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An Ivy grad wrote in, asking for advice after not finding a satisfying job that fit with his degree. The first part of the email thread is as follows. This is part of a two-part post; the second part can be read here.

“Hey Clayton,

Thank you for writing that blog. I went through a similar period of doubt and depression and feelings of worthlessness a few years back after I finished my engineering degree at an ivy league school (arguably not the best place for an engineering degree) and couldn’t find employment.

So I figured more education would get me going. After 60k put back into the ivy league for a Master’s, I can say I’m fully employed. But I still feel a sense of worthlessness and still have my debt clinging on to me like a ball and chain.

I sit at a desk all day and punch numbers away in a spreadsheet. Not even doing any fancy cool stuff with it, just punching it in and sending it off. At first I was so insulted that I didn’t even get 50k salary, but now I realize that it’s probably way more than what someone doing these mundane tasks should be paid.

I probably sound like I’m complaining, which I am to some extent. I envisioned a much more meaningful and exciting future. Ah well.

Which brings me to my next point, the inspiration your blog set off in me.

Yes, I have a job and I’m grateful I get a steady paycheck, but it doesn’t do away with the fact that this desk job and its menial tasks are making me feel more empty than ever before.

I spent a couple of weeks learning programming about 2-3 hours/day and challenging myself. I spent a week or two reading (very enthusiastically) about how computer hardware works.

I want to be where you’re at now. I’m looking at a community college for computer science classes and going from there in the hopes that I’d be able to make a good living (six figures isn’t necessary) while being able to travel and having freedom. I feel that software engineering and development will allow me that freedom. I might as well do it soon, while I’m 24, rather than later when I’ll have much more responsibility.

Do you think this is a good idea? I’m just having a lot of trouble accepting that I’m braindead at this job, and an investment now in computer science and programming will pay off tremendously in the end, I would hope.

All advice appreciated!

Best,

[redacted]”

My response:

“Hi [redacted],

Thanks for writing in, and I’m glad the blog resonates with your experiences.

As for your computer science idea, I say go for it. It’s still a vibrant industry with a lot of demand and a lot of high-paying positions that companies struggle to fill. I still get daily emails from recruiters asking if I’d be interested in a new position. If you have an interest in programming, then I don’t think you’ll regret making the change. And having another engineering degree certainly can’t hurt your prospects, either.

If your current job is unfulfilling, then don’t force yourself to keep doing it. Software development is a pretty safe bet so I wouldn’t be worried about losing out financially if you change careers. Depending on where you live, you can probably expect to make $40-60K in an entry-level job, and if you’re motivated and do good work, you can probably expect to break $100K within 2-3 years (virtually anything with “senior” or “architect” in the title will be six figures plus bonus and other benefits). And for future reference, don’t be afraid to jump ship if a better opportunity presents itself – there is surprisingly high turnover in the software industry.

A community college is definitely the most cost-efficient way to get a degree, and I’d venture to say you’ll be able to find a job after getting an associate’s degree in CS, especially since you’ve already got a master’s in something else. If you can continue working in your current position while going back to school, then that may ease the transition; I was mostly unemployed when I re-enrolled and it was a challenge not having much money to spare.

If you’re interested in traveling with work, then the key word is consulting (or consultant). The basic principle of consulting firms is that they provide specialized expertise which isn’t easy learn on the fly, making it impractical to recruit new people locally for new projects. Instead, consulting firms train their staff to be experts in a specific subject area, then fly them to clients around the country (or globe) as temporary contractors, which is costly for clients but often worthwhile for projects that don’t last that long. This is what I do, and it’s nice in the sense that you can continue living wherever you are and travel back and forth to client sites, rather than having to relocate permanently (although you can volunteer to relocate as well). On the flip side, weekly travel can become quite tiring and tedious; some of my coworkers say they feel like they’re living at the airport. If you don’t see yourself as a road warrior but you’re still interested in seeing other parts of the country, you can certainly apply for jobs nationwide and express your willingness to relocate in your application. Many companies recruit nationally, since they may not be able to find enough local talent, and I get emails from recruiters in all parts of the US. Bear in mind that (from what I’ve observed, at least) most companies will expect you to relocate on your own tab, but some do offer reimbursement for relocation expenses (as a taxable benefit).

If you’re looking to live abroad (highly recommended if you’ve not done it before), then I’d suggest looking at major consulting firms as a starting point (Accenture, Ernst & Young, etc.) or else companies with a global market presence (e.g. SAP, IBM, or my company, Guidewire). If you speak another language, that’s helpful as well. In my case, I was surprised when my company offered to send me overseas almost immediately after I joined. As it turned out, many of the older consultants with families didn’t want to move that far away, let alone uproot the wife and kids, so the company had difficulty filling openings with foreign clients. But for me, it was the perfect opportunity, and since the flights, work visas, etc. are all reimbursed as business expenses, I’ve been able to move around without having to make huge financial sacrifices. And thanks to all this business travel, I’ve racked up tons of frequent flyer miles and hotel points at no cost to myself. Over the course of 3.5 years, I’ve lived in four foreign countries (Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and currently, Great Britain), and so far, I haven’t looked back.

Anyway, I hope this info is helpful to you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions.

Cheers,

Clayton”
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I thought I should take a moment to address a few emails I’ve received, along the lines of “stop complaining” or “you picked the wrong degree, suck it up.”

For what it’s worth, I’m no longer poor, and I no longer live with my mother. I have zero debt. I now make six figures as a software consultant and I have a six-figure bank balance. And I’ve been happily living abroad and traveling the world for more than three years (I’m working in Europe at the moment). So no, I’m not sour grapes. No, I’m not a failure. I made a catastrophically bad decision, but I eventually dusted myself off and found a better path.

Yet I still maintain and post to this blog – why? Because the purpose of this site is not to voice petty personal complaints (of which I have few these days) – it’s to highlight a wider cultural phenomenon which continues to threaten the economic future, not to mention the mental health, of a generation of Americans. Tuitions are still rising rapidly and millions of students every year take out massive loans that they probably won’t be able to pay back. Some remain saddled with debt for decades, never able to attain the proper independence that every adult craves. I think no greater blow can be dealt to one’s self-esteem than to invest many years of one’s life in something, only to find that it never pays off. This needs to be talked about, as much as when I launched this site. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops: look before you leap!

If all you see in this site is personal gripes, then you need to look a bit harder, because this is far bigger than me. This site is here to help you, your peers, your children, avoid making a terrible decision that could haunt you for the rest of your lives. It is a chronicle of mistakes and bad judgment calls made by me and by others like me; it is, hopefully, a collection of examples of what not to do if you want to be a success. Take my advice or leave it, but rest assured, this site isn’t about me – it’s about what’s happening in American private education.

A Mother Writes

Gotta love those souvenirs, like the university email address… and the 200 grand in debt.

“Hey Clayton

You got this great free prestigious email address that you can keep forever—you did get something from your education J

I went through something similar to you a generation ago (but the tuition was considerably less) and built my own business with no benefit from my education at all.  My son is following in your footsteps at another Ivy right now–biology, the whole bit, even a love of languages and linguistics.  You validate everything I know to be true about the situation.  I constantly tell him that before investing so much time, effort and golden years of youth he should  see where it is all going.

Some people in bright economic times may be able to leverage their Ivy league degree as validation that they are intelligent and have learned “how to think”– but not too often.

My son considering switching to comp sci but he will probably stay at the Ivy.  So thanks for sharing your information.  It is helpful—but I will not sleep well tonight.

I am really glad that it all worked out for you, and I am sure you will continue with your success.

I do not donate to my alma mater either!”

I couldn’t have said it better…

beer-pongI got another round of questions from a reader, to which I’ve responded below:

1. When talking to a graduate of Columbia University (and former professor there) , I asked if he knew any students or taught any students that were/are struggling with depression and he said there was not ONE graduate student he knew that didn’t suffer from both. He says grad school was a “cavalcade of misery, at least for the first three years”. He says he does not know this to be true of undergrad students attending elite schools. Do you believe this to be true?

Could be. I don’t have a graduate degree myself, so I can’t attest to the difficulty of getting one. It seems like PhD programs often get a bad rap (I remember reading a tongue-in-cheek article on the lifestyle of PhD students entitled “So You’ve Chosen to Ruin Your Life”), but I don’t know how dependent it is on the specific school attended. I’m guessing it varies a lot.

As far as intensity of undergrad coursework is concerned, I think it depends heavily on what you study, and I’m guessing the same is true in grad school as well. I found Duke to be an intense and draining experience, but that’s probably because I was pre-med (and a science major) so many of my courses had heavy workloads and were graded on a curve. And since medicine tends to attract some of the best and brightest at the university, I was competing with an above-average demographic for a limited number of A’s, and many of the top students seemed to do nothing but study. If I had pursued sociology or art history instead, I would probably have a very different perspective. Then again, I don’t think Duke is as famous for grade inflation as many of the Ivies are, so the challenge probably varies quite a lot from place to place as well as from program to program.

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Princeton
A college freshman wrote to me with some questions on Ivy League schools: their merit, their policies, and their preferences. My responses follow.

1. When interviewing my head of school, who attended Penn approximately 20 years ago, he told me “no one graduated without a job”. This obviously has changed, but why do you think that is? Do you think it is the quality of Ivy League schools that has gone down?

That certainly may be part of it, but it’s not the whole story. The first question is, what do we mean by a “quality” education? What makes one school better than another? Is it the practical (i.e. professional) value of the education? The challenge it provides? Perhaps it’s the social experience, or the values the university conveys? I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a dramatic demographic, socioeconomic, and political shift in the Ivies over the past fifty or so years, but that doesn’t necessarily imply anything about the quality of the coursework. My general impression is that many elite private universities have rather academic curricula compared to their public counterparts, in the sense that they aren’t geared to train students for the “real world.” I’m not opposed to taking courses out of personal interest, but I think most students who are fresh out of high school are hoping to gain some vocational skills as part of their education, and in that respect I think many top-rated private schools don’t deliver.

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A Pre-Med Q&A

burnout_bachelor_erhoeht_stress_studentenn20100625062844

A pre-med wrote to me with some questions, which I’ve listed in bold, followed by my responses. I hope that this conveys some of the parental pressure and fatigue that is often experienced by students in intense majors.

 

“I can’t tell you how many times others would simply wave off my concerns and give me trite advice such as “no pain, no gain”, and “suck it up, you’re an adult now”.”

That pretty much echoes the feedback that I got as well, from my dad, my profs, and my advisors. I remember once when a student complained to the organic chemistry professor that the exams were obscenely difficult and his grades were jeopardizing his chances of getting into med school. The professor’s response was, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”

 

“I’m lucky because I have parental support for my college education (so I’ll be graduating debt free), and also fortunate to have a good amount of financial savings on my own, so I can afford to take time off to travel.”

Awesome! You can at least be glad that your finances are stable. The most brutal stories seem to come from students who are in over their head with debt when they graduate… and then still can’t find work. I was somewhere in the middle – my parents covered my first two years at Duke, and I paid for the remaining two with a trust fund from my grandparents, which at the time had about $100K in it (suffice it to say, I spent the entirety of it on college). So I also graduated debt-free, but I was left with no savings, so when I couldn’t find work after graduating, I was forced to move out of North Carolina and into my mother’s basement on the other side of the country.

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Pyrrhus

A pre-med on a UC campus wrote to me this week (the response follows):

“Dear Clayton,

Thank you so much for writing your blog- I searched all over the internet for a blog that would express the way I felt, and I finally found yours. […] When I was a high school senior, I applied to all the Ivy Leagues (but was rejected from all of them) but was accepted to every campus of the University of California. At the time, I was very disappointed to not have gotten into any Ivy League, because I too had a carefully crafted resume with a 1500/1600 SAT, extra-curriculars with regional awards, and had sacrificed so many of the same things that you gave up to go to an elite college…basic things a lot of people take for granted in life such as a normal childhood and teenage social life. Those precious experiences that we really only get to experience once in life, I gave up because I had tremendous family and also personal pressure to “succeed” and go to an elite college. Because I didn’t get into the Ivies, I decided to go to the pre-med program, believing that the program would allow me to get into professional school a lot more easily and thus alleviating the academic and extracurricular pressure that has plagued me all my life. I also thought the program would be a lot easier than what I would experience at an Ivy League. It turned out to be anything but easy. My classmates were all of similar caliber (most would have attended UC Berkeley or UCLA if they didn’t come here), and grading is extremely rough with average of C. I cannot tell you how much I utterly despise my life here. Your experience really struck a chord with me- the cutthroat-ness of the place, how incredibly hard the classes are, how the work comes in massive waves that I try not to drown in…I spend literally all my time studying and I never feel good enough. My 3.7 GPA is a massive accumulation of pain and stress, and because the program is so accelerated, I will be finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2 years, because I came into college with a lot of AP units and I also took summer classes.

But at least, reading your blog has been a cathartic experience for me. I’m writing right now because its the week before finals, and I’m completely broken down right now. I’m at the end of the 2 years, but I can’t seem to push myself any further.I’m burned out beyond belief, and the worst part is that, I’ve completely lost interest in becoming a doctor. Life has become simply a matter of getting through one more day, and I’ve lost my original vision, goals, and dreams. Continue Reading »