Thursday, January 13, 2011

Exceptionalism & Naïvete

Today I was reading "Is Law School a Losing Game?", which pertains to debt accrued by law students who are unable to find work within the legal field. It's an interesting article that addresses several issues that I'm sure don't apply just to law school, including colleges and universities misrepresenting their academic rankings and supplying the public with false information such as the percentage of graduates who are employed. (At the moment, this percentage could include those who are employed in fields not pertaining to their degree, including those working, for example, at fast food joints.)

It's difficult to find work as it is, no matter what one's field; I've been looking for a full-time (or at least regular) employment as a teacher since I graduated from Stony Brook University in 2007. I graduated with a degree in English and was (and still am) certified to teach English in grades seven through 12 in New York State, but the most I could find were substitute teaching jobs, even when I was in graduate school. I wanted to teach in New York City, but even as the largest school district in the country, there was a hiring freeze that remains in effect.

One of those interviewed for this article addressed an interesting point:

“This idea of exceptionalism — I don’t know if it’s a thing with millennials, or what,” says [Kimber A. Russer], referring to the generation now in its 20s. “Even if you tell them the bottom has fallen out of the legal market, they’re all convinced that none of the bad stuff will happen to them. It’s a serious, life-altering decision, going to law school, and you’re dealing with a lot of naïve students who have never had jobs, never paid real bills.”

This is, I think, a very real and intimidating issue that faces those who go straight from high school to college; even if these students have held (or continue to hold) jobs in school, there are few students between the ages of 18 to 22 who have had the experience of completely supporting themselves. (Clearly there are circumstances that require young adults to be entirely financially self-sufficient, but the majority have not had this experience yet, even by the time they graduate at the age of 22.)

When I graduated with my undergraduate degree (I was 31, and had supported myself for several years before I went back to college), I talked to students who were graduating with me: Many were terrified because they had no idea what the next step was or how to support themselves. Looking for professional work and all that entails, and having an idea of how much money it takes to support oneself takes experience one could simply not have in a real, authentic way unless actually done for yourself. One can be taught to budget or how to dress professionally for an interview or create a resume, but only up to a point.

Russer's quote struck a chord on a more personal level. When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I had to make the decision whether to accrue more debt and begin grad school the following autumn, or begin looking for work. My decision to go to grad school right away was partly made because teachers need graduate degrees before they can get permanent certification anyway; also, I wasn't married and had no children for whom I needed to be responsible so I was free from big personal commitments that many people my age had. Furthermore, by going to grad school I would have at least been conceivably able to find part-time work at grad school. The two years I was there, I was granted a teaching fellowship, a research fellowship, and several teaching assistantships, each of which granted stipends and would pay for three each per semester. Often this meant that three classes per semester were being paid for by the school itself. And this included tutoring at two on-campus tutoring centers that provided an actual (hourly) salary.

There was no naïvete on my part: I would be working hard and making little money, while still accruing debt. When I left grad school, I still had no job lined up, and there was still a city-wide freeze vis-a-vis the New York City Department of Education. I had the luxury of experience, knowing that even without the college degree, I knew what my marketable skills were (however limited they might be) and knew how to navigate the professional world. Had I graduated when I was 22, without having supported myself before, I would have been at a real loss. Even now, while I live in a state 2,000 miles away in a completely different environment, teaching jobs are still hard to come by. I'm unhappy that I spent so much of my time and effort getting a degree that I can't use permanently, but when it comes right down to it I have an idea of how to apply that degree elsewhere.

And there are those who are enticed by the promise of a large paycheck. It's lovely, of course, when what you love to do gives you some financial status, but I'm not sure I would personally go into a field simply for the paycheck. I did go into teaching because I love it, I'm good at it, and there are some benefits (it's a good job to have when you have a family in that one's schedule is similar to that of your child's; and it can pay decently). Yet it can be a rude awakening:

“With fatherhood impending,” wrote the student, whose name was redacted, “I go to bed every night terrified of the thought of trying to provide for my child AND paying off my J.D., and resentful at the thought that I was convinced to go to law school by empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career.”

If students are routinely told, it will be implied that once you graduate with a degree, you will easily and almost immediately find work in your chosen field. This does happen, but not consistently. No one discusses the issue with those about to graduate of what might happen once you graduate and can't find your dream job right away. Or ever. To be honest, I'm not sure how much students would be able to understand that things don't always work out as smoothly as hoped, but it still needs to be said.

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