College and Career

When plans don't match your degree

Some of my friends went to college because it was “the thing to do.” Some went because their parents made them. Others went to find a man. (Don’t ask them. They’ll lie about it.)

I went to college because I wanted a good job.

Everyone from my guidance counselor to family friends to Cory Matthews was telling me that college was The Answer. It wasn’t just the next step after twelfth grade—it was the key to success. It was the final rung in the ladder that would help me reach all of my dreams and potential.

So, I devoted four years of my life to classes and expensive textbooks, then a fifth year to tack on a Master’s. I worked several jobs to avoid being saddled by debt, and then was saddled by debt anyway. I skipped parties and nights out with friends in favor of hours hunched over the harsh glow of a laptop, editing a thesis. It was a trade off. In the dim glow of that laptop, I could already see my future, fantastic job with its pals Security, Money, and Retirement Plan. All of that time and cash and debt would pay me back with a bright career that would carry me through adulthood.

I didn’t plan on finding out that I had interests and skills other than those I’d known at eighteen.

Logically, I know there’s no shame in that. Yet, an unused degree seems to represent… waste. It feels like all of those resources I intended to invest were dumped recklessly on a path that hasn’t been taken. I poured all of my energy into becoming a teacher, and here I am typing up a blog post at a desk in a gift shop that sells greeting cards. Leaving that degree on a shelf to gather dust reeks of untapped potential, squandered time, money, and energy.

It’s like packing a dress for a weekend trip. And you don’t wear the dress, because you realized you had something else in the bottom of the bag that was a better fit.

But only if that dress you opted not to wear was a $100,000 dress that you bought just for the occasion. Like that.

But, it’s not just the money that bothers me (though the money bothers me a whole, whole lot). Sometimes I have this fear that friends will think I’ve moved on because I wasn’t able to get a job in my field. Because I wasn’t good enough. Other times, that fear is outweighed by the guilt of knowing that I could and did, and consciously just passed on it. On one hand, I don’t want to be mistakenly perceived as inept, on the other, I’m afraid that I’ll be seen as irresponsible—partly because I wonder if I have been.

So, the bright side? In all of the waffling and second-guessing of myself, I’ve actually decided a few things. First, that not having a job in my field isn’t the same as “not using my education.” I’d like to think I’m at least more aware of stuff I wouldn’t have known without college, if not more knowledgeable. Theoretically, education is valuable unto itself, yeah? Not just a means to an end.

But even more than that, I try to focus on the fact that I went to college for opportunity. I wasn’t signing up to be shackled to one specific path for the rest of my life. In fact, that’s exactly what I didn’t want: to be cornered into a job that wasn’t a good fit. If an education, rather than just granting me added opportunity to explore, makes me feel forced into a corner, that seems to defeat the purpose entirely. I went to college to avoid being cornered. The opportunity provided by my degree still exists, and I continue to invest in it—trying to keep the education-geared portion of my resume fresh, keep my credentials current. And if one day these other opportunities are less glittery than they seem now, hopefully it’ll still be there, waiting for me on that dusty shelf.

I’m still mostly sticking to the original plan, which entailed eating and surviving and not being stuck in terrible jobs. I’m doing all of those things, even if I didn’t have the expected details quite right.

Photo: Gabriel Harber Photography

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  • Grace


    Subtract the masters, and add in 4 actuarial exams, and this is me. And I so (times about a bajillion) needed to read this right now. I have a BS in actuarial science, which, coursework wise, is good for exactly one thing: being an actuary. And I’m now in the process of trying to make a career change. And not only do I feel like my degree is now wasted, but now I’m also not qualified for anything else because my degree is just so specialized. And oh my god, the fear. Of everything in this post. Fear that I won’t be able to find another job. Fear of being labeled a quitter (by my family, and by my coworkers in my very academic, mathy, hopelessy STEM-y male-dominated field). Fear that the next job I get won’t be right either, because this’ll be the third career choice I’ve made. Plus I’m attempting this career change in the same year where I moved, got engaged, and got elected to the board of directors of a nonprofit, because my life just needed a little more change.

    So thanks for sharing this. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. I’m bookmarking it to reread for whenever I’m going especially insane and need a little reassurance (which I suspect will be often).

    • Amanda

      Sounds similar to me! I also have an actuarial science degree and as I’ve worked decided I want to use the background I have, but not take exams.

      I ended up in technology. I work for a company that has insurance software to define products and run all of the policy administration. Although not a “typical” actuarial role, I really like it!

      Not sure which career change you’re looking into, but something to consider! Actuaries that work on the software side of things are hard to come by so they’re in demand.

    • Katelyn

      Oh man, another actuary with 4 exams reporting for duty. I’m CAS so 2 more exams to ACAS, which is why I’m (trying) to stick it out.

      But there are LOTS of careers that a degree in actuarial science can prepare you for – technical finance or applied statistics, for example. I know it’s a lot harder to find a job when it has a less well-defined title like “actuary” but opportunities do exist!

      In the end I think want to stay in the actuarial peripheral – after getting my letters I’m hoping to fling myself into learning some coding to develop this professional studying app that has been percolating in my brain for months now.

      I wish you all the best and hope you take the leap!

  • Oh this hits home… I often feel like I am wasting all those years (9) at university, as I have not been able to find a job in my field (other than internships). It does not help that I *really* want to work in that area, it feels like it’s such an ingrained part of who I am. Even as I explore other more creative areas (baking, painting…), I feel those are always “second best” / “consolation prize” or not what “I’m supposed to be doing”, and I am not yet making a living out of those anyway. So those are things I love and truly enjoy, but I am not sure if they will ever fulfill me 100%.

    But you are so so right…

    • bhoka

      What was your degree in? Which field do you want to be in? You sound similar to me.

      • I first studied Biology, and then Veterinary Medicine. I love animals. I really want to work with them. Or in Public Health / Epidemiology, it feels like a vocation and I am passionate about all these subjects. I haven’t been able to get a job because, well there is the crisis, but also because I studied in a different country to the one I know live in. Which was not supposed to be a problem as the diplomas are fully recognized and I am *allowed* to work by the authorities, etc… but it does seem to make a difference to the employers. (At least that’s my theory)

        What is your field?

        • bhoka

          I’m a designer & illustrator! When you said creative & multiple internships I thought maybe you were in the same field! My last 2 internships (out of.. 5) have basically been jr. design positions with my own projects & everything.. but people are so scared of hiring entry level designers these days that it’s just internship after internship.. I was going to be permanent at my 4th internship but they filed bankruptcy. Woo.

  • This post definitely hits home.

  • Maddie

    So glad to hear I’m not alone in these thoughts and worries!

    Something you said particularly resonated, Liz, when you mentioned “not having a job in my field.” It got me thinking about how anything becomes “our field” in the first place; it’s because we, as individuals, initially chose a certain educational path—as younger versions of ourselves, with less life experience and less knowledge of where our curiosities would take us. The idea that there is only one field that belongs to us from that point forward, simply because we made a (sometimes arbitrary!) choice at one point in time as half-formed adults, shouldn’t define us for the rest of our careers. It certainly can, if it was the best long-term decision for our former and future selves, but it shouldn’t *have* to.

    Thanks for writing this piece and letting me come to that realization.

  • Kat R

    My grandfather used to tell us that a degree is for two things: To learn how to learn, and to prove that you can delay gratification. As someone who is also “not using” my degree, I say that to myself in the mirror a lot. Liz is so right, the value of education is a lot broader than a step toward a specific career.

    • rys

      As someone who teaches college students (, I think your grandfather is spot-on. I always emphasize the transferable skills students (should) get in my classes and in college more generally. Learning how to construct arguments, query evidence, write logically and stylishly, apply quantitative reasoning…. all of these things can be done as a single-minded pursuit of a particular degree or job, but ideally, they’re a critical-thinking foundation for all sorts of life futures. I’m not interested in making mini-mes, I want to send more sophisticated thinkers into the world to do awesome things, whatever they are.

      • meg

        My dad (who also teaches college), always says that education is the one thing someone can never take away from you, so his best advice is study something you love. By which I think he means: life is complicated, and we don’t always spend all of it (and our careers) living our dreams. But education is something you get to take with you always, so you should spend your time doing something you’re passionate about (then), and then take those skills and transfer them as needed. IE, you may not end up doing exactly what you want no matter what you study, so at least study something you love.

        For better or worse, I took that advice ;) At the very least, it’s made me feel less guilty about not doing something in my field of study.

    • LMN

      I love your grandfather’s advice. My mom’s was a slightly different variation. When I was deciding on a major as an undergrad, my mom told me, “Study something you love. You’ll get your degree, and later you’ll get a job. They may or may not be related. Ideally, you’ll love your job, but that doesn’t always happen. So why not do something you know that you love right now?”

      It was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. As I watched friends struggled through degree programs they didn’t enjoy because they thought it was the surest path to a job, I took every class that intrigued me and expanded my world. And then I did it again as a grad student. Now I have a job that isn’t necessarily in my field, but it uses a lot of my skills and it pays the bills. And it constantly reminds me that the most important skill I learned during college is how to make your own happiness. I’m still trying to practice that every day.

      • What amazing advice from your mom! I love how you frame the experience in terms of happiness, which is always the end goal in my mind. I feel exactly the same way about my college education, and I have never felt like the small amount of debt I have wasn’t absolutely worth it.

        I will say though that it’s probably a lot easier for me to have this perspective since I went to a liberal arts college with a double major that was entirely non-career focused (Art and French). Maybe if I had studied something specific and related to just one career I would feel differently!

        • LMN

          I agree that the liberal art college experience does make it a lot easier not to be focused on using your degree for a specific career. I also went to a liberal arts college and did an independent double major in English & Art, with tons of French & bookmaking involved. I’ve never regretted a minute of that or the debt that I took on for it, and I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity for my undergrad experience.

          My grad work was more specific (MS in writing, with a focus in publishing), and sometimes it’s hard not to be down on myself–I feel like I should be living in NYC, working in publishing. But then I remember that NYC would not be the right place for me, and I can use my writing/publishing skills in so many different ways, and that cheers me up. Most of the time.

        • It never occurred to me until now when reading this post that “my field” was supposed to be my college major! I started out majoring in psychology (then added on French and theatre as I went along). I never pursued psychology after college, but I do feel like everything I studied is important to who I am now and what I do and where I live. At some point in university I was stressing out about not knowing where my career path was headed, and someone wise told me to stick with what I loved and I would be on the right path. I took that advice and feel like it has served me well. Plus, it’s been fun. :)

      • meg

        Ta-da! We left the same comment :)

        • LMN

          We did! I wonder if it comes from having parents who are teachers? Teacher parents are awesome. <3

  • Amy March

    What does this have to do with “reclaiming wife”? I’m seeing more and more content that has seemingly nothing to do with weddings or marriage (ie See Jane Invest)- is this a preview of a new tab/spin-off in the site redo?

    • bhoka

      My thoughts exactly. I do love having the non-wedding articles here because I feel like APW has outgrown just being a wedding blog, but it should be it’s own series, like “A Practical Life” or something.

    • KC

      I think there’s a degree to which almost any article about personal growth/change/struggle can be related to marriage and/or gender roles. This one doesn’t explicitly draw out that potential connection, but I know a lot of women who have felt “less than” because of choosing to change fields (and, of course, people get even weirder about it when there’s a significant other involved, whether or not you would have changed fields anyway).

      I guess: this and the See Jane Invest posts indicate to me that just because one is now a wife doesn’t mean that there’s a pre-set groove your life now needs to run in. Since, at least in some portions of US culture, there is an assumed groove (get married, become housewife, have kids, of course give up career advancement/job choice somewhere in there, flail around after kids leave for college), it’s useful to have these perspectives on what is normal for some that *doesn’t* fall into that groove. Especially given that this set of assumptions or cultural modeling is what terrifies some people about the word “wife”, I think having some content that indicates “you’re still you when you’re married”, even when it doesn’t hammer on those conclusions, is really pretty cool.

      That said, I do see your point. I just tend to go for the Interconnectedness of Everything and I really like these articles. :-)

    • meg

      Not really a preview, though it’ll have a better place in the new site. We obviously focus on weddings and marriage, but we feel totally comfortable throwing in other content now and then when it feels like a fit for the community.

      To be honest, this particular struggle has been such a huge part of my relationship, that it didn’t even occur to me that it wouldn’t be a fit for Reclaiming Wife for everyone (though, obviously it won’t have a ton to do with everyone’s relationship). The See Jane Invest stuff has fallen under the entrepreneurship part of our content which we’ve had for years.

      • I love LOVE this content. And it absolutely has to do with my version of reclaiming wife. I woke up in the middle of the night last night crying on my husband because I’m 37, have an English degree and have a low paying job at a grocery store right now. This was not the life I’d hope for, but further, it absolutely effects my relationship with my husband. Thank you for this! It hit the mark today!

    • Emily

      I love content like this, too. Young and youngish college grads are dealing with such a vastly different world than what we were led to expect when college pressure and conversations started in grade school. The workplace “ladder” no longer exists and is now a “jungle.” Most of us went to college because college = success but we graduated during a crappy time economically and struggled to find work while juggling student loan debt. We’re being told that we can’t “have it all” but that we should accept that and “lean in.”

      Society is constantly sending us so many mixed messages that it is easy for additional confusion over not using a degree to surface. Whether the degree isn’t used for personal or forced reasons doesn’t matter. For many, the promise of the identity they were working towards is what got them through school. The loss of that identity can be just as confusing as trying to pick the identity in the first place.

      I love that APW realizes that this topic can have a huge presence in relationships.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never gone to college. It was never the right time, I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the interest..there are a million reasons why. I’ve gone all over the spectrum of regret to acceptance to feeling like there’s nothing wrong with the choice I made.

    In the end, I can’t help but wonder if maybe our twenties are for doing the things we later regret. We learn a lot about ourselves during those years. We’re often different people at twenty than we are at 35. It’s impossible to mature and not change (I believe).

    You may not “use” your degree (whatever that means to you) and I may always regret not having done college when I was younger and life was easier (though it didn’t feel easy at the time). But if I lived my life feeling like I’d wasted parts of it (and I did, I wasted plenty), I’d curl up in a ball and cry. Instead, I’m going to keep repeating to myself the things I know to be true; everything we do in all our wasted time, be it college for a career you don’t end up wanting or making time at crappy jobs just trying to pay the rent, it makes us who we are. Unless you’re terribly unhappy with you today, accept that all that wasted time was a part of your story. It’s a part of my story, it’s made me who I am.

  • moonitfractal

    I know this feel. I have dual bachelors’ degrees in biology and dance and decided to pursue a career in research biology in part because the health care options for professional dancers in the US are not very…existent. A few years into my dead end lab job I was preparing to apply to PhD programs when I suddenly developed a health condition that made lab work (and anything else that is physically demanding) impossible! Now I’m basically a childless homemaker with two wasted degrees and an overwhelming sense of guilt whenever people ask ‘what do you do for a living.’

    • 39bride

      What do you do for a living? You are a homemaker, which means you supply someone(s) with a warm, welcoming, safe, happy place to come home to. You make home a place where they can refuel (literally and metaphorically), strengthen and repair, and then go out and face the world again–job, school, etc.

      That is an amazing, amazing job. For the first year of marriage, I worked from home, a job that ending up being about 35 hours a week. I could adjust my schedule to run errands midday and then have a clean, calm house (and clean, calm me) with supper ready when he got home (I could work an additional hour or two in the evening while he decompressed, if needed). Now I work just 15 minutes from home, but between the commute, getting-ready time and everything else, most days the food and clean calmness don’t happen (he can do the clean, but he can’t do the food. And I’m a spazz). We’re doing okay, but neither of us feel like we’re living quite as good as we used to.

      Some humble advice: Own the power you have right now as a homemaker, even if it’s not what you dreamed of or what you’ll end up doing. People pay huge sums for others to do what you do, but it always falls short because it can’t be done with the love, sacrifice and support you do it with. What you do is awesome, and worth valuing.

    • SarahT

      Remember that what you do for a job is not the same thing as who you are. It’s easy in our status-obsessed culture to equate the two, but I really believe that the essence of you is not defined by any job. I loved my time as a homemaker-it was some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done. But very few people in my field saw it as valuable, and it helped me redefine what I was going to value. And feel guilty about! I’ll feel guilty about real wrongs that I’m prone to (treating people badly because I’m mad, etc). But feeling guilty about dealing with new realities of physical limitations by doing the best you can? No way!

  • 39bride

    This definitely resonates with me. I have three degrees in the field of music education, two from a prestigious school of music. I taught for three very-fulfilling years, but now I work in a nonprofit completely unrelated to music. When one of my professors retired recently, I didn’t contact her, even though I had studied one-on-one with her for a year… because I didn’t want her to know I was out of the field.

    Like the OP, I’ve tried to see it as part of my overall growth/knowledge and broadening as a human being, though that doesn’t settle everything for me. But last night as my husband and I lay talking about how we’re probably going to be welcoming two pre-teens into our formerly-child-free family after just one year of marriage (and 3 total years of knowing each other)…as I tried to explain teenage girls to a man who grew up with 4 brothers and I talked about the challenges of massive cultural/environmental shock at that age… I realized that I will be drawing on my years spent studying and teaching in poverty-stricken (etc) areas to meet the unique challenges these two children will present. I have knowledge and experience of things far beyond my personal life experience because of the studies I immersed myself in (complete with $40,000 debt, years of a ridiculous combination of work and hours in the music practice room that combined to push me to the physical edge, etc) and the children I worked with for those three short years.

    I know there are going to be huge challenges and moments with these children where I’m completely “lost” with what to do. But I also know that short of having/raising children myself already, I can’t imagine what would’ve better prepared me to do this. It’s so true that everything we do and everything we experience becomes a part of who we are and what we are capable of doing in other settings. I spent hours in the practice room perfecting my keyboard technique and then taught K-8 music in inner-city schools and thought it was all about teaching them to make music. I had hints of the incompleteness of that idea at the time, but the work I’ve done and jobs I’ve held since then have made it so clear that it’s much deeper and broader than that. And I’m pretty sure that’s true for just about any college-related career out there…

  • Like thinking bangs were a good idea, there are certain decisions my.teenage self should not have been allowed to make. Choosing my future career was one of them. But I wouldn’t trade my life in pharmacy school or as a pharmacist for anything. College was a time for me to learn how to do things I did not think I could do. It was a time for amazing successes and spectacular failures. It was a time for me to learn what I was good at, as well as what I have no affinity for. (PS. I kind of don’t like drugs all that much. Who knew?).

  • This is EXACTLY what I’ve been feeling lately–leave it to APW to be mind readers.

    The long and short of it is that I have a Masters in Secondary Education and a BA in English Lit and 1/2 a Masters in English Lit and 1/2 a Masters in Educational Leadership.

    And I’m a full-time wedding photographer.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a photographer, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some massive guilt about 1) not being in the classroom 2) not using my degrees to the fullest of my abilities or 3) not finishing them.

    I keep telling myself that I’m just on a sabbatical from teaching this year (and maybe I am), but changing your career in your early 30s is not only a hard thing to explain to the people around you (my mother keeps telling people, “Oooh, well…Emily’s taking some time off from work”–and I’m like, “I’m WORKING, mother!!) and also to myself. I love teaching. I miss it everyday. But I also love photography and doing the work I’m doing now….

    Thanks APW for this fab post. Made my Monday a bit brighter!

  • Claire

    There was a recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education that asked many employers what they value in prospective employees: Only 14% said that the major of the student’s degree mattered a lot to them.

    Also, in the book _What Color is My Parachute_, the author instructs you to make a flower of all the aspects that you want in a job, like hours, type of co-workers, benefits, amount of creativity, flexibility, etc. Here’s the shocking part for a lot of people: Only ONE petal is content (subject-matter). If you have a job that fits your temperament, it might not matter so much that it’s not in the area that you enjoy studying.

    To be sure, I understand that the article is largely about your feelings about a career change, which are valid because they are what you are feeling.

    That said, your feelings seem to be split between wasted-time and lack-of-current-security. I can say with certainty, working in a job you do not love – esp. teaching b/c it consumes your time and emotions! – would just be wasting more time. And, while teachers usually have some job security, it is certainly not the lucrative field that you imply! Keep focusing on the positives, because regret seems to distort the facts of the situation.

  • Becca

    Story of my life! Except that, like you, I’ve learned it’s not so bad, and nothing is really “wasted” when it come to education. In fact, I’m considering going back to school to try out a new path.

  • Sarah

    I tell high school and college students all the time: Your major in undergrad doesn’t really matter. The bachelor’s degree does matter. It says, “I said I was going to get a degree and I did – that is the kind of person that I am.” There are lots of advantages to learning how to write papers and study for tests and navigate systems as an adult. You will be a better employee or business owner or army officer or whatever because you put in the energy to follow through.
    I also advocate for working for at least a couple of years in between undergrad and grad school.

    • meg

      Indeed, on the bachelors, and the grad school waiting period.

      OR: no grad school. I think the overwhelming pressure to go to grad school doesn’t always serve people well. I know a TON of people with a grad school mountain of debt they’re trying to pay off, and a graduate degree they are either not using, or don’t want to be using (and wouldn’t, if they didn’t have the debt). I considered going to grad school for YEARS, because on some level I thought it was what “smart kids did” / what everyone in our families did. I never did, because 1) I waited before going, and 2) As an adult who was paying bills, I could never find a degree where I was SURE the debt was worth the money to me. It ended up being the best decision I ever made, for a lot of reasons. (Though, there are days that I still am made to feel a little badly about it.)

      I thought I’d throw that out there in case there are other, younger versions of me out there, feeling like they really BETTER go to grad school like everyone else around them, even though they have an deep down internal sense that it’s not the best idea.

      • “As an adult who was paying bills, I could never find a degree where I was SURE the debt was worth the money to me. It ended up being the best decision I ever made, for a lot of reasons.”

        Pretty much exactly how it has been for me. If money were no issue, just passion, I would go for my MFA in a heartbeat. But money *is* and issue and you don’t need a graduate degree to make art. I just love being in art school. The joy (and stress) and the challenge and the immersion.

        At other various times I have considered going to school for a degree in library science, public health, or education, but while I have a strong interest in all of those fields, I kept running up against, “but will I be able to find a job in this field that will justify all that time and money and hard work to get the advanced degree?”

      • My partner, who is in grad school right now, maintains that “If they (the school) aren’t paying you to go, you’re doing something wrong.” I’m really thankful he found a school and a program that’s non-competitive, meaning he’s not fighting his classmates for a limited pool of funding, and that we live in a city where the stipend he’s paid is actually enough for our modest living. Plus tuition is waived, so we’re not going be under a mountain of debt in the end.

        It’s this time of year that I always think “Man! School would be so awesome.” (Plus I was just on a college campus two wkends ago with all my college friends.) Except the awesome part is just the ideal of studying interesting things under green library lamps and feeling inspired as I crunch the leaves under my feet between classes. Reality is me struggling to write papers I don’t care about, and not doing projects til the last minute, because I really only enjoy the part where everyone is in class having a discussion.

        • meg

          Well, no, you’re not doing something wrong. It’s just dependent on your field. In say, science, you’re pretty much always paid to go. In say, law school, you’re pretty much never paid to go. In the arts: HAHAHAHAHA NO MONEY.

          So yeah, it is an easier decision in a field where you get paid (at least minimally) to attend. But then there are the rest of us… Nothing I would have gone to grad school for would have paid. Which, what the hell, made my decision easier I guess.

          • Claire

            In the arts and humanities, one should be able to get full funding for a PhD – but you are right: Money is harder to get for a master’s in those fields. (And if you are already on the fence about grad school, the PhD is not for you – a master’s is a good way to test the waters if you are uncertain.)

          • This is a reply to Claire– an MFA is a terminal degree in the fine arts. And no one pays you to go. No one pays anyone to get an MFA.

            (If I’m wrong about this, _please_ correct me, cause I’d love to get funded to go back to art school.)

          • Sarah

            This is a reply to Also Ali – I have an MFA (the terminal degree) in Theater Design from the University of California Irvine. I was a TA all three years, which means I had a full tuition waiver and made about $800 a month toward living expenses. Because I could live on campus rent was only $450/month. I did have to take out a few loans for supplies and general living expenses, but they were federal student loans with a very low interest rate. So, I did not graduate with a mountain of debt. For context I graduated in 2007, but I am pretty sure my program offers the same package to current students.

          • This is a reply to Sarah–

            That sounds amazing! I should probably do more research before just declaring things to be impossible. :)

            I have always wanted to go back for an MFA for studio fine arts (painting), but I also have reasons that it seems like a bad idea too.

          • This is in reply to Also Ali,

            One of my best friends got her MFA in Theatre Directing at Ohio University. She had a full tuition waiver and was given a stipend of $1000/mo (before taxes). She was definitely paid to go. She went from 2007-2010. Another college friend got her MFA in Acting on a full tuition waiver. She attended a university in Mississippi (do not recall which one).

            So yes, it is possible in some places. :)

        • Pippa

          “Reality is me struggling to write papers I don’t care about, and not doing projects til the last minute, because I really only enjoy the part where everyone is in class having a discussion.”

          This. THIS right here. This is me right now, you’re describing my life down to a tee. I’m doing my Master’s because I needed a job that my undergrad wouldn’t provide (because I studied what I loved) and I am stuck in work that sucks the life out of me. I love to learn, I LOVE to learn. But writing papers and putting in my own energy into topics I don’t care about is just my biggest ever struggle. If I survive this semester it’ll be a miracle.
          I need to remember this feeling for later on in life when the pull of learning resurfaces. I probably won’t though. It’s like childbirth – my body conspires against me to make me forget.

      • Sarah S

        Last year (a year out from college graduation) I literally had a nightmare that I was in grad school. I was thinking that surely there must have been some upside to this program for me to have enrolled, but I couldn’t find any…and I was stressing about how much debt I was in for something I didn’t really care about, and that I hadn’t gotten any financial aid. Then I woke up and realized it was just a bad dream. Ha! Yep, grad school is not for me at this point!

    • rys

      Yes yes yes on the waiting period. Working between college and grad school can be so helpful in multiple ways: 1) experience work life (getting used to having a boss and knowing how to handle disagreement and critique will help in grad school, possibly more than any content knowledge); 2) make some money, ideally squirrel some away to supplement grad school stipends (or pay for grad school); 3) make sure you really really want to go to grad school, and it’s not just there because you can’t think of anything else. Imagining and knowing the things you could do instead of grad school is important for #3 and for maintaining options if the assumed career path doesn’t work out.

      And, as others have said, don’t go for a PhD unless you have full funding (tuition waiver + stipend). This is especially true for the humanities.

  • This hits home right now SO hard. I quit a “good” job in “my” field about a year ago. I’d come to hate the job and wasn’t that passionate about working in chemistry anymore.

    We just visited my family and I could NOT make my mother understand why I wasn’t trying to use all my “knowledge.” My grandmother asked me if I just planned to be “a free spirit” (after I stifled my internal laughter and processed the phrase, I told her that was *exactly* the plan). She seemed astounded that I could “waste” all that education.

    I know I don’t live “normally” but I love my life and while skipping many things most Americans take for granted, I’ve gotten to spend tons if time with my partner seeing the country. (While also developing a small pool of assets…) I learned a lot in college and graduate school. At 18 or 23 I couldn’t have possibly imagined living my current life. I just get tired of explaining it to the people “back home” who care about me (and my prestige and my bank account and what my house looks like…)

  • Meaghan W

    I went into a completely different field than the one I got my degree in. I don’t regret it for a minute though. That degree still opened doors for me, and I met life long friends and gained skills along the way I wouldn’t trade for anything. I don’t think you should feel like you “aren’t using your degree”, it made you who you are.

  • Alayne

    Definitely hits home. Degree in psychology that I was using to wait tables in nice restaurants. Then I went back to school.

    Just add break-up of a cohabiting relationship with someone I really thought I’d marry.

    Now I’m back in school for nursing with people 5-10 years my junior. And I love it.

    Anyone for a John Lennon quote?

    • Rachel102712

      “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” :)

    • Pippa

      “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

  • Mezza

    I have an Ivy League law degree and I work for a circus cabaret company.

    I make at least $100k less per year than I would have if I stuck to “my field” (and have as much debt as you’d expect), but oh god I’m so much happier. And yes, I still get that twinge of shame when I talk to lawyers with prestigious degrees and high-paying jobs. In those conversations, though, it really helps to emphasize how lucky I feel to be where I am, and how even though I fell into this career path by accident, I’m satisfied by my choice to pursue it. Even my parents have gradually come around. Many of my job skills have been learned on the fly, but I use other skills from law school every day (like how to negotiate, and how to not be scared of contracts), and if I hadn’t gone to law school I would never have ended up in a city where I could fall into this career.

    And it sure doesn’t hurt that I get to go to Broadway opening nights and will be getting paid to spend the holidays in Las Vegas. I’ll take that over document review any day – even the days when all of my former classmates are posting about their fancy firm jobs on Facebook.

    • Shiri

      I love how you just breezed past “circus cabaret company”. Can you pleeeeeeease write a “how to” on that? Yes?

      I had a very circus-y, theater-y childhood and now am a historian who sometimes wishes she could get a career in that world. I’m so impressed.

    • meg

      Wheeeeee! I think that’s part of what an Ivy League degree can get you: the freedom to feel like you can do whatever the fuck you want. Our Ivy or equivalent friends fall into three camps: serious yuppie jobs, do-good jobs, and people who feel they’ve proved themselves already and are now doing bizarre and interesting stuff. The last camp has my people in it (obviously).

      Though funny story: my husband pretty much did the opposite. Career in theatre, THEN his fancy law degree, now so glad every day to write briefs. (But, re: the conversation above about waiting to go to grad school, he’s happy because he took plenty of time to figure himself out first, and it served him well).

      BLAH BLAH, We want a post with pictures about your circus cabaret company.

      P.S. Extra points for the “learned on the fly” turn of phrase ;)

  • “Sometimes I have this fear that friends will think I’ve moved on because I wasn’t able to get a job in my field. Because I wasn’t good enough.”

    But…what if that IS your reality? I’m crazy envious of people who can say “Yep. Tried it, didn’t end up liking it, chose to follow a different path” because it sounds so empowering and self-aware.

    My own spluttering explanation is mostly a lot of hand-waving to cover up the fact I really was just lazy and unmotivated in finding a “real job”, and finishing my excuses with “but I mean, this restaurant gives me healthcare, and I paid off my loans six months after graduation, so it’s not like I have debt!” with my eyes boring into the skull of whomever I’m talking to, begging them please please please don’t think I’m irresponsible and make bad choices.

    • KC

      From what a lot of friends have been going through, this is not a great time to find a “real job”, so… there’s that. Having a job with benefits that’s allowed you to pay off debt is Good. :-)

      So, only you know if you were actually lazy/unmotivated vs. actually just facing down a mostly-impossible proposition with totally unappealing options (or some mix of the two). But however it is/was, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what “they” think, which is not necessarily reassuring if you reflexively care a whole lot what people think in certain dimensions (like I do, unfortunately), but if you can let go of that, you can let go and it’s okay?

      Best wishes for you!

      • meg

        Exactly. I know so many smart people not doing their very first choice of things because A) That’s just reality, and B) The economy is not shiny and new. So, I would never assume someone was lazy and unmotivated, I’d more assume they were making it work.

        Besides, the people who judge you for what you do at parties, are just assholes that should be ignored. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to, after years of having a job I love that makes me happy, and I feel super successful in… where I am just ROUNDLY dismissed by people at parties as “not serious/ smart/ successful/ whatever enough to even speak to.” I used to cry about it. Now? Fuck ’em. They’re clearly not awesome people who I should be making friends with. Next.

        • KC

          I agree that people who judge you as not worth their time, based on what you do, are not good candidates for friendship. (duh, yes, and absolutely) I’d leave a small amount of space and possibility for those who frankly just don’t have any social script response for what you do and can’t think that fast in a “foreign language”, though. Sometimes the two can be difficult to distinguish. But if you’ve gone through a party and basically everyone has given you blank looks, it’s worth finding the people in the second category, who don’t have a problem with what you do, but who aren’t as sure what questions are acceptable or where to take the conversation from there, etc…

          Either that, or find a better party. ;-)

          But I’ve known some awesome people who, on first rub, only knew how to deal with things within their script/field, but were happy to learn/stretch if given more of a chance or more feeder lines, and that can also provide more diversity of friends. So. Yes. Definitely, don’t cry about the people who are being stupid and judging you for terrible reasons (and AAARGH for that being a thing.). But also, not all confused looks/silence/topic-changes/etc. are necessarily negative judgment. Sometimes people are just frozen in “wait. I never met a platypus before and I have no idea what to do.” and need a bit more help building a conversational scaffold with you. But if that’s not the case, and they are being a jerk, then yep, move along. :-)

        • KatieDid

          Oh my goodness Meg! I want to go with ya to those parties where people are judging you and help you say “Fuck em!” That or kick them in the proverbial shins… Assholes.
          Seriously. Posts like this and others on APW (and the book I am in the middle of!) are amazing, and help me and tons of other peeps thru the day! Anyone who thinks that isn’t smart, successful or serious is not welcome at my party. Haha!

    • You were able to pay your loans off in 6 months? Now I’M jealous.

  • I have a lot of emotional baggage around my college degree, and though I still get squirmy when I think my academic success, I’m very very glad I chose to major in Community Development. Even though from today onwards I’ll be a ballroom dance instructor.

    The past year has taught me what I really need in order to do actual work, which is helpful but a really not-fun lesson when in the middle of it. What I really appreciate about my degree is that no matter how I make my living, I will always be living in a community. Volunteer work and involvement with local government, community events, and just generally staying informed about what’s going on around town have become big parts of my life that I never would have guessed. I will continue to use my degree as I continue to be an active member of the community I live in.

    In the meantime, I can make my living from something I really love, and in such a manner (physically active, inherently social, visible short-term results) that it plays to my strengths and keeps me energized, so I actually feel like doing all the “extracurricular” stuff, too. I still get pangs of guilt that maybe I should be doing more “brain work,” but it’s not up to other people to say what the “right way” is to use my smarts. I’m smart enough that I figured out what works best for my life right now.

  • Both my husband and I have struggled in our relationship to decide the worth of our college investments. I have a degree in Professional Writing (yeah, that’s a thing) and a half finished Master’s in Urban Education. And a mountain of debt. I’ve just now, several years later, found my career job. My husband went straight through a technical training certification program and has had a solid and prolific career ever since. I’m not sure why he went to college, but I went because I was SUPPOSED to. No negotiation or doubt. I was supposed to go. I needed to be better than past generations. It was pounded in me from grade school on. So I went. I wasn’t focused, I wasted a ton of money and left with random skills and debt. Thank goodness I was able to volunteer and bolster my skill set to get myself in the position for a career.

    Everyone thought I was a flake, but I knew I needed to keep exploring. And they didn’t have to show up at my jobs every day and live through the wasteland, so f*ck em, right?

    What I think is really great about my marriage through the lens of “college” is that we support risks in our job/career choices. His support got me where I am. And I help him network and look for new opportunities when he is unhappy with his job. And then just support him when he has a bad day at work.

    • meg


      “What I think is really great about my marriage through the lens of “college” is that we support risks in our job/career choices. His support got me where I am. And I help him network and look for new opportunities when he is unhappy with his job. And then just support him when he has a bad day at work.”

      This is why this is SUCH a Reclaiming Wife post for me. I mean, it’s a good post regardless, but for me this conversation is so tightly bound up in my marriage.

      • Amy March

        I think this is why the reclaiming wife title rubbed me the wrong way. Because this struggle happens to lots of us who aren’t wives. And since the post doesn’t reference marriage at all, why is this “reclaiming wife” and not just “life: it happens to us all”. Love the post btw, but if it isn’t written as “this is tied into marriage for me” it feels awkward to put it into that box.

        • meg

          Oh, funnily, I didn’t mean to have Reclaiming Wife in the title. We’ve generally stopped doing that, but it’s an old formatting thing that slipped through the cracks and wasn’t intentional. So, I removed it for you!

          It has been a huge part of my marriage, but Liz’s post isn’t particularly about that. And it’s also been a huge part of my non-married life.

          Anyway, title updated. Formatting mistake that slipped right by me.

  • Is it just me (probably not), or does everyone else feel like they could have written this??? (not in a “it’s poorly written, my kid could do that” sort of way, but in a HOLY SHIT I CAN RELATE TO THIS sort of way).

    I have super mixed feelings about my college degree. To some extent, I feel like it was rather pointless, despite the fact that my current job requires a bachelor’s degree. Don’t get me wrong, I love English Lit, which is why I majored in it, but at times I think I should have chosen something with a practical, direct application.

    • I think that gets to the heart of education vs. training. I love the education my degree gave me, but I received little to no training, even for careers in my field (like how to run a community meeting, non-profit structure, basic marketing skills, etc). In terms of education- great! I love reading and discussing smart things written by smart people (hello, APW). But I think the higher tangible benefit, especially when it comes to earning a living, is training. Too often, in my opinion, that’s left to the student to pursue for herself. That’s also why I think internships are key and should be a requirement for nearly everybody.

    • Laura K

      I know how you feel, but coming from the other side. I have a bachelors and a masters in architecture, which one would think falls into the “something with a practical, direct application” category. I still feel like my two degrees are kinda pointless. Everything I need to know to do my job I learned at my job (which is in my field, but not on a become-a-licensed-architect track). The degrees got me the job, but didn’t actually teach me what I needed to know to do the job.

      And even if I wanted to pursue something else, I feel unqualified to do anything else because my education was so specific. So I guess the grass is always greener…

      • Melise

        My degree is in architecture, though I realized it wasn’t for me before going as far as a professional degree. Even working in a different field now (nonprofit fundraising), I’ve been reminded frequently how helpful my seemingly unrelated college education is in my current job. Because of my architecture degree, I know how to present my thoughts both vocally and visually. I’m very familiar with the stress of working up to a deadline, which means that I’m usually able to stay calm and collected in planning events. I’ve had tons of practice solving problems creatively, I know how to use design programs (helpful for marketing), I take criticism well as a result of many reviews. The list of skills goes on and on. I’ve even used AutoCAD to draw up a map for a street festival.

        I guess what I’m saying is that if you ever want to do something else, your architecture background has probably given you more than you might expect. Am I doing anything remotely related to architecture? No. Do I regret the four years I spent locked away in studio? Absolutely not. That degree and the things I learned from it are part of what make me who I am.

  • californienne

    “Others went to find a man. (Don’t ask them. They’ll lie about it.)”

    Blah. What a bad (not to mention judgmental and presumptuous) way to open this piece. What doe this have to do with anything else in this article (and what does this article have to do with “Wife”?) Sorry for going negative but I expect more from APW!

    • I actually distinctly remember meeting someone at a freshman social mixer, and when I asked what she wanted to do with her major, she said “Honestly? I want a family.” and in the meantime, she chose to pursue a degree. So, it happens. (My college bf also would have been perfectly happy to be a stay-at-home dad, but that’s not a degree program you can pursue.)

      But I think Meg addressed the relevancy to Reclaiming Wife upthread, if you’d like to see her take.

      • californienne

        I don’t necessarily disagree that it happens but I’m sure it also happens among men (in fact, I once heard an anecdote from an admissions person at a top 5 business school that among male and female graduates, the number one reason they listed for attending was “to find a spouse” which was, to be sure, unsettling to the admissions person). However, I think it’s fair to point out that this offhand comment does play into a negative stereotype about “coeds.” Adding “they’ll lie about it” certainly suggests a judgement/projection on the part of the author.

        • meg

          No. I think Liz is saying that she knows people who went to school for this reason, and she also knows that if you ask them, they’ll lie about it.

          I know people who went to school for this reason who won’t lie about it, and if I had written this sentence, I would say that.

    • Leslie

      I get where you’re coming from, but from the context of this piece I think the author is specifically referencing real people that she knew in college. It’s not some ad hoc assumption about “why women go to college.” I’m not totally sure why the author chose to include those people in the opening description, but I guess I’m not as bothered by it as you are.

    • meg

      Oh, this is Liz. She’s not being judgmental or presumptuous. She’s being honest. Liz doesn’t give a shit if that’s why you went to college, I can GUARANTEE it (hell, this whole piece is about how why she went to college didn’t end up quite playing out for her).

      And, people going to college to get married is a very real thing. It doesn’t exist in all places and social circles, but it absolutely is real. I grew up in a conservative area, I can vouch for that.

      And while in a sense it makes me sad, in another sense, who am I to say that it’s a more or less valid reason than another reason? And hell, it’s sometimes a way more successful reason, so there is that.

      • californienne

        I appreciate your response and Liz’s good intentions. This is otherwise a gender neutral article–as college costs rise, who among us doesn’t weigh the costs and benefits of attending? If the article were written by a man, however, I doubt this would be thrown out as a common reason for attending college among his peers. Given that this IS a stereotype about women in college (there is no male equivalent of the MRS degree), and one that a lot of women a generation or two ahead of us had to fight hard against, it still seems like an unnecessary aside in the context of this piece.

        • Liz

          Dude, I went to a Bible college. Half of the people there (both male and female) were there to meet spouses.

          • californienne

            I still think you’re missing my point about the relevance of this point given its historical context and its lack of relevance to the rest of your article. I am not doubting your good intentions or arguing that this was not true for you. Agree to disagree, I guess.

          • meg

            I think the issue is that this point IS relevant to both Liz’s experience, and to what she’s arguing in her essay. If Liz were talking about a stereotype, that would be problematic. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by refusing to talk about reality, because it’s also a stereotype. What Liz is saying isn’t actually an aside, it’s key to the piece. Different people go to college for different reasons, and the reasons shape how we feel about the outcomes.

            I do get your response to it, but interestingly, you seem to be reading being uncomfortable with the idea of women going to college to get a man (man in this context, because we’re talking about BIBLE college). Liz is writing from a place we’re she’s not judging that choice, but is simply accepting it as a different choice than the one she made, and one that lead to… oddly, perhaps… outcomes with more feelings of satisfaction.

        • Liz

          Also I am going to argue that motivation for going to college is a huge piece of the emotional end result. I went to college to get a job. I do not have a job (not one that resulted from that college experience, at least).

          My friends who went to college to find someone to marry are completely content and angst-free about not using their given degree in its specified field. Friends who went because their parents forced them/ they had this socially-imposed expectation that it was “the thing to do” also don’t have the same qualms.

          I suppose the noble motivation for going to college is to learn and better yourself and just for a love of knowledge and growing, yay. But I went for a job. Other friends of mine equally saw higher ed as a means to a different end. No judgment on any of it.

          • Those of us who went with the noble intentions? We’re all sitting here wishing we’d been a little more realistic.

  • Nicole

    Thank you so much for this post! This really resonates with me. I’m in the middle of switching career paths (music to neurology) and it is not easy. When I was in college, all of the musicians had this really tight network. We were in it together, suffered together, and encouraged each other. When I made the decision to switch, I more or less cut my ties with all of my friends from my music program. I felt like they would judge me for giving up on a music career. The thing that hurt the most was cutting ties with my professor. I had such a close bond with him because he taught me for four years and knew my FH. I feel like I would be disappointing him most of all if he knew I switched to something else. But at the end of the day, I know that if I’m doing well in the classes and I can sit through 3.5 hours of physics and still be happy, I’m in the right place.

  • Helen

    that’s why I found a system that requires people to get into debt to study insane. I got paid to study and ended up richer than when I started (and got the opportunity to study in 3 different foreign countries as well)

  • Kestrel

    What’s pathetic is how little of a change you can make and still feel like you’re not using your degree.

    I LOVE teaching people. I’ve been a tutor for many years, and now I’m a TA and it’s something that usually just makes my day better. Thing is, I’m not an education student. I’m a mechanical engineering masters student focusing on controls. I love controls and making things do what I want, but this masters just isn’t working out. I’m far more excited showing the undergrads how cool controls can be then doing the research myself. The environment isn’t right for me, and I’m realizing that even going into industry probably won’t be the right fit for me either.

    I’ve often thought how much more interested I’d be in my masters if it was just teaching and learning how to do that better and figuring out what works best, and determining how to get people excited about STEM fields and convince people that they’re really not the big scary behemoth that everyone thinks. Well, it turns out at Purdue they have an engineering education department, and you can get a PhD in that department. I honestly think it would be a great fit for me (assuming I could get in!).

    But that still makes me nervous. It’s TEACHING. It’s that ‘girly’ job and I’d be betraying my feminist sisters if I went into engineering and then decided to just teach. Sure, I’d be teaching the things I’d learned in my degree, but I wouldn’t be directly using them. Teaching is supposed to be this ‘burden’ you have to bear as a professor so you can do the interesting research stuff. I feel like I wouldn’t be taken seriously if it was the other way around for me.

    I know to others this probably seems ridiculous that I’m having this issue – particularly as I really would be using my degree, but it’s been one I’ve been thinking about a lot. I won’t be making a decision until a few years have passed (have to work in industry a while to pay off debt before possibly going for a PhD program) but it’s something that’s weighing on me heavily now.

    • moonitfractal

      I think that if you are teaching, you are a role-model for future engineers. You might be doing more to advance feminism by showing young men and women that the field isn’t just a boy’s club than you could toiling along in private. Just a thought.

      • KC

        Amen to this. One of the reasons that I decided that yes, it would be okay to be in a particularly uneven gender ratio major/department was that the intro class had a female TA. Who was respected and treated as an equal by the professor and the other TAs. A good female professor would probably have been an even bigger deal, but even just *one* female TA showed me that within the department (as opposed to the fellow-student environment of the intro class, which was… less than positive, to a significant degree), women were welcome to exist, at least by most, and that was probably good enough.

    • Anonymous

      I hate to throw a wrench in things for you, but you sound a lot like my husband. Mechanical engineering degree that he didn’t know how or want to use, several years later, he’s a high school math teacher. He figured out teaching people how to do things, means you get to keep learning yourself and you get to spend all day in school – things he LOVES. The fact that he’s a great teacher, only speaks to how much he loves it.

      He’s a dude. But even before I met him, I never thought of teaching as a girly girl career path. I had male teachers my whole life, I thought that was pretty normal. Even before I met him I also thought teachers had about the toughest jobs imaginable, I still do. But I guess I also had a tough life and there were teachers who made an incredible impact on me and who I became. I guess if you were never lucky enough to experience that, you wouldn’t have the same ideas about teaching as an impressive and challenging career. I feel bad honestly, for anyone who doesn’t understand how important and wonderful teachers are. I think they’re probably the most unselfish people you can think of, at least in an idealistic way.

    • Jonquil

      As a trained scientist (palaeontology) who ended up in teaching ten years ago, I can say that teaching science at a high level (college plus) is most definitely NOT ‘girly’…

      There are so many men in this field that it is fantastic to find women teachers – you can be a great inspiration to girls able and wishing to get into the field, but intimidated by the gender imbalance. So go for it!

      And as for the ‘she dropped out to teach’… that’s slightly related to ‘those who can, do, those who can’t, teach’ rubbish that denigrates the teaching profession so dramatically. Why do bankers, lawyers and doctors get the kudos, when those that enabled them and guided them to succeed are treated as if they are lesser in their professions?

      I hope I’m not projecting my frustration about the negative perception of teaching, but I would certainly encourge you to do what you want (finding passionate teachers is nigh on impossible, and who forgets a great teacher?) and disregard the negativity you may feel your peers have for your choice.

      I certainly love being in the classroom helping my students learn MUCH more than counting ostracods in a lab!

      Good luck with your decision!

    • Eenie

      The female faculty in engineering is atrocious, which maybe you didn’t notice during undergrad. I love my female professors because of the fact that they fought against the curve. Maybe you aren’t looking to be a professor, but just promoting stem education is an extremely awesome career. Just like being a kindergarten teacher. Don’t let stereotypes keep you from doing what you want to do. Isn’t that the whole point of feminism?

      • Eenie

        Female faculty ratio is atrocious*

    • SarahT

      I hope that we can change the idea that traditionally “girly” jobs are less valuable than other jobs. I know many women were channeled into these jobs in the past without a lot of real options, but that doesn’t speak to those jobs today, or the inherent value found in those jobs. Why are male-dominated fields worthy of more status?

    • Anne

      Kestrel — I love that you’ve found this enthusiasm and passion for teaching science. I think you’d be an AMAZING feminist to bring that joy into the classroom or university. I would love my (hypothetical) daughter to have a teacher like you to look up.

    • KEA1

      PhD scientist here, teaching at a community college. One of the reasons why science in this country is not advancing the way it could, and why students are not getting the science education that they could be getting, is that the actual teaching of science (and, well, okay, everything else) has been devalued. And, most shamefully, a lot of the devaluing has come from WITHIN the scientific community. One of the most valuable things I do in my career, I think, is to debunk at every opportunity the idea that it’s okay to speak of the great *communicators* of science to the general population as somehow being inferior. We have not fought hard enough to insist upon credit being given to quality teaching the way it is to quality research, and so we’ve allowed a culture to develop where we’re allowing the gap between have and have-not to widen in terms of quality education in science, which dries up the talent pool of prospective science/engineering majors…and we’ve made it a pretty inhospitable environment for anyone who isn’t a Nobel Laureate or a contender to become one. Every talented scientist who chooses to teach (whether or not s/he also does research) and makes an effort to do it well improves the odds that the vicious cycle will be broken. If it interests you, DO IT. Be the example! %)

  • This is similar to my situation, but with a twist – I thought my dream job was unattainable, so did a degree in something else (that I really enjoyed) but that I figured would be more likely to end up with me gainfully employed… and now here I am in my original dream job and a bachelor’s and master’s degree that have very little relevance to my career (except for lots of transferable skills – writing, critical thinking, problem solving, breaking down silos… but I get weird eyebrow raises when people at work find out what my background is).

    • SteffanyF

      That is my exact story, minus the current job situation. I thought my dream job was unattainable (because I was told repeatedly by my parents that it was) so after a few years of community college I discovered a different subject to study, which I did happily, for the next 5 years. Now, BA and MA later, I’ve been mostly unemployed since my graduation 2 years ago. Plus, I now live in Berlin (which is awesome) but there aren’t exactly tons of job prospects for a non-German speaker with a psychology degree.

  • Erin E

    You know, I felt like I could have written this post too – 10 years ago. At that time I was working in a coffee shop, actively not using my degree and feeling so bad about it that I skipped my 10 year high school reunion. But in the years since then, I’ve watched parents and friends go through career changes, watched the economy tank and gone through my own “wait, but what do I REALLY want to do?!” crises. I feel like what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t really matter what you do – it’s that you have to own it, get to a place where you feel OK with your choice, and then feel like you have some momentum within that career option.

    Also, in general, I think some kids really should think about delaying college or opting for vocational schools and programs instead. SO many kids don’t know what the heck they want to do with their lives at 17 – how could they? College has become an almost meaningless “extended high school” for a lot of people. If we all had some practical knowledge of life before college (or the option of a practicable skill instead of a generalized degree), I think there’d be fewer feelings of wasted time/money after the college experience.

    • Caroline

      This is so true!! I went to college for 4 months right after high school because that is what you did. What else would you do? But I didn’t want to be there, and didn’t have the emotional self-care skills I needed to function. I wanted to be living with my boyfriend and working a job. So I left school, spent some time getting a little better from depression, then moved in and tried to find a job. After a few years at a job I adored but which barely paid the rent and didn’t pay for my car insurance or healthcare or clothes, and had no real place to go from there career wise, I decided to go back to school to study nursing and become a nurse midwife. I quickly realized I didn’t want to be a nurse but since I was already in school, I might as well finish my bachelors. I had had enough experience with job postings for receptionists and retail associates demanding a bachelor’s that I was internally motivated.
      I took classes that interested me, and now am in my junior year of a math degree. I have learned some fascinating stuff, and learned how to think in a whole different way. I also make a priority to take whatever classes interest me because when else will I have this much time to learn?

      I feel very strongly that those few years working, scrambling to pay the bills, making friends, becoming part of a community, and learning to take care of my mental health made all the difference. I don’t think “it’s what you do” is always such a good reason to go to college.

  • Grace

    This was a very well-written, thoughtful post and certainly seems to have struck a chord with many of APW’s readers. However, I’m wondering why this was posted in the Reclaiming Wife section. Perhaps there should be another section added to APW (or maybe one is already in the works, given the website overhaul coming up in October) called “On Life” or something similar, which could include posts like this that are mostly about our journeys as individuals, which complement our lives as someone’s partner. I love the Reclaiming Wife section more than any other part of APW because of its honest acknowledgment that our relationship with our partner continues even after our wedding day is over, so I was a little disappointed that this post did not seem to include a tie to that theme despite its categorization.

    • meg

      Reclaiming Wife is where all of our non-wedding content goes. Titles of sections will change a bit in the new site, but at the moment, it’s the only place we have for non-wedding content. We’re a wedding & marriage site that occasionally runs more general articles, so that’s how it goes. At least in the last weeks before a big re-launch.

      • Grace

        Cool, thanks for the clarification, Meg! What you said certainly makes sense.

  • Abby Mae

    I’m going to school right now (I waited a couple years after H.S to start). The beauty of working for my company is that they have a Tuition Reimbursement plan for all of their employees. They’ll pay 70% of your tuition as long as you pass with a C or above. The biggest bonus is that if you choose to go into one of the career paths that they’re in need of then they’ll pay your tuition at 100%. They call it the the Enhanced Option but the catch is that you must work for them for around 1-2 years after graduating.

    I am having the hardest time deciding whether I want to go ahead and get a degree in one of those career paths (100% reimbursement), get a not-so-specific degree (70% reimbursement), or go ahead with it at all. Mostly since I know in 5 years my husband and I are planning on children. And I know that deep down once my kids come along I will want to stay home with them. I spent a lot of my childhood in daycare or home alone…I feel very strongly about one parent being home during the younger years.

    I just can’t decide if it’s worth it? Is it not? Anyone have thoughts/advice?

    • Hopefully Giggles gets on here to reply to you. She completed her PhD right before having her daughter, and she always comments with great alacrity on the worth of her education as a stay-at-home parent. What could be better than being “really smart Mommy”?

      That’s going to be a tough choice to make, but the nice thing is, you get to re-evaluate every semester. Unless your company has a policy that you must graduate, you could always just take it one semester at a time. When I was thinking about grad school, I talked to a few admissions people and sat in on a class without a problem. To me, I like to gather as much first-hand information as possible before I make a decision. Admissions folks and admins/faculty in any department would be happy to give you more info, let you audit a class, set up dates with current students or student groups, etc. Then you might have a clearer picture of what you’re getting into.

  • Laurel

    Thank you! I am a teacher and, having just moved and switched jobs, the doubts and what ifs I’ve had for the past three years I’ve already spent teaching (while completing grad school) have been brought to the forefront in a teaching position that I am not particularly fond of. I chose this path not because it was the only thing I ever wanted to do but because it was one of many choices presented to me at a moment when I felt I had to make a choice. It’s reassuring to hear someone else with the same concerns and the same desire to see the world (both the job world and the whole world) as an open and ever-changing place rife with opportunity.

  • There are so many more ways to use a college degree than to get paid for it. If I ever do get paid again for my degrees it won’t be for years if not decades. But I use what I learned daily and don’t consider it a waste at all.

  • ChelseaB

    Oh man, this post hits home. I have a dual BA in History and Art History because I was going to “work in a museum” (doing what exactly? I still don’t know). Then I decided to go to grad school after I got laid off from my museum job (turns out that happens in an arts field. A lot.) and got my MLIS so I could be an art librarian. Flash forward 7 years and I am working as a government IT contractor. And I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I feel so guilty about not having it figured out yet, especially when I think of all that damn money I spent that I’m now repaying. Fiance did mostly the same thing (swap civil engineering for IT) but his student loans are negligible and of course, since he is man and the workplace is unfair, he still out earns me. At least he can pay the bills while I owe our first born to Sallie Mae.

    • KatieDid

      Dude, can I relate! I got my double major bachelor’s in studio art and art history, because I ‘wanted to work in a museum’. After numerous internships, interviews, volunteering, and heartache, I am finally starting to realize that it might not have been the place I really would have loved.

      That doesn’t mean I don’t have guilty, ‘I failed’ thoughts when I think about not being able to find a job in a museum. Or really in my field. I do graphic design work that I sorta fell into, and while my art degree didn’t include any digital art training, and I don’t write essays exmining the paintings of old, I do think learning HOW to think is a big part if college. Granted, I wish I could have done it a little cheaper… but I definitely use those writing skills, drafting and outlining skills, and communication skills in my everyday job.

      And I would like to wholeheartedly agree that this has an enourmous impact on my relationship. Especially with the thought in mind that as a team my partner and I support each other while taking risks in education or training, or career changes. :)

  • PurpleShoes

    I would like to hug all the words in this post.

  • I would like to chime in on the chorus of degrees not being wasted even if you aren’t working in your field, but also point out that lives are usually long, and you don’t know what will happen in the long run. My degrees are in Art/Art History, but for years after college I did technical writing and system administration. Over a decade later, I’m back “in my field” and that education is still really useful — as is the technical savvy I gained at my tech job. It all goes into the skill bucket for later use.

  • This, this, a million times this. I’ve been struggling with this so much over the last two years since I graduated. I had a job in “my field” fall through that led to waitressing and call center work, which led to severe anxiety issues. Now I’m back in school part time for a tangentially related certificate that’s supposed to make me more marketable. BUT I started a new job at the end of the summer that I actually find myself enjoying. It’s not anything I ever saw myself doing, and it’s not related to any of the papers I wrote in school, but I use the critical thinking and communication every day. Now I don’t know if I want to finish the certificate I just started or not. It wouldn’t mean more debt, but it’s a lot of time and would slow down my ability to pay off my existing loans. I also just really like learning.

  • Jenni

    This. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I feel your fear: of how others will view your ‘wasted’ time and money. The hardest thing to get over, for me, is coming to terms with the idea that the dreams I had when I was 18 can be different from what I dream of now–and that this is perfectly acceptable.

    At a recent conference, a student asked about the current [bad] job climate in my field, how secure one could feel. My blood started to boil when one senior person responded, “if you love this work and want to stay in the field, you’ll find a job.” Another quickly countered, saying that students who leave the field but do good work and have a good life are successes. If we’ve trained our students to succeed only in this field, he said, we’ve done a poor job.

  • Erin


  • Erin

    I’m exited! This is my first comment on APW :)

    A little over two years ago, I graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees, one in German and the other in global studies, and faced, like so many others, a hostile job market. Despite all the difficulties I’ve encountered, I never for one second regret my education; it holds so much intrinsic value I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. Regular life lessons aside, through college, I was able to study abroad in Germany for a year and come back fluent. (Although it’s not like many employers show interest in it. I say, they don’t know what they’re missing.) In the time since my graduation, I’ve held numerous temp jobs, have been on food stamps, and have received ample, yet I think misguided advice on making a life for myself. However, I did this all with the support of my partner, and for that I am eternally grateful.

    After a year of constant dissatisfaction, we threw caution to the wind and enrolled in a TEFL course at a local university, putting ourselves in the hole three grand each. Now we’re half way across the world teaching English in South Korea and loving it. While having a degree and TEFL certificate were prerequisite for our position, the area of our studies was irrelevant. But for the time being, that’s okay. In the future, though, I’d love to get a job working for the UN, federal or state government, a non-profit…I really don’t care, so long as I find my work personally rewarding monetarily sufficient. Honestly, it’s the choice that scares me, a sentiment shared by my partner and many of my friends.

    So, as of this moment, my degree got me here. It afforded me the opportunity to live overseas two times, and that’s pretty rad. I may never “use it”, which, in my less confident moments, makes me really rethink getting a Master’s in Europe. Then again, in my Wonder Woman moods, I say f*&^ it. Education is one of the best ways to improve yourself and I fricken love being a student. I guess the questions we all need to ask ourselves is what are our expectation of education and will it help make our aspirations a reality?