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Why I Regret My Graduate Degree (& Why I Don’t)

This year, I graduated with a master’s degree in social work. No, I don’t want to become a therapist, and no, I don’t intend to work in child welfare. Honestly, I’m just hoping to find any job at this point.

I worked my butt off during my undergrad years. I double majored and double minored, sat on the executive board of three clubs, worked three on-campus jobs, and co-founded a fair trade campaign. I graduated summa cum laude, received a prestigious fellowship (which allowed me to graduate with only $10k in debt), and had all-around stellar references. I probably could have gotten any job I wanted.

Instead, I went to grad school. For a degree I didn’t need, and in a profession that marginalizes my areas of concentration (administration, resource development, research, policy, and organizing). I chose a social work program because the profession aligns with my personal values and beliefs, requires and facilitates two comprehensive internships in the field, and qualifies me for a range of practices as my life circumstances and goals change over time. As I begin my job search, I’m learning that I both regret and am grateful for putting myself $40k more in debt.

The Regrets

1. Delaying Adulthood. In college, I read TFD’s degree alternatives section religiously. But I ignored the core message: don’t go to grad school to put off growing up. Well, I went to grad school because, at 22, I just didn’t feel ready to be an adult. I even ignored the advice of social work mentors who were adamant MSW programs were more beneficial after at least a year of work experience. I loved writing papers, learning, and presenting what I know. I foolishly thought school was the only place I could get to do the things I thought I liked. Newsflash: Most jobs require writing reports, learning, and presenting.

2. Intending to use my degree in a nontraditional way. Most MSWs intend to become private therapists, clinicians, or caseworkers. Only 10 people in my program cohort, or about 10%, concentrated in administration, policy, organizing, and resource development. Our internship opportunities and electives were limited and our systems-level (as opposed to individual-level) perspectives were often marginalized and brought into question. This also means I can’t just search “social worker” to find jobs. When I do find jobs to apply for, I have to advocate why 1) I have a master’s degree for an “entry-level” position, and 2) why a social work degree qualifies me for everything from research to communications. It’s often a tough sell when up against degrees in public administration, education, and nonprofit management.

3. Financial Dependence. Need I say more? I’ve put myself in $40k of debt. Luckily, that debt is in federal loans, and I’m in a position to consolidate and reduce my interest. The loans don’t cover all my expenses, but I’m very privileged. My parents helped with a rental deposit and own and pay for my car and its expenses. I have a roommate with a stable job (but also with $100k+ in student debt herself), who largely manages our grocery and entertainment budget and expenses. And, against routine financial management advice, I draw from savings I built in college jobs and side hustles. After becoming accustomed to the vast amount of disposable income I had in college and the sense of financial independence, it’s been a learning curve for me to restrain “treat yourself” expenses and submit to some level of financial dependence for the time being.

The Outweighing Benefits

1. Personal and Professional Growth. I’ve grown tremendously. In my first internship, I developed a toxic relationship with my supervisor. I learned 1) not to take behavior personally, 2) sometimes you gotta eat crow when your future is on the line, and 3) document everything, especially useful in the case your supervisor falsely accuses you of insubordination! Before this experience, I was arrogant and defiant; I for sure had unmanaged issues with authority. Learning to apply the interpersonal and therapeutic skills I’ve learned in my courses has greatly improved my social relationships, self-awareness, and my professionalism.

2. Asking For Help. I’ve learned how to ask for help. Since high school, I’ve had the mantra “It’s okay to ask for help” thrown at me constantly. I used to scoff when I heard the phrase. I was sure I could figure out how to do anything better than anyone else. I was a perfectionist dictator, ruthless to myself and others. If I had gotten a job right out of college, I probably would have ended up in a cycle of being fired for poor teamsmanship. And I probably would have thought it was unjustified. I’ve noticed that, in the past two years, I’ve begun to let others take the lead, defer to those who know more and are different than me, and let go of the perfectionism that holds me back.

3. Personal Fulfillment. The core values of social work are service, social justice, human dignity, and integrity. My entire childhood, I often got in trouble for standing up against people being unfair, unjust, or cruel towards others. (Maybe you can see why I’m not willing to 100% get rid of my authority issues.) I definitely didn’t need a degree to live out these values, but my entire degree is designed to teach people how to apply these values to practice. Personal fulfillment is priceless, right?

*****

So, would I change my decision if I could?

Whenever I reflect on my past decisions after a period of growth, I always think, “If I could go back knowing what I know now…” But I wouldn’t know what I know now if I hadn’t made those choices. I probably would have been able to learn these lessons in the workforce, but no lesson comes free. I’m beyond ready to begin a career with my degree, as well as embrace the reality that I don’t have to (and likely won’t) be stuck in my first job for years and years, and I don’t have to land a $50k or $60k salary job right off the bat. In the meantime, my job search has become my full-time job, and I’m okay with that.

Tiffany is a proud resident of the beautiful Hudson Valley. She loves coffee, kayaking, and learning from other people’s mistakes so she doesn’t seem foolish. She often seems foolish anyway.

Image via Unsplash

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