Dear Dana: I Want To Go To Grad School And Pursue My Dream, Is That Fair To My Partner?

Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to

Dear Dana,

I’ve been considering going to grad school to switch careers. I’ve been an office manager for three years at as many companies. I am unfulfilled by the work and have been thinking for years of earning my masters in social work and becoming a mental health counselor.

My fiancé is very supportive and also pragmatic. He wants me to find fulfillment in a career, but we both know that this move would add a significant amount to our existing student debt pile. Also, mental health counselors don’t make much money. And we have dreams, damn it! We want to buy a house, go on vacations, and maybe have a child someday.

I’m worried that if I go back to school, I’m setting us back financially, and I don’t want to be responsible for that. I know he loves me and he would totally support me in this, but I’m afraid of resentment down the road, both from him and me. Am I cheating us out of the future we want? Can I—and should I—stick it out in the 9-to-5 so I can love my life outside of the office?


Uncertain Future


Dear Uncertain Future:

I went to grad school twice. The first time I went right out of undergrad, partially because I had an interest in religious studies, but mostly because I was scared to get a soul crushing office job. After one year in grad school I was now desperate for a soul crushing office job because, thanks to grad school, my soul had become so compressed I knew it couldn’t possibly be compacted any more.

The first time I went to grad school I went for the wrong reasons: I didn’t know what else to do after college, and I wanted somewhere to hide from real life. I walked into the University of Chicago Divinity School bright-eyed and terrified. The buildings were tall, gothic limestone structures with actual ivy and actual gargoyles. Outside, I was dwarfed by their scale then again, inside, by their academics. I was not prepared for this graduate school. I had not read enough, studied enough, or taken the time to learn what “hermeneutics” meant. I spent every class period listing in the margins of my notebook all of the words I didn’t understand and would need to look up later.

It was the wrong program for me and I was the wrong student for it. I was able to complete my Masters in Religious Studies in a year, but at the end I still needed to go find a job in the real world, plus I now owed $60,000, which I had borrowed for tuition and living expenses. I am still paying for this degree which, while mention of it may cause people to nod with approval at a cocktail party, has not, and will not ever, pay for itself.

However, eight hours a day is a really long time to spend doing things that you do not like. It’s 50% of your conscious, working day, and 35% of your adult life. I believe that a person can work a boring office job and find fulfillment outside of work, but for that to work, your fulfillment shouldn’t require a degree. I still work an office job and write, perform, and teach in my off-hours. But you can’t consul in your off-hours, not without a degree.

The second time I went to grad school I went for a good reason: I wanted an MFA in creative nonfiction because I wanted to write and edit and teach and publish and spend all of my free time with words and hold their hands and kiss them on the mouth and rub them all over my body. I went to grad school at night, while working a full-time job that offered tuition assistance. I was able to earn a living while going to school, and the schooling itself was subsidized. I would not have gone otherwise. The second time I went to grad school I left with, again, a degree that will never pay for itself, but this time I had accrued no additional debt.

You want to become a counselor. In order to become a counselor, you must get a counseling degree. Sometimes I’m asked about my opinion of MFA programs for writing and I answer that they’re great, if you need an MFA to get the job you want and you can afford the tuition. But if you just want to be a writer, you don’t need an MFA. You can become a writer on your own by reading and reading and reading and then writing and writing and writing. But you can’t become a counselor on your own. You need a program for that.

There are affordable options out there, as well as options that will let you attend school while you work your day job. Online programs are proliferating and, as long as they are hosted by a reputable school, are a great way to pursue a degree while still generating income. An unfulfilling job is much more tolerable when you’re pursuing your goals at night.

But, I also want you be practical about grad school. Grad school will not save you. Grad school does not care about improving your life. Grad school is expensive and difficult and is not an escape from anything. Grad school is your same life, only with new problems and now grades.

It is true that mental health counselors make no money, but life is so much more than math. Despite what all of the Republican nominees say, money isn’t a measure of personal worth or a measure of how successful you are. Most of us, really, don’t need as much money as we think we need. And homes are great and kids are better and vacations are nice, and I believe that you can still have all of those things after you’ve graduated. Maybe not during grad school, but definitely afterward.

You’re worried about your partner and yourself resenting each other as a result of you going back to grad school, because it will set you back. But set you back from what? Life isn’t a straight line with clear stops: marriage–kids-house-various vacations-retirement-death. Life is a circle that loops back and back and back on itself—I am a child, I have a child. I am a student, I am teacher. I receive counseling, I give counseling.

If being fully financially stable will give you the most long-term joy, then stay in your current job. But don’t, because it won’t. Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse from Australia, recorded the regrets of the dying in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. One of the top five regrets is, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Will counseling people make you happier than managing an office? Yes, absolutely, for sure, definitely? Time to get those applications together.

Do not sit in an office doing things that you do not like because you are scared to leave. Do the thing you most want to do. Go to school, learn how to help people, and then help people. Allow yourself to receive a compensation for your time and effort that money cannot touch.

Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.

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