"Why is it so important to you to go to grad school?", Cyrus would ask when I moped at yet another rejection email.
For the last two and a half years I'd spent a large portion of my free time and evenings scouring the internet in search of the perfect project at a good graduate school. I studied hard for the GRE, took the awful test, and passed. I contacted numerous professors to see if they had any openings in their labs. I carefully constructed and tailored cover letter after cover letter, and religiously updated my resume every time I completed a contract. But after yet another rejection I started to grow weary and pessimistic. No one seemed impressed by my years in the field, my diehard work ethic, the skills I acquired on unique projects in places like Costa Rica, Australia, and Guam. I started to feel stupid. Dejected. Perhaps I would just have to go through life without a Masters.
This seemed unthinkable, but why? Why does anyone put themselves through the miseries of grad school? "Say goodbye to your social life," a friend attending Arizona State University said. "Make sure you're fully committed," another warned. "It can be hell on wheels if you wind up with the wrong advisor - or a boring project." I was warned about becoming a poverty-stricken workaholic, the eventual strain on my relationship, anxiety attacks, depression. In fact, I knew few people who actually liked graduate school and I wondered, if it's so awful, why does anyone go? More importantly, why did I feel all this pressure to get a Masters degree? What did I expect from my education at the end of the day?
Like a lot of parents, mine always assumed I would continue my education and consistently asked for updates on my search. "You owe it to yourself to go back to school," they would say when I was ready to give up. "Don't you want a full-time job with benefits?"
Well, did I?
While having a higher education definitely gives you an edge, it's a tough market. Have you read the papers lately? There are not enough jobs out there to accommodate all those well-educated people. I personally have several friends with their Masters who have a great deal of trouble finding decent jobs. On the other hand, I also have friends who didn't go to graduate school and have great jobs.
I definitely wasn't going to grad school with the assumption that I would find a cushy job at the end of it. Besides, I already loved the work I did. I loved being outside, meeting awesome people, moving around from place to place. So what was this need to stay put in one place for three years and get the little "M.Sc." at the end of my name?
I suppose after years of collecting data for other graduate students I got a little tired of putting so much time and effort into conducting the research but seeing none of the results. It was like baking cake after cake and not being able to taste them. Eventually I started to formulate my own questions. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how birds are responding to all this habitat management over time? What will happen to all those migrating Turkey Vultures once this solar power plant is constructed? I developed a deep need to answer these kinds of questions and to see my hard work come to fruition.
It became clear that there was only one reason to go to graduate school and it didn't involve titles or the promise of money and a healthcare plan. I just want to see something through; to conduct my own research and discover something new, maybe even take important steps in conserving a declining species or two.
Perseverance paid off in the end and I landed a fitting position in the department of biological sciences at Arkansas State University. Not only do I get to study birds, but species of concern, and how they react to changes in their habitat. Now I'm on the other side of things, reading through piles of applications from prospective research technicians who will aid me in collecting data.
The cautionary words of wisdom of my friends still echo in my head, but I'm looking forward to the scientific discoveries that await; for the new information I'm going to uncover; for the potential to change the way we manage our natural resources. I may have to kiss my social life good-bye, but I am committed and I fully welcome all the challenges of graduate school, including the frustrating job hunt at the end of it all.