Posted by: CJ | February 5, 2011

Why so long…

After graduate school I’m thinking of switching out of academia and into industry. Possibly the tech industry if I can, but possibly some part of the gargantuan healthcare complex. Something I’ve wondered already, several times, is how to answer any inevitable questions along the lines of, “Honestly, you could gotten started in this area with only a master’s degree, or possibly just a bachelor’s degree. So why did you only decide to go into it after getting a doctorate?” I mean, there are easy answers to that explicit question, but the harder, implied, question is, “Why should we hire someone who seems this stupid about making long-term career decisions? And who spent half a decade training to be something else?”

I’m not sure I have a good answer to that. At least not one that avoids negative thoughts, as several books have advised one should do in interviews.

The best brutally honest answer I can give is this: it’s taken me a long time to figure out what was out there and what the day to day life of various jobs are actually like, and given that information which ones  I actually wanted. And it’s not because I totally shirked on figuring out what my options were, either. I wasn’t nearly as interested as I should have been in figuring out what I wanted to do. I always thought that it would be pointless to think overmuch about it when I didn’t have nearly enough information to go on. Which was a mistake, but also a valid point.

The only educated workers my hometown had, to the best of my knowledge, were teachers, doctors, lawyers, health professional types (like nurses and physical therapists), a handful of engineers for the 2 or 3 remaining local factories, a few business people, accountants, and some musicians.

In other words, we had almost the absolute minimum educated workforce the administrative  and medical center for a several county area needed but no more. The sorts of jobs that might require professional training but hardly required one to be on the cutting edge of knowledge or technology. Hardly require one to know anything that wasn’t known circa 1950 or 1960, which is approximately where our city’s collective mindset was, and still is, stuck. (Other than professionals keeping up with some of the new things handed down, like lawyers and laws or doctors and new medicines. But they were hardly driving anything or early adopters.)

My choice of college didn’t help me enough, either. The learning environment was awesome, I had very motivated and intelligent friends, and it was a doable transition for me…but it was a small liberal arts college very much NOT focused on “what sort of job do I want and what training do I need for it”. We were focused on “what should I learn to lead a good, interesting, and ethical life”, which is a related but very different question.

For grad school I went someplace to help me answer some of those questions, because by the end of college I started to realize that I didn’t think the life of the mind was for me. Which wasn’t an indication of dim-wittedness on my part, just an indication that it takes a person a damn long time to get acclimated to an entirely new set of possibilities. I mean, for a lot of high school I thought I’d become a high school science teacher because that’s the only thing I knew a capable person who liked science could do, other than become an engineer.

Well…I also wasn’t ready to make any hugely big decisions until I understood what the ramifications might be. So I continued on the graduate school path…

By the time I’ve now really decided I don’t want an academic life AND I think I do know the other things I would like, I’ve finished one master’s degree, almost finished a second in a cognate discipline, and probably should take several technology intensive courses to get my sell-able skills up to par. And I’m not so far away from getting a PhD, assuming I can get my dissertation research to work.

So I’m not sure how to answer the question, “Why did you go to graduate school to get a job you could have gotten with a bachelor’s or a master’s instead of 2 master’s and a PhD?” Especially in 120 seconds or less…

I think my best answer may really be, “When I got to college there were so many new opportunities that I just chose to pursue a subject that seemed rewarding and interesting. I didn’t understand that ultimately there was little to do with it outside academia, or that I wasn’t going to like academic research. It’s taken me awhile, but I think I’ve gotten as much out of the academic career path as I’m going to, and it’s time for me to move on to new pastures.”

Now if I could just feel like I hadn’t done something clueless and silly by staying in graduate school for so long…


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