If you’d asked me back in 2016, when I was a first-year undergraduate student, if I would one day go to graduate school, my answer would have been a resounding no. As a perfectionist who is fueled more by my creative endeavors than by academics, I wasn’t interested in experiencing the stress of academia longer than I had to. I dreamed of graduating and going into the world to create, write, make a difference, and just generally do something. But, as my 2019 graduation rolled around, I had a bachelor’s degree in English, a minor in writing and rhetoric, and not a single clue what job I wanted to pursue. I had wonderful experiences in undergrad working part-time jobs, writing for Her Campus and other outlets, and taking interesting classes, but none of these things gave me a clear sense of what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. It was at this point that I applied for graduate school for the first time.
Now, it’s 2021. I’m a little bit over a month away from graduating with my master’s degree in communications and I’m in a similar predicament as before. However, this time, there’s also a global pandemic happening. When I entered my master’s program, I had the same mentality I did in undergrad: get in, get my degree, get out and get into the “real” world. Then, midway through grad school, the pandemic hit. We quickly transitioned to remote instruction and after months of quarantine, what seemed like a really easy task (find a job after grad school) became much more complicated. Should I graduate and look for a job like I originally intended? Or should I keep going to school?
According to a study published by the Pew Research Center in June of 2020, in the first few months of the coronavirus outbreak, employment decreased by 20.6 million, particularly affecting Hispanic women and young adults (like myself), immigrants, and those without a college education. While the situation is certainly changing as we start getting vaccinated and continue taking precautions, according to an article published by Reuters in March of 2021, of the 22.2 million jobs lost during the pandemic, the economy has recovered just 12.4 million of those jobs. Economists are optimistic, but as a liberal arts student who might have already had a hard time finding a job in a non-pandemic world, I’m scared that the state of the world will make it ten times more difficult to land a stable job.
The graduate school situation isn’t much different. In difficult global and economic situations, the number of students enrolling in higher education programs tends to increase, as people who lost jobs or are struggling to find jobs attempt to gain skills and credentials to help them land a position. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center announced in February of 2021 that graduate enrollment is growing, and it’s growing fast. In other words, more people are applying for a limited number of spots at graduate institutions that, due to the pandemic, may be facing budget cuts. I mention the budget cuts because I’m a firm believer that, if it’s a possibility, you should only attend a graduate school that will fund your studies. But that’s an op-ed for a different day.
So, what did I do?
At first, despite everything going on with the lack of jobs and the pandemic, I was still determined to find a job. I used my newfound free time (the time I would have usually used to commute to and from campus) to network and get involved in mentorship programs. I scheduled informational interviews left and right and scoured LinkedIn for jobs I could apply for. I had bookmarks upon bookmarks of job openings, internship databases, fellowships, and creative opportunities. At the same time, I reluctantly wrote up my Ph.D. applications and I told everyone, “I’m applying to Ph.D. programs, but only as a backup plan.” HAH. The joke’s on me.
Unfortunately, I quickly lost momentum with the job search. I know you’ve all seen those job listings that are considered “entry-level” and then require 10+ years of professional experience and advanced proficiency in software you’ve never heard of, right? (Also, please make it make sense. To have 10 years of experience by now, I would have needed to start my professional career when I was 12 years old). Those were the kinds of jobs I was coming across as I conducted my searches. As much as I wanted the entry-level job world to want me, it doesn’t right now. The entry-level job world is looking for professionals who were laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic, not a 22-year-old with a couple of part-time jobs and internships under her belt.
And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling I wanted so badly of living out the employed girl life I’d been dreaming of since undergrad. I still want a job, but that world isn’t ready for me yet. Meanwhile, academia is. The Ph.D. programs I applied to gave me admissions decisions across the board, from acceptances to waitlist positions to rejections. I took a lot of time to think about my final decision. I weighed out the pros and cons of continuing to look for a job or committing to a Ph.D. program. To do so, I asked myself a few questions that, if you’re in a similar situation, you can ask yourself, too. These questions are a mixed bag of questions from advice websites, questions I found on Academic Twitter (the academic side of Twitter), and questions I’d been asked by my advisors, peers, etc.
I’ll share the questions and how I answered them before I tell you what I decided to do:
Will a higher education degree help you land a job? If you’re not sure right now, will it provide you some other benefit (i.e., more time to research/study something you’re passionate about, more time and opportunities to figure out what you want to do)?
I don’t know if a Ph.D. will help me land a job, but I know it will give me the opportunity to continue researching what I’m passionate about (Latina representation in the media). I also know that it will give me opportunities for involvement that I haven’t taken advantage of yet.
What do you value right now? Consider things like time, financial stability, your location, life milestones, what you need in terms of support, who/what else you need to factor into your decision.
I’m still young and right now, my priority is being close to my family without living at home. I’m used to the time and financial constraints of academic life because I’ve already earned my master’s degree. I’m not particularly concerned about life milestones (like having kids, getting a pet, buying a house, or getting married), so really the only person I have to factor into my decision is me.
If you knew you couldn’t fail, which path would you take? Does that answer change knowing that you can fail? Be brutally honest with yourself here. It’s okay if you don’t like the answer.
If I knew I couldn’t fail I might not pursue higher education. However, knowing I can fail and recognizing the privilege of being admitted with funding to an academic program at a time when application submissions are rapidly increasing makes me reconsider. One of the things I worried about was going down the “easy” route. Obviously, neither route is easy, but there’s stability and comfort in doing what you already know (school) versus jumping into the unknown (a job). The best thing to do is weigh out the benefits of either route for you. Sometimes there is merit to pursuing the “safer” path if it could help you financially, help you make connections, or allow you more time to figure yourself and your interests out. Other times, you need to get out of your comfort zone to make any progress.
Thinking about where you are right now, could you handle the stress of a job? Could you handle the stress of obtaining an advanced degree?
I believe I could handle the stress of either. I’m determined, studious, and dedicated to anything I set my mind to. I’m figuring out a proper work-life balance or a better integration of the two, but I’m generally quite organized with my work. I’m a leader and I’m independent, but I know how to work on a team. For the most part, I have mostly used these skills in a school setting, but I know I could use them in a work setting too. The pressure of obtaining an academic degree is more familiar to me, but given the traits of my personality, I feel I could thrive in either setting.
Do you have anyone who can weigh in on the decision? For instance, a partner, an advisor, a mentor, family members, friends. Their word isn’t gospel, but remember that other people perceive you differently than you perceive yourself. Maybe these other people will have some insight into your situation that you don’t see.
I spoke with faculty members from both my current and previous universities, my parents, my peers, and my friends. I didn’t let them make the decision for me, I just heard their thoughts. Some of my family didn’t want me to continue pursuing education. That’s a fair perspective because I’ve always had a sort of rocky relationship with academia (see my brief guide for getting through the semester if you’re an anxious student like me). My advisor and mentor thought a Ph.D. would be a great option for me since I usually find some way to excel in academics. They think I’m cut out to be a professor someday which is an interesting viewpoint as well. My friends aren’t interested in higher education, so most of them supported me either way, but didn’t quite see the value. Again, all of their insight is great. It lets me know how they perceive me.
I recognize that all of these considerations are extremely privileged. Not everyone gets the opportunity to decide if they want to pursue higher education. For some, this opportunity is blocked by structural inequity, racism, sexism, wealth gaps, lack of access to necessary materials, geographical location, and more. It wasn’t possible for me to make a decision without recognizing that reality. My hope is that I can take advantage of my privilege as a Puerto Rican Latina in higher education to make this a possibility for other historically marginalized groups.