"Hey, can I talk to you?" Not the words you want to hear a week before your wedding. My mind raced.
"I don’t think I want to be in my physical therapy program," Sam confessed. OK. It could have been worse, but my soon-to-be husband was now an unemployed grad school drop-out. His timing... could have been better.
I couldn't help but wonder: How did we get here? What led him to physical therapy in the first place? And why did he decide to quit? What did he even like about it, to begin with? Were there maybe any warning signs that could have prevented flushing a year's worth of tuition down the drain?
Sam and I both went to Penn State. He applied, thinking he wanted to major in architecture. A semester later, he switched to landscape architecture. It only took a few weeks for him to realize he didn't love learning about soil. Talk about weeding out the uninterested.
He switched his major to kinesiology—the study of human movement—intending to get his master's degree in physical therapy as soon as he finished college. If there's one stereotypically "sporty" major, that's it; most kinesiology grads become athletic trainers, gym teachers, physical therapists, chiropractors, and occupational therapists. Suffice it to say Sam wasn't deeply inspired by any of those career paths—most of which required additional, if not continuous, schooling and certifications. But he wasn’t sure what else to do, which is a great reason to go to grad school. When college graduation rolled around, Sam decided to get his master's degree. It was safe. And expensive.
The first bump in the road came when Sam didn’t get into any of the physical therapy programs he applied to. Some schools outright rejected him. Others, like the University of Scranton, put him on the waitlist. So, he found a job as a physical therapy technician, which turned out to be a job that he liked.
And then, days before the semester began—you know, if he'd gotten in—Sam was accepted to the University of Scranton's physical therapy program. He had less than a week to decide whether to enroll. By now, you can probably guess what he did.
Sure, the commute to Scranton was long—but Sam made friends easily, enjoyed his classes, earned more-than-solid grades, and genuinely seemed to look forward to becoming a physical therapist. He came home from school each day, boiling over with excitement as he recounted what had happened in his cadaver lab. I did my best to not imagine dead bodies over dinner.
The following summer, nearly a year of grad school in the bag, Sam landed an internship with a physical therapy practice. A week later, something felt wrong. The work was interesting, and he learned a lot, but when it came down to it, Sam didn't enjoy the responsibility. As it turns out, diagnosing people—key to the job of a physical therapist—felt like a burden. He told me he wanted to quit.
Sam never should have gone to physical therapy school in the first place. Without the time or space to decide what he wanted, Sam was rushed into a decision that nearly trapped him in a career that was never truly right.
A few months later, following considerable soul- and job-searching, Sam landed in a new role. Over the years, he’s been promoted multiple times and is happier than ever.
Even though it felt like Sam had wasted a lot of time and even more money, refusing to settle was the smartest thing he could have done. It's a lesson most people learn too late because it's much harder to quit something when you've nestled into a comfy job, have a mortgage to pay, and children who will eventually (maybe? let them think about it) need help paying for college.
The truth is, most people don't know what to do when they graduate—and the ones think they who do (because of course, at 21, you can make informed decisions about how to spend the next 40 years of your life) almost always end up veering off-course. If you're a student, recent grad, or just unsure what you really want, don't beat yourself up. But try, if you can, to learn from Sam's mistakes. I know I did.
It's completely normal not to love your job (or your studies) 100% of the time. But you should feel some base level of satisfaction, deep in your gut, even if the day-to-day stuff is a struggle. If and when you feel unsure about your educational or career path, hit pause. Grad school isn't going anywhere.
Figuring out what you want to do with your life is easier said than done. But there are a few ways to know if you should go to grad school.
Years before I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education (Penn State '12), I knew wanted to become a teacher. I was fortunate to land a job almost immediately; the job market for teachers was tough. After working in the field for a few years, I decided to get my master’s in education. Everyone goes to grad school for different reasons. Know what yours are.
Some of my colleagues talked about the classes they took while working toward their master’s degrees, and how helpful they were for their development as teachers. I wanted that, too. It would help me become a better teacher.
Teachers are required to continue their education. I needed to take courses to further my professional development in some capacity, so it made sense to do so by working toward a degree.
My employer had a tuition reimbursement program, which isn't uncommon in public schools. I didn't have to worry about how to pay for grad school and my school district received the benefit of a better trained and qualified teacher. What was there to lose? At the very least: not money.
On average, teachers who have a master’s degree in teaching, a master's in education, or a related field make between 10 and 20 percent more each year than their peers of equal experience and a bachelor’s degree. Teachers who have their masters earn more; this is true not only in the district where I teach. If going to grad school won't increase your earning potential, know that beforehand.
I enjoyed going to a "Big Ten" for undergrad, so I decided to look into other "Big Ten" schools for grad school. After researching different graduate programs, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Education at Michigan State, which offered a number of specializations (not least of which was becoming a Spartan).
As an English teacher, I wanted very specific things:
I chose an online program, which gave me the flexibility to earn my degree part-time, in the evenings and on weekends, while I continued to work full-time. This way, I didn't have to sacrifice my paycheck or stop doing what I loved (teaching, obviously).
Michigan State offered a focus on literacy, so I could better help my students become better readers, writers, and speakers. In the process, learned about the importance of technology in the classroom and how to use it as a tool for active learning.
I was able to earn a certificate in online teaching and learning, which allowed me, later down the line, to teach online classes—another way to boost earning potential.
It took me three years to complete my master’s degree while working full-time, and I've never doubted that decision. Unlike Sam, I knew why I wanted to go to grad school, I researched my options, and I was meticulous when it came to choosing the best program to advance my career as a teacher… but, hey, opposites attract?
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Alicia Betz is a writer and high school English teacher. She earned her bachelor’s in education from Pennsylvania State University and her master’s in education—as well as a certificate in online teaching and learning—from Michigan State University.