The Irony of Higher Education

Very few people, if any, would argue that education is a bad thing. In most middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, that someone will pursue higher education after high school is virtually a given; those who choose not to become branded with a negative stigma. Increasingly today, even a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough as a default expected education, as a Master’s is rapidly becoming the norm.

I myself have a Master’s degree, and yet I am among the first to encourage people not to pursue such without a clear goal in mind for which it is required. In my case, I only decided to attend grad school because, through a few strokes of good fortune and luck, I was awarded a full fellowship. Had I been taking out loans for that extra credential, I wouldn’t have gone forward with it.  I often ask people who do put themselves into serious financial debt to pursue an advanced degree what their motivation is, and conventional wisdom seems to be that the higher our educational attainment, the more options we have.

The problem is, those of us who actually spend the money, time and effort to attain that advanced education far too often don’t see it this way. Instead, we pigeonhole ourselves into the state of mind that we need to pursue a career that is “worthy” of our education. Service? Certainly not, why that’s below us. You don’t need a Master’s to do that. Culinary? Of course not…my career adviser doesn’t have any contacts there.

Quite simply, the more education we have, the fewer jobs we feel are noble and worthy for us. How many law school students do you know would feel good about knowing that in five years, they will be teaching elementary school children for $30,000 a year? Of course they will not be satisfied with that—they would be “overqualified”, right? But what happens when the attainment of those jobs we consider to be worthy doesn’t lead us to happiness?

I use the law student example because I have come across several JD’s who wind up doing exactly that—teaching elementary school—after spending a few years at cutthroat firms. They all have told me the decision to leave law for education was not easy, often harrowing, and that the single biggest thing holding them back from pursuing what was truly in their hearts—teaching kids—is the fact that they spent the time, money and effort to earn that JD.

So it turns into a grand irony—while those with no higher education may be “limited” to the service industry or vocational trades (within which there are countless options, I may point out), those of us with the advanced education become even more limited by the limit of what we may deem acceptable. I know many an extrovert who may be happiest as a hotel concierge, meeting people from around the world and being wined and dined at five-star restaurants, who instead toils away behind spreadsheets and regression analyses all in the name of getting a “return” out of his or her academic credentials.

I’ve learned to stop looking at careers with a judging eye, and instead have realized that there is no limit to what any individual may be happiest pursuing. And while I am not against education in any way, and I indeed agree that on the surface, it gives anyone more options, I think it is important that we remember that options are not meant to be limited by the status we have achieved. If you have a Master’s and the career that makes you most happy doesn’t require it, who cares? It can still serve you well in so many other ways, and I am a firm believer that if you follow your heart and passion, just due financial rewards will come. Who’s to say that the MBA who decides to join the front desk of a hotel won’t be in charge of the check-in procedure and overall customer experience within a few years? No career has to be a dead end.

Education does in fact give us more options, but only if we truly accept the full breadth of those options. To do so, we must excuse judgment, push aside prejudice, and have the courage to pursue whatever it is that will maximize our career and personal happiness, no matter what kind of expectations we may have had upon making the decision to pursue advanced education.


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