When Grad School Isn’t Always the Answer

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This time of the year can be stressful for many, especially for those who are considering grad school. For some, the race to score above a certain percentile on standardized tests, secure top-notch letters of recommendation, and write stellar essays about your plans to change the world can be all-consuming. It definitely was for me. A year ago today, I was listening to a guided meditation on Spotify in my car before heading into the ETS test center in Culver City. For months before that, my mind was in a constant loop between memorizing GRE vocab words and imagining where my life could be in five, ten, even twenty years. At 23 years old, calling the pressure I felt to fast track my career and figure out my future “intense” would be an understatement.

In retrospect, that pressure was as much self-induced as it was societal, especially coming from a low-income Pilipino immigrant family new to the idea of building wealth in the United States.

When all was said and done, I eventually reached a hard conclusion — grad school wasn’t the answer. But what I learned about myself throughout the process of applying was a valuable lifelong lesson that a grad program could not offer me. I’ve spent too many days never being present in the moment; letting life fly by with my mind fixated on chasing an idea of the future that I had not earned or fully understood the implications of. At the same time, I made it routine to uproot my life in search of a new start any time that I faced conflict or uncertainty. Sure, I was worried about making money and jumpstarting my career, but the deepest conflict I had was with myself. Applying to grad school was a distraction from the present day conflicts that may have been in the back of my mind, yet remained with me wherever I went. Here are three examples:

  • Still being in the closet
  • Careless spending
  • Making career decisions based on the proximity it would bring me to wealth and ‘status’ that was not mine, instead of focusing on where I can have impact

Within one week of receiving my first grad school admissions letter, I had two pivotal conversations. A mentor of mine reminded me that the real determinant of my success would always be myself, not a degree or the brand of the institution it came from. Later that week, a friend asked me when the last time was that I faced my fears. I said “applying to grad school,” but quickly realized that it wasn’t true. That was the easy and convenient thing to say, like how clinging on to the possibility of grad school was a convenient distraction from my real fears. It was time for me to challenge the self-sabotaging beliefs I held about myself.

My family

In the four weeks after hearing back from all the schools I applied to, I came out to my mom, put in my two weeks at my job, and cut my credit card debt in half. It was liberating to feel like I was finally on the path towards living my most authentic self, but this also meant that I had to face the tough realization that I had no single clue what I really wanted from a graduate level degree. What I actually needed was a fresh start. I wanted to be loved and accepted by family and friends for who I am, and a career where I could make a positive difference in the world and still make enough to live comfortably.

Sometimes I wish I would have learned earlier that I could have all of those things without pushing myself back into the classroom for two years, especially without direction. But as I reflect on the lessons learned, I don’t regret applying at all. I decided not to go back to school and instead focus on cultivating habits and relationships that make me feel alive. I’m still fascinated at how quickly certain aspects of my life started to grow when I stopped asking myself “What do I want to do?” or “Who do I want to be?” Instead, I started asking myself more present-minded questions: “What knowledge and skills do I have in this moment? Where can I make a difference?”

I offer this experience up for anyone who may be thinking about grad school this Fall and reflecting on these tough, sometimes existential questions. My hope is that you find self-respect, confidence, and unexpected sources of support throughout. School will always be there, but our time is limited.

I am a firm believer that Pilipino-Americans should, can, and will assume the mantle of leadership in every industry in our country one day. Grad school will be part of the journey for some, and for others, it won’t.

I’m embracing the opportunity to remain grounded in my truth and know that leading with my values will put me where I need to be. If that means standing still for once to appreciate how far I’ve come, then for that I am grateful.


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