The Graduate School Gambit

This semester, having started graduate school in the Applied Learning & Instruction M.A. program at University of Central Florida, an understaffed and somewhat obscure program in the College of Education and Human Performance, I have enjoyed almost universal support and encouragement from family, friends, and acquaintances when education comes up in conversation. However, to say this is a reliable indicator that one has made the best decision, or even a good decision, is dubious at best. While I am happy with the decision to invest $15,000 of my family’s money and perhaps 2500 hours of my time in becoming educated through the structures, procedures, and recommendations made by the instructors of the classes I take in this program, as well as eventually learning how to conduct scientific research, that does not necessarily mean I could not learn the same skills or better skills elsewhere, both at less cost and with more efficiency.

In sum, my undergraduate education in psychology and various elective classes was fully paid for by the state, since it was subsidized by the federal Pell grant program and other tax dollars, the Florida Bright Futures scholarship program, and several other grants and scholarships. Living in Florida, I can never sympathize when people talk about the perils of going into debt to pay for their Bachelors’ degrees, since community colleges and state universities are a viable option and of a lower cost here than in many other states. However, I am receiving no financial aid or scholarships for my graduate classes, and must also pay nearly double the undergraduate tuition per credit hour. Considering graduate school is much more costly and difficult to find grants or scholarships for, it is reasonable to consider graduate school a gambit, meaning “a calculated move” or “something done or said in order to gain an advantage or to produce a desired result.” This implies the quite real probability that the gambit will fail, either subtly or spectacularly.

Typically, people talk about the perils of education in terms of dollars lost—due to the wasted time and money that could have been spent working and advancing one’s career. However, just because you could be working during the time spent on graduate school does not mean such work would be emotionally fulfilling or lead you where you want to go. Particularly with the meta situation of going to college to become an educator, such education has a large extrinsic value, since it is an artificial prerequisite of being an institutionalized educator. This extrinsic value should not be dismissed, because being part of an institution gives one authority, credibility, resources, connections, and higher pay than the majority of self- or independently employed people.

Like a courtship, graduate school should be entered without expectations or attachment to preconceived opinions about what “should” be. It is very different from any other product one would typically purchase. It is also somewhat different from undergraduate education because less hand-holding and incompetence is expected. In many ways, you are expected to be in charge of your education and to exhibit the required attention and self-discipline. Therefore, for fields that do not require special access afforded by a university (i.e. to laboratories, patients, or equipment), such as liberal arts, “soft” sciences, and most computing fields, self-education or education through alternate means can arguably be of equal or greater effectiveness. One could merely read Wikipedia articles (including referenced works) and get as much of an education as graduate school. It is not unthinkable for one to have the rigor and self-discipline to create agendas, assignments, schedules, deadlines, and exams for oneself. One could even solicit subjects and conduct survey research with ease. Unfortunately, even with the rise of free online courses, few people have the willpower to follow through with such plans. Consider that college attendees, with endless sociocultural pressure to persist, drop out in droves—it is not surprising that self-education might be even more difficult. Thus, many students going to graduate school are merely paying for their lack of willpower!

In American culture, being unemployed is unacceptable, but being an unemployed college student garners one instant praise and universal acceptance. While it is easy to fake being a college student, for the honest student who seeks a degree largely for feelings of wisdom, competence, or superiority, social acceptance should be no more than a tangential issue. If you value your individuality, choosing a subject you are interested in is important and should take precedence over what your family or peers encourage you to study. However, developing or losing interest in a field can easily happen after beginning one’s collegiate studies. To say that it is important to figure out what you want to do ahead of time may be a misnomer—knowing you are going down a wrong road often requires traveling part of it. Pursuing any interest is a gambit, but is usually preferable to inaction.

My purpose with this essay is to superficially acknowledge the wide variety of educational options available, and to recognize that graduate school is not necessarily better or worse than other options for the reasons that are commonly parroted. Elevating the importance of introspection and self-inquiry is a marker of narcissism and an easy way to get out of doing real work—graduate school is particularly effective at debunking the value of opinion and educating one to value rigorous and empirical analysis. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of nebulous theories and cults of personality that counteract this phenomenon. Professors command unnatural respect—they are rarely heckled or ridiculed like a cashier at Walmart or McDonald’s, even though they should technically be equivalent to employees (or at least independent contractors) of the students. This is probably because colleges and universities are in the peculiar situation of being paid by you to make sure you learn—which returns to my argument that higher education is a substitute for willpower. The archetypal college-dropout millionaire perennially reminds us that college is for weak, uninspired, boring individuals. The middle road is far less sexy; it is easy to draw inferences from outliers. We cannot say whether successful college dropouts would have succeeded just as much or more had they completed their college educations, though it is fun to bash education.

I will close with the idea that graduate school, like many gambits, is pursued most frequently by individuals who need it least. Many of the people going to graduate school are already relatively educated critical thinkers. They are perfectly capable of contributing to society with their current education and even being financially and emotionally fulfilled, yet compete for slots in graduate programs out of greed and avarice. I will not delude you into believing this greed is for money—it is far more likely for status and prestige. The title of doctor is coveted and bandied about by people who are not medical doctors, despite this being the overwhelming mental association among outsiders or laypersons. Universities are complicit in their greed for state funds, federal funds, and tuition dollars. Like the housing and precious metals markets, higher education is becoming ripe for the slaughter. Although it is obvious that learning can still take place and value reciprocated in such an environment, it is harder to discern when diminishing returns will turn a gambit into a crapshoot.

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