come down from your ivory tower

The U.S. posted an 8.5% unemployment estimate about a week ago. And whenever a new batch of layoffs hit the news and the streets, my generation does what it was born to do: think about going to grad school.

Now, I have a lot of friends in grad school, business school or law school currently. I’m sure all of them made excellent, informed choices before signing up for fifty thousand dollars in debt and three years of tedium. However, I know a few people who are on the cusp. Should I go back to school?, they wonder. I had so much fun at college. An advanced degree might make my resume look more attractive. I can ride out the recession behind the walls of l’academe, then emerge with a door-busting CV and some phat paper!

All of that sounds tempting. I know I don’t like the looks of the job market today, and I’m safely employed. But before you commit yourself to a thousand hours of research on subjects you’ll never care about, and another thousand hours of papers no one will ever read, I want to make sure you’ve considered the alternatives.

(Please note: the following does not apply to people who need to go to grad school to continue their chosen career, like med students or adjunct professors. This is only a warning to people who think grad school is a great place to hide from a down economy)

Five Alternatives to Getting an Advanced Degree (Grad School, Business School, Law School, etc)

1. Flee The Country

On average, grad school costs over $30,000 per year. Let’s say $35K, since the data in that article’s at least 4 years old and you’ll be paying for most of that $30K by taking on debt anyway. Law schools and the top tier business schools, of course, cost significantly more.

I'll bet they wish they were writing a 50-page paper right now.

I'll bet they wish they were writing a 50-page paper right now.

For $35,000 a year, you could backpack across Europe. Move to an exotic city, crash at a cheap hostel for a week, then quiz the locals on a good neighborhood. Lease an apartment there for a month. Visit ancient Roman ruins and the remains of Moorish culture. Learn a different language. Try foreign food. Make friends from another continent. Live a little.

Don’t want to spend that much money? Or maybe breadth of travel’s less of a premium? Then go teach English in Thailand. You pay no more than $3000 to $4000 for airfare and program fees; the school handles the rest. They will put you up for a year, give you local support and provide you with a curriculum. You can make a difference in kids’ lives (if that matters to you) and see a completely different corner of the globe (which should).

Grad school’s probably not going to make you a more interesting person; sorry. Visiting another country will.

2. Get Arrested

Call me a cynic, but I doubt that most of the one hundred and fifty thousand or so students enrolled in law school have a passion for the intricacies of jurisprudence. For one thing, it’s a hard subject to get passionate about. Study the tax code if you don’t believe me.

But let’s say you’re not in it for that mythical six-figure paycheck and you really, truly, in your heart of hearts, have a deep and abiding love for the minutiae of the U.S. penal code and all the local statutes. Really? Really and honestly?

Okay, fine. Get arrested.

This generation's Clarence Darrow.

This generation's Clarence Darrow.

Nobody knows more about the law than the halfway smart guys who show up on the docket every other month. I’m not talking about the chronic fuckups who’ve dissolved their brains with meth or glue or Sterno. I mean the hustlers – the guys living on the raggedy edge trying to make a dishonest buck. The guys who know half the cops in the city by their first name. The guys who have a dozen sob stories to beg for a few dollars but can always come up with bail money.

I was standing in the Davis Square T station the other day when the infamous Spare Change newspaper scammer tried to foist a used newspaper on me for a dollar. I snapped his picture with my cell phone camera. “That’s identity theft,” he started howling. “You can’t do that!”

“Then go get the security guard,” I told him. “I’ll wait.”

The leathery man continued to spit abuse at me, circling at various erratic distances – sometimes a foot away, sometimes yelling from the other end of the track. But never once did he lay a finger on me. I’d just outed him to everyone within earshot and ruined his game for the rest of the morning. But he knew that as soon as he touched me, that was an assault rap. This guy’s probably stood before enough judges in his life to know the legal limits of any scam he runs.

Think too much of yourself to get arrested for vagrancy or petty theft? That’s fine. You can get arrested for securities fraud, embezzlement, or any of a long list of white-collar crimes. I promise you: you will get more practical knowledge about the law after one indictment than after three years at law school.

3. Start Your Own Business

“Oh, but I’m not trying to hide from a down economy,” you tell me. “And I don’t want to go to grad school. I’m looking for an MBA. I want to put myself at least $50,000 to $100,000 in debt so I can spout terms like ‘six Sigma’ and ‘root cause analysis’ without sounding like a jackass.”

Two things. First, there’s no way you can work the words “six Sigma” into a conversation without sounding like a jackass, unless you’re talking about Mega Man. Second, if you want a practical education about what it takes to manage a business, start your own business.

You can learn how to write a business plan online. You can buy or borrow a nice suit and hit up your local bank for a business loan. That hundred thousand dollar debt you were so comfortable taking on just a few minutes ago? Plow that money into online advertising, then work out of your garage or attic making cold calls.

Cynics love picking on entrepreneurs. They tell you that at least one third of all small businesses fail within the first two years, and that fewer than half survive past four years. This is true. You are almost guaranteed to be broke and jobless in four years. Now, raise your hand if you’ve held a desk job with the same company for longer than four years. Keep your hand up if, at the start of year five, you still liked it.

What’s the worst thing that can happen here? That your business will tank after two years, leaving you eighty thousand dollars in debt and without a job? Oddly, that’s exactly the same place you’d be if you’d gone to business school. Only now, instead of being one of 10,000 identical MBAs flooding the job market, you’d have a wealth of local contacts, a resume full of actual job experience, and an interesting story to tell. “Producing training videos for animal shelters? Huh. What was that like?”

4. Write the Great American Novel

Everybody thinks they can write a novel, just like everybody thinks they can talk about economics. As someone with degrees in English and Economics, I find this monumentally offensive. I spent years of my life slaving over meaningless papers just to get the necessary accreditation to say, “the eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby are a symbol, ma-a-n” or “I find the entire discipline of Keynesian macroeconomics to be bullshit, and thus won’t bother discussing it.”

That’s not something just any moron can do.

Clearly not the work of an English major

Clearly not the work of an English major

However, history suggests that you don’t need a degree in English to write a novel that people will like. I’m sure there are a few obscure authors who managed to pull it off. Hell, maybe people wrote novels before the existence of B.A. degrees, or in languages other than English (though nothing comes to mind at the moment). And if you’re willing to leap into the risky world of entrepreneurship (#3) or going to jail (#2), nothing’s stopping you from the daunting endeavor of writing a manuscript about People Coming To Terms With Things.

So: what does it take to write a novel? Answer: at least 50,000 words, though 60,000 is probably safer. If you get to the end of your masterpiece and find that you only have 50,000, then go back and stick in an adjective every fifth word. Give some consideration to plot, theme, vividness of imagery and the changing motivations of your characters, but don’t get too hung up on it.

Let’s give ourselves a whole year to write this novel, rather than trying to cram it into a month that already has a major American travel holiday in it. There’s 52 weeks in a year, but let’s give ourselves 2 weeks vacation (just like a real office job!). 50,000 words in 50 weeks means 1,000 words a week. That’s either 1 hour of writing on a given weekday, or 200 words five days a week. I’m even giving you the weekends off.

Don’t get the impression that you can spend the rest of the day loafing around Walden Pond, though. Even if you only spend half an hour every day writing those 200 words, you’ll still need to devote plenty of time to:


  • Cold-calling agents;
  • Filling editors’ slushpiles;
  • Posting cat pictures on your blog;
  • Walking to the nearest coffeeshop with your laptop, ordering a non-dairy latte with a double shot of espresso, checking Gawker, and then walking home;
  • Bitching on the Huffington Post about how little respect America has for the humanities disciplines

Unfortunately, publishing companies don’t pay very generous advances for unsolicited manuscripts by first-timers, so you’ll be living off savings or going into debt. But, had you gone to grad school, you would have written at least 150,000 words of research papers, grant applications and pleading e-mails to professors that no one would ever read. Plus you’d be eighty thousand dollars in debt. Now, you’ll be eighty thousand dollars in debt, but you’ll have written at least three novels! And one of them’s bound to be good.

5. Sit On Your Couch, Smoke Weed and Play Video Games

This is a hard one to justify. Traveling abroad enriches your outlook. Getting arrested gives you excellent stories and builds your negotiation skills. Starting your own business puts a bold new face on your resume. Writing a novel puts you in the company of struggling authors worldwide. In all of these cases, you’re trading grad school for something fulfilling.

But staying at home and playing video games all day? Especially once you see the crap that Sony’s coming out with?

The folks at the unemployment office prefer that you at least lie about your attempts to find a new job. And it’ll be hard to return to the job market with an empty year on your resume. So, if you pursue this path, you’ll want to come up with a good cover story. Taking care of a sick relative, perhaps. Or “finding yourself.” Maybe you joined the Peace Corps! They don’t keep records, do they?

Given the pathetic spectacle of a grown human being sitting in their pajamas at 3:30 in the afternoon, the remains of a burrito sprinkled over their T-shirt while they look for something to occupy them between new episodes of Days and reruns of Seinfeld … wouldn’t grad school be a more attractive option?

No.

courtesy of PhD Comics, so you KNOW it's true!

courtesy of PhD Comics, so you KNOW it's true!

First, nobody cares what you did in grad school. The next employer you interview with – unless they’re an academic – won’t really care about the hours you spent researching some obscure point of Macedonian culture just to finish your Art History paper. And the academic employers won’t want to hire you anyway. Universities already overflow with warm bodies.

Second, there’s nothing that says that a human must constantly strive to improve their status in the eyes of society. We frown on sponges and slackers, but it’s not (yet) a crime. Let’s say you spend a month, or a year, or ten years, pursuing the cheap and visceral thrills of daytime TV and the nighttime club scene. You end up just as bald, choleric and (eventually) dead as the guy who started a family! But you had a better time along the way. And who’s hurt by it?

(Some people start to feel twinges of dissatisfaction after month 3 of a slacker lifestyle. If this happens to you, then consider it your body telling you to wake up and start being productive again. If it never does, then congratulations – you’re no worse than a good 40% of this country)

You’ve already committed yourself to waking up three years from now over $90K in debt and unemployed. Why not enjoy the intervening time? Think how good you’ll be at Gears of War 2 with a thousand days of practice!

. . .

There are, of course, dozens of good reasons to go to grad school. I’m sure you’ve already thought of a couple. But if you’re that scared of e-mailing strange businesses on Craigslist – and it’s horrifying, I know – then don’t run off to academia just yet. There are alternatives. There’s always hope.

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