simply too expensive. While I could go off on a tangent about how the government needs to take better care of students trying to better themselves and hard-working middle class families who often fall through the cracks, I’ll save that soapbox speech for another day. The point is, nobody—not my family, not my school, not the government—could take care of me, physically or financially. That is where working full-time becomes a tremendous blessing. Not only does a full-time job enable me to begin slowly chipping away at that debt mountain, but for the first time in my life, I have health insurance should anything happen to me. I have life insurance so that I know my family would be taken care of if I weren’t here. Should I decide to pursue another degree from Harding, I would receive a full tuition discount. And any money I set aside for retirement is matched by the university. The list of benefits goes on and on, from paid vacation to free gym membership to bookstore discounts to tuition wavers for my dependents (should I ever have any). All of these things might not sound like a big deal to you if you’ve had them all your life, but for me, this is huge. Knowing that I’m able to take care of myself, provide for myself, and even in some ways take care of my parents and my sister, means the world to me. It’s peace of mind I’ve never had before. My job, in short, takes care of me in a way that universities don’t. At this point in my life, this kind of protection is something I simply need to have. It’s one of the main reasons this job is such a huge blessing for me.
3. Networking opportunities
Although I’m still a new employee, my goal over the course of however long I’m here is to meet as many people and establish as many relationships as possible. Mostly, this is just because I care about people and want to make friends. But career-wise it is always smart to make as many job connections as possible. You never know when they will help you in life. Although that may sound a bit selfish, it’s actually pretty normal and necessary for advancement in a career field. Future goals for me include teaching, missions, and even teaching on an overseas program, so it makes sense that I would want to establish relationships with the people who can help me make those dreams happen. Additionally, the more people you meet, the more you learn—about people, about how the world works, about your career field. The academic in me gets very excited about learning new things from people at my job.
4. Learning things that are NOT academic-related
Talking about books all the time is interesting, but there are other important things in life that you can’t learn from a book. And believe me, as the biggest book nerd you will ever meet, it takes a lot for me to admit that. Talking about literature in school and then teaching literature in school is a normal transition I suppose, but when it comes to life, I believe you can never have too many different kinds of life experiences. In the short month that I have been working this job, for example, I have been thrown headfirst into the journalism/publishing field, in addition to learning the ropes of working for a department that functions in some ways as a small business with the goal of helping young people learn how to achieve their full leadership potential. So far, I’ve been trained in IT to manage a website (I only cried a few times) and in social media (for the first time in my life, I have a Twitter account and am getting acclimated to Instagram, Pinterest, and Reddit. I even, as you can see, have a blog. If you’d seen me trying to set it up, you would have assumed I was approximately 80 years old). I’ve even had a few crash courses in journalism. “Awkward” would be a merciful term for how I handled the first interview I ever conducted for the magazine. I’m learning the behind-the-scenes on how events are planned, apps are created, and social media is used to promote ideas and make things happen. Even though it’s a painful learning process at times, it’s still completely fascinating to me. I sometimes wish I had about ten different lives to live so I could do something completely different in each one of them. Since that’s not a realistic option, I’ll settle for learning new skill sets any day.
5. New experiences teach you things about you.
As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true. Putting yourself outside your comfort zone is good for personal growth. For me, that meant walking away from the academic world (in the sense that I wasn’t actively participating in scholarship anymore. I realize that I still work for a university). If I’d gone immediately into my PhD, I think I would have always wondered what other adventures I could have had in my 20s. Additionally, I need to know that I can provide for myself, take care of myself, and make big-girl decisions that often get made for you when you are in school. I need to pay bills, budget, save, and get out of debt. I want to travel and see as many cultures and learn as many things as I possibly can in this lifetime. I want to learn new languages, break down barriers, build up relationships, create more art and music, actually finish writing that novel. And I want to teach. No matter what I do, I want to make a difference in the world. This job provides more immediate means of doing so than continuing my studies would.
Granted, this is merely how I feel right now at this time in my life, and that doesn’t mean I won’t ever change my mind. I am still an academic at heart, no matter what. Someday, I will be back inside the ivory tower. Someday, I’ll sign that “Dr.” title proudly in front of my name. But I have this feeling like I need to learn a lot of things before that time comes. And I’m ok with that. I’ve realized now that not going to PhD school doesn’t mean I’m not smart. And it doesn’t mean people who DO go are less smart. Working instead of getting an education certainly has its pros, as I’ve said. But as with anything in life, it also has its cons, and sometimes those change depending on where you are in life. What I’ve learned, I think, from all of this is that no choice in your life is “more right” than another. Some might turn out better than others, sure, but it’s not as if life is some big guessing game in which a deity is waiting to punish you for choosing the wrong path. Do what feels right to you in the place you’re at, and if that place happens to be working full-time, then these advantages above mean good things in store for you.