I've spent the last 15 years of my life working at three universities, wearing many different hats during that time. As you can imagine, this means that I've developed an opinion or two when it comes to higher education! Based on what I've experienced (and what I've seen other people go through), one of the most difficult things for people is matching a degree program to their budget and overall career path. You want to find the right fit.
What is “fit” anyway?
I don't think finding a program that fits means finding your “true calling,” as they say. I'm not convinced, having seen firsthand how it can unravel, that the people who can only imagine one specific career for themselves are necessarily the lucky ones. What if your chosen profession doesn't pay well? What if you have to relocate to a place where the job market for that career is better but you don't know anyone? What if the job requires more of your time than you'd like to give?
In my experience, the people who have a wide variety of interests, instead of a single, overriding passion, actually have a better chance of enjoying that ever elusive work-life balance we talk about so frequently. Post-secondary education isn't just an investment in your career, it's an investment in your ability to build the whole life that you want. As such, there are a number of things to consider when it comes to finding your fit.
Where would you like to live?
When I started my PhD, I knew that if I wanted to find a tenure-track position, I had to be open to moving anywhere. At the time, I was single and had just moved across the country by myself. However, by the time I defended my dissertation, I was dating the man I would eventually marry. Unfortunately, my hottest tenure-track job lead ended up being in a small town in the middle of nowhere where he could never find a job. I had become “geographically bound.” While I did find a job I loved, it ended up being a position that doesn't fully utilize my degree. Tradeoff.
In many ways, I was lucky. I have seen dozens of students follow their passion only to discover — after completing their degree and amassing a ton of debt — that there was no demand for that knowledge in the place they KNEW they wanted to live. It's definitely something to keep in mind when you are choosing a degree, certificate, or vocational program: Will you have to find a compromise between what you want to do and where you want to live? Thinking about these things sooner rather than later may save you some heartache — and some debt, if it redirects you to be more strategic about your goals and your budget.
How much time would you like to spend working?
I'll admit it: I'm a ” Grey's Anatomy “ junkie. However, as obsessed with the show as I am, I know that I could never be a surgeon. Yes, it's a lucrative career, but 100-hour weeks just aren't for me. A 40-hour workweek suits me perfectly! And fortunately, that's exactly what I ended up with. And yet every day I see students make investments in careers like medicine or the law without having fully considered what that lifestyle entails.
For example, when Jake was daydreaming about making oodles of money as an attorney, he didn't realize that it was going to mean staying at work until 10 p.m. or later every night. I appreciate the freedom that his schedule gives me to watch my Grey's reruns without being judged! However, I know that he wishes he could afford to give up his six-figure salary for a career with a less demanding schedule, even if it wouldn't be as lucrative.
What schedule works for you?
I have a perfect circadian rhythm. Even if I never look at a clock, I get tired at about 10:30 p.m. every night and wake up no later than 6:30 a.m. every morning — even on the weekends. Jake, on the other hand, suffers from a circadian rhythm disorder that is like permanent jet lag. Functioning on a normal schedule is misery for him, and he still believes his college job as a nighttime security guard was the best job he ever had.
If you are a night owl, then jobs with those hours or jobs you can do from home may work best for you. Some careers, like nursing, offer shift differentials for those who work at night, so you can actually make more money accommodating your body's own rhythms. Other careers, like freelance writing, mean that you can complete the work in the evenings or on the weekends if that's what works for you. Similarly, if you have personal goals that conflict with the 8-to-5 life (such as being a stay-at-home parent), then you may want to pursue an education that will prepare you for a career that offers the flexibility you need.
What you enjoy, what you're good at, and what people will pay for
Apparently, I'm excellent at event planning. At least, that's what my co-workers (who have spent the last six years migrating every possible event my way) tell me. However, if there's one thing I absolutely detest and would prefer to avoid as much as possible, it's event planning. In other words, what you enjoy and what you are good at aren't necessarily the same thing.
What does that mean for picking something as a college major? First, it means that you shouldn't major in something you absolutely detest just because you have a talent for it or because you think it will earn you a big pile of money. However, it also means that just because you enjoy something doesn't mean that you're good at it — or that people will necessarily pay for it. I became a creative writing major because I loved reading fiction. I learned that not only am I incapable of writing the type of book I enjoy reading, I am also unlikely to find a job reading the novels of my choice all day!
How much money you plan to spend on your education
How much are you prepared to spend pursuing your chosen major and career? Where will those funds will come from? Have you thought about scholarships? Given your likely salary once you start working, how much student loan debt should you responsibly take on? And how long might it take to pay off that debt?
Institution type can play a huge factor when it comes to cost. Community colleges, the public four-year university system, private universities, online universities, and vocational colleges all operate at different price points. Strive to obtain the education you need (because education can be a want, too, as I well know) — and then make sure that it's also at a price you can afford.
What would you say is most important for someone who is interested in “finding their fit” and making it work with their budget?
Honey Smith has been reading GRS since at least 2008, right when she got her first â€œrealâ€ job and started getting serious about finances. She and her husband Jake are in their mid-30s and recently bought a home together. Currently, she manages graduate programs at a large state institution, and he is an attorney at a mid-sized firm.
Between them, they have paid off approximately $30,000 in consumer debt since she started writing for GRS in 2012. However, they still have nearly $200,000 of student loan debt, so she will continue to chronicle their debt-paydown journey. In addition to personal finance, Honey is interested in vegetarianism and cooking, gardening (despite living in the desert and having a black thumb), issues in higher education (including the student loan bubble and the slow death of tenure), and animal rights; however, her heart lies with fantasy novels, trashy TV and Skyrim.