Post-Secondary Myth

I have a few things on my “If I Knew Then What I Know Now” list. Re-thinking post-secondary education is on that list.

A friend of mine forwarded a very sweet young undergrad student to me. She stated that this girl wanted to go on to do her M.A. in Anthropology and to look at bones for the rest of her life. Could I give her advice?

I couldn’t let this go.

If I could do it all over again, I’d go back and learn a trade. Ten years after graduating with an M.A. in Anthropology I’m still paying back student loans. And if I hadn’t done some solid foundational work in Archaeology during my undergrad, I wouldn’t have been qualified to do a damn thing except more research.

I let the poor unsuspecting girl have it. Both barrels.

“Why?” I asked. “Why on earth do you want to get an M.A. in Anthropology? Seriously? What’s your end goal? If it’s to become an academic, then get ready for an all out bitch-fest competition. It used to be that a Ph.D. candidate would be competing against maybe ten or so other Ph.D. candidates, if you weren’t personally invited to apply by someone you met at a conference. Now, people who’re already holding their Ph.D. are merely one in a hundred for the same academic job posting. Sometimes they’re even competing against post-docs.

“As well, do your research regarding what an academic position is like nowadays. It ain’t like it used to be, even ten years ago. For the first few years, you will be teaching five or six classes, applying for grants left, right, and centre, and vying to position yourself politically within the university and department. You’d be doing all this to get a tenure position. And the possibility of being offered tenure is getting smaller and smaller every year.

“Did I mention that you wouldn’t be well paid either?”

I continued. “If you want to look at bones for the rest of your life, that’s cool. But there isn’t a whole lot you can do with an M.A. in Anthropology; there’s not a whole lot of bang for buck when it comes to value. My suggestion is to either finish your undergrad or stop altogether. Find a job and get grandfathered into something or go to a trade school. Find a way to get a job that you can do 9-5, that will pay your bills, and let you do what you want to do: dig up and play with bones. If you want to find a job in radiology or something that gets you close to skeletal stuff, go do a one-year certificate course and get yourself in the door.

“University is not the answer to a job search unless you want a profession.”

And, frankly, it never has been.

It used to be that post-secondary education was for the rich upper class. You went there to gain a profession, to become a doctor or lawyer, or just to learn. If you didn’t have the money to go, you found yourself a wealthy benefactor who paid your scholarship. If you weren’t of the upper class, you apprenticed and learned a trade. This is in sharp contrast to the modern mindset. Nowadays, everyone gets a post-secondary education or wants one, and most people go to great lengths to get one. As well, there is a tendency to look down upon trades. So what changed?

I postulate that it was a leveling of the economic playing field through both the effects of war and the rise of capitalism. I won’t go into this here, suffice to say that post-secondary education has become a status-symbol that is now attainable by the every man through credit and relaxation of class distinction. Post-secondary education has become a Prada bag: you ain’t nobody if you ain’t got it. The problem is that everyone now has a post-secondary education — it’s become common and our pocketbooks are much depleted because of it.

I have my happy days when I don’t regret my decision to stay in school. I love to learn and I learned so much at university, so much more than my course-load — I learned how to learn, I learned theory and philosophy, how to think critically, and how to question research and source material. I loved spontaneously brainstorming with a colleague in the hallway, and the bohemian lifestyle of sleeping late then tottering down to the coffee shop to write on my thesis all day. But there are other days, days when my credit statements arrive, when I re-evaluate my life choices and walk the should-would-could path for a while.

In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my path, for better or worse. I need to learn to be creative with what I have, and how to build on it. I’m getting there, but it’s slow going. But if I ever win the lottery, one of the first things I’ll be doing is looking for a Ph.D. supervisor. Just ‘cuz.


Related Posts/Articles:

Northwest History: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor

The Simple Dollar: The Value of College

Get Rich Slowly: Student Loan Debt is Trending

Thriving in the 21st Century: Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to Be Debt Slaves

Huffington Post: Living in a Converted Garage with a Master’s Degree

CBC: Average Student Debt Difficult to Pay off

Profoundly Disconnected – Mike Rowe


5 responses to “Post-Secondary Myth

  1. Pingback: Go to College or Develop a Skill? | Thriving In The 21st Century·

    • Thank you for your kind words and for recommendation! I truly hope people (and their kids) take a good hard, realistic look at their reasons for pursuing post-secondary education; it’s not an easy choice.


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