I Have a Degree I Don't Use (And That's OK)

Having spent so much money and time on this career, I felt chained to it. Then, I burnt out.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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My junior year of college, I decided I wasn't ready to leave the warm bosom of academia, so I started making the preparations to apply for graduate school.

I loved being in school. I wanted to learn, sure, but also no one expects anything of you when you're in college. You're allowed to be poor, exhausted, sleep-deprived, distracted, and a social moron, because you're pursuing a loftier goal. 

So I took the GRE, filled out applications, took out my lip ring for the interviews, secured recommendations and wrote innumerable essays. After being accepted, I spent the next 2 1/2 years being amazingly broke while getting a masters degree in couples and family counseling, which I followed up by getting licensed to practice.

That was eight years ago. In between I had several incredibly intense and rewarding jobs working with severely mentally ill clients, fractured families and couples at the end of their rope. I also became incredibly burnt out. 

Around year six, I started wondering if I could spend my adult life as a therapist, and a few months later, I realized that I could not. My own psyche was starting to disintegrate a bit. I spent my days running a small private practice in Brooklyn and my nights doing the things that brought me joy -- writing, playing video games, and going to comedy shows.

I wasn't sure what the end result would be, but over the next six months, I asked my friend if I could run his local comedy show in a bookstore, and submitted my first set of pitches to write for a women's blog. 

And then I took the plunge. With the help of a very supportive partner who was willing to be the main breadwinner for a bit, I quit my job as a therapist and started over. I got a part time job as an underling at a comedy club and started freelance writing, collecting tiny payments from websites that let me rant about "Doctor Who." I went from making a respectable grownup salary to scraping together a much smaller salary from many different places. Depositing those tiny checks made me question my decision as well as my status as a grown woman, but I was also much happier.

Having spent so much money and time on this degree, I felt chained to it, like if I didn't stay in that field, all that work was for naught. It also felt financially irresponsible. But, while I was poorer, I was no poorer than I had been in grad school.

In the end, I learned to think of my grad school experience in a way that didn't feel like a waste of time or money.

Let's ignore the fact that I got an advanced degree in understanding and coping with human behavior, which is useful no matter what you do for a living. But what I realize now is that 80 percent of what you get out of grad school is learning to cope with a busy life and a lot of responsibilities.

Grad school is a nightmare of scheduling, time management, energy management and remembering 30 things at once. It's learning to pack a lunch when you leave at 7 am and then remembering to eat it at some point while you're running from one building to another. It's learning to cope with internships and writing papers and side jobs and classes and required reading and practicum and advising, on top of everything else in your dwindling life.

It's the tools I learned in grad school that make me able to sit down for half an hour and bang out 1,000 words on horror movies, or remember, in order, the 20 things that my comedian boss asked me to do as he was dashing from a show to a plane to go to his next show. I am more organized and quicker than a lot of able-bodied people my age, and it's not because I learned about schizophrenia for a few years. And absolutely, you can acquire these skills without having to go to grad school, but you won't get them as fast and furiously, I promise you that.

So despite the fact that eight years after graduating, I'm running a tiny comedy theater, hosting a podcast about video games, and freelance writing, I sleep soundly with the knowledge that all that blood, sweat, tears, and money I spent wasn't wasted.

If you've already gotten a degree in something that you're tired of doing every day, know that it's never too late to start over. If you're thinking of going back to school but feel terrified at the level of commitment it seems to require, fret not. Pursue your passions, get all the knowledge you can, and then figure out how to use it no matter what you do. Just like being on a reality show or going to Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the real benefit is in living through it. 

Plus, I always have a fallback career as a therapist.