Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Boomerang Kid

When I told my mom that I wanted to quit graduate school, I expected there to be some huge, dramatic argument.  I come from an academic family.  Both of my parents have graduate degrees from top universities, my mom is a professor, and my younger sister had just started a PhD program in genetics.  I was surprised to find that it was no big deal.  Her reaction was essentially that I'm an adult and can make my own decisions.  She wanted to make sure that I wasn't just running away from criticism and tried to remind me that there are benefits to a life in academia, but otherwise, she would respect my choice either way.  As soon as I let myself think of leaving as a real possibility, I felt like I could breathe again.  But now what?

I completed my thesis and earned my M.A., but I went to Iowa for a doctorate.  Finally finishing gave me a weird sense that I had failed, even though I succeeded by most people's standards.  Now I'm a part-time nanny trying to apply to teaching jobs -- or any job -- and only able to "leave the nest" because I'm fortunate enough to have a boyfriend who is willing to split rent by income percentage and parents who are willing to help cover some of my bills.  Aside from the technicality that I am not actually living in my parents' house, I am part of the "boomerang generation" that left home only to make our way back, suspended in a state of semi-adolescence.  I spent the entire winter applying to several teaching jobs a day (many of which required a B.A., not even an M.A. or certification) and only received one phone interview.  Now it looks like the best I can manage is substitute teaching at a couple of schools in the Fall and maybe some unpaid creative opportunities.  This is something that people do when they are fresh out of college and trying to start a career, but now I'm getting closer to 30 years old and my peers who didn't go to graduate school have been establishing themselves at "real" jobs and living independently for the years that I spent in classrooms.  I am more fortunate than most; at least I have no student loans to pay off.

I don't say all of this to whine.  This is a real issue that my generation is facing -- just watch one episode of "Girls" and you'll know that adulthood barely starts in your twenties anymore.  Article after article (and one hilarious youtube video) has been doubting the value of graduate education in today's job market.  Some people are even questioning whether an undergraduate education is really necessary compared to four years of work experience (see also: this article), although the statistics still show that job loss is higher among those who only hold a High School degree.  For some people, academia is the best option.  Several members of my cohort back in Iowa will get through the 7 to 9 years that it takes to complete a PhD in History and they'll end up with tenure-track jobs and love what they do for the rest of their lives.  For most of us, however, the odds are not great.  Believe me that the thought has crossed my mind that the problem is me -- not the economy or the education system.  Still, enough of us are having the same problem, or the "boomerang generation" and reevaluation of higher education wouldn't be such a hot topic.  I feel like we're another Generation X.  (Maybe that's why grunge is back in fashion?)

I don't really have a solution to offer or even a nice, neat conclusion to wrap up all of these issues.  This was a difficult post to write and there were still so many thoughts I couldn't articulate (why I left grad school in the first place, the fact that I'm still a lot happier now than I was last year, or education and wage disparities along race and gender lines, for example) or this would have gone from blog post to dissertation.  I know it didn't include any pictures and wasn't fun to read (so maybe most of you didn't read it), but I think it's important for writers -- bloggers, even -- to be honest about the challenges in life, not just the fun stuff.  Despite the fact that I do consider myself incredibly fortunate and privileged compared to the majority of the world, I am living in a small apartment in a modest town, going to work every day and trying to save money and to improve myself, like most people.  And like most people, I feel frustrated a lot of the time, like no one's giving me the opportunity to reach my full potential.  At least through writing and working on my health I can regain a sense of self-worth.  Being creative is one satisfying constant that I need to have in my life.  What are yours?


  1. This is an awesome post. Simply awesome. You hit the nail on the head perfectly.

    I think there's a huge problem with higher education, and it makes me feel that colleges and universities can be so sneaky. After 4 years of undergrad, I left feeling like I had no idea what to do with myself in the real world. I'd spent 4 years in classes where I did things like crawl around on the floor or work on breathing techniques or write papers on the 'dichotomy of love and hate in [insert title here]'. And all this time I believed I was just pursuing my dreams and my passions as a theatre major. Unfortunately dreams and passions and the ability to speak an entire soliloquy of Shakespeare in one breath doesn't pay rent. And so I had to go back to school to earn a 'license' to get a job. And even THAT process was filled with reading Plato and Freire with very little time spent on real-world practice. It's almost like we've reached this point in higher education where the emphasis is on over-intellectualizing anything without enough real-world application, leaving graduates with no other choice but to cough up money for more schooling, to seek alternate paths, or head back home.

    I think staying rooted in passion is important though -- even if most people cannot be fortunate enough to have their passion and career be one and the same. Always keeping a part of what you love in your life will make you feel like you.

    I'm always here for you, girl! <3

  2. I don't really mind education for education's sake. I think it's great to come out of college knowing Plato and Shakespeare, but the problem is that if people pay so much for their education, they expect a return on that investment and it just isn't guaranteed anymore, especially as more and more people go to college by default, thinking it will automatically lead to a job. I don't really know what the solution is -- whether we need to change the education itself or just our attitudes about the education (or the cost of it). All I know is that it leads to a lot of people meandering aimlessly through their twenties with plenty of education but nothing to show for it. Oh well... I may be frustrated, but I'm not depressed. Thanks for commenting!