Friday, August 23, 2013

The Business Casual Hippy

The thing I miss most about graduate school is the dress code:  Not only could I get away with wearing anything, but having worked for six years prior to entering my Ph.D. program I took full advantage of that fact.  Colored tights, ridiculous dresses, hats, and outrageous outfits that would only be appropriate on a college campus or a bus bench were de rigueur.

When it came time for me to go back to work I wanted to assemble a wardrobe on a budget.  That meant starting by shopping my own closet and building a thrift store fabulous collection of basics, and my previous post provided exhaustive detail and some great links on how to do that. But I think the concept of shopping your own closet really deserves more attention.

Most former graduate students have clothes that we don't think of as work clothes.  Now some of it is just what we could afford as students, and should be happily sent off to a second life at Buffalo Exchange or the local Salvation Army.  But some of it can be subtly mixed with classic career wear pieces to create a look I affectionately refer to as Business Casual Hippy. Worn alone the pieces may be a fireable offense, but layered under a cardigan with a black suit skirt, or paired with a nice blazer they may be a nice compliment to what would otherwise be some very dull business casual.  It may not be possible in the most formal of workplaces, but in small quantities you can still totally rock skulls and tie dye.

The 85% Rule: Or How to Make Good Decisions

Sometimes we come to a cross roads in life where we face a big decision we just don't feel comfortable making.  We waiver, we delay, we can't decide if we should or shouldn't.  On the really big decisions we worry we are going to screw it up.

1) The 85% Rule.  You don't have to be 100% certain, or even 100% ready. In fact, you probably never will be.  This rule does not mean you rush rashly into a decision.  It simply means that you don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  You still need to do your research, think about what you want, game out the pros and cons, and examine your feelings.  But if the only decisions you ever make are so easy that you don't feel even the slightest niggling doubt, you are probably only jumping at the safe opportunities.  And that should be scary because some of the best opportunities require us to grow and stretch a bit beyond our comfort zone.  Content yourself with being 85% certain, and when you get to 85% give yourself permission to act.

2) Catastrophe thinking or overthinking.  This is often a consequence of trying to get to 100% certainty. Even when you have done your due diligence, you may feel you just aren't ready. You need more research, more planning. You let yourself get stuck in preparation for a leap you never make.  Anxiety is the easiest way to recognize this problem.  The solution is to get out from behind your computer, stop planning, and start doing. Get out of your house and go interact with people.  Get a piece of paper and literally write down the worst case scenario.  Once you get it on paper or say it out loud true catastrophe thinking reveals itself to be so silly that it melts away as a barrier.  For me, catastrophe thinking made me believe I couldn't quit graduate school until I had a job lined up.  It wasn't until my therapist pointed out that I could make more money working at Starbucks, and could just continue working my part time non-profit job that I finally felt the freedom to quit.

3) Sometimes not making a decision is itself a decision.  If you can't decide between saying yes and saying no, if you wait long enough your opportunity to decide will be gone.  That is ok, and rather than worry about your indecisiveness accept the fact that you are either not willing to make a decision at the moment, or are choosing to stick with the status quo.  Which is actually a decision, so you were more decisive than you thought.

The Best Advice on Graduate Schools is from those who Left

I work with a number of junior staff who are already thinking about graduate school.  Many are fresh off their B.A.s, most have great jobs that they will later regret leaving, but at 23 they all recognize that at some point in the next few years the will be going back to school.  I thank my lucky stars that I am done with my education and can ensonse myself deeper and deeper into my awesome job on a daily basis.  My co workers don't realize how good we have it, but I do and I am not leaving.

Even though I quit my graduate program, I understand and even endorse them furthering their education because I recognize that my M.A. will secure me a higher salary and provided me with important skills.  But I do have some advice that I wish someone had told me before I applied to schools.

1) Don't just research schools and departments--research the discipline you think you want to go into.  Think you like urban planning?  Look up some course syllabai online and look at what they cover.  Most importantly, pull some journal articles from the major journals of the field and READ THE ARTICLES.  Had I done this, I never would have applied to my program because I would have realized what I only learned later:  that in addition to seeming to speak in tounges, the scholars in my discipline help epistomological and ontological orientations that I did not share.  Instead, I realised in my first semester of graduate school that I had made a huge mistake, but still suffered through four years of conferences,  colloquiums, courses and publications that made me want to scratch my eyes out.

2) Realize that you will pay with either loans or your soul.  If you don't want to pay for graduate school and go into debt, get accepted to a top Ph.D. program that will pay you through a research assistantship or a teaching assistanship.  You will live in poverty, but you will not graduate in debt unless you chose to live in an expensive city.  You will however have a program that is intense, works you to the bone, and likely focuses exclusively on theory, grinding out publications, and becoming a professor.  This is fine if these are your interests and goals, but if like me you envision an applied future, you will pay with your soul.

Or, you can find a fun and interesting terminal M.A. program and actually have fun in graduate school.  You will have debt, and you need to be careful that your program will actually lead to a job and give you the skills you need to do that job.  While a Ph. D. is designed to train you as a professor, most terminal M.A.'s are designed to make $$$$$$ for the University.  The aren't always very rigorous, and the may be expensive overblown post undergraduate experiences that don't actually lead anywhere but student loan land.  And graduating with high debt loads does impact what kinds of jobs you take when you graduate. You may have fun doing your M.A., but it is not so fun having to go work in some miserable but decent paying job for five years in order to get out of that debt.

3) Recognize that where you go to school geographically is likely where your best job prospects will be located.  Especially if your degree program provides internship experience, the community you attend school in is likely to be the place you have the most references, introductions, and networking opportunities.  If you go to law school in Chicago, you will likely work in a law school in Chicago for your internships.  Your professors will have contacts with, you guessed it, Chicago law firms.  Now with law many large firms have offices throughout the country.  This is not so common when your professional degree is in museum studies, or Chinese antiquities.  Likewise if you want to do a professional degree in an area with distinct geographic centers, like public policy, you should probably attend a school with a campus in your State Capitol or D.C. You need to go to where the jobs are, and that may mean going to school in the city you want to end up in.

4)  Go to the best program in your field that you can get into.  The reality is that success is in large part who you know and what resources you have access to, not your merits.  It sucks, but the sooner you learn this about life the better.  Going to Harvard helps you not just because you are surrounded by smart people, but because smart people know that being around other competitive smart people pays off.  Who your network of Professors are, who can write you letters or reccomendation, or refer you to employers matters.  Some of the kids in your classes can be dumber than your friend at another school, but the friendships and connections they forge with their classmates will be more valuable to them than the content of their classes. Everything is about who you know, and you should know that the best and brightest are likely to be attracted to the best programs.

5) Get work exerience.  In your field.  That let's you know what kind of work you want to do.  You really should be able to make the argument in your applications that you love and work in SUBJECT X, and want to do XYZ with it, but realize that to take your career to the next level you NEED to get the training and expertise that a degree in ABC gives you.  Or in the case of a Ph.D. your work and applied experience in SUBJECT X has led you to a point you want to study it.  You need this experience to make sure you know that the investment in your education is worth it, but it is also the secret key to getting into the best programs. You need a narrative about you and your path in life, and in order for it to be convincing you need to show you have taken the first few steps and are already well down the path.    You also need it so that when you have your degree you are not that simultaneously overeducated underqualified person who cannot get hired.

6) You need to work your ass off.  Even if you want to be a professor and crawl into the nearest ivory tower and never come out again, you better keep a foot in the types of organizations you want to study or potentailly have as a back up career.  Tenure track positions these days require applying for  securing grant funding, and service, and community involvement.  The connections you maintain to the outside world will either be your life line if things don't work out, or what sets you apart as a junior faculty fighting for the limited pool of funding and jobs.

7) Understand the term opportunity cost.  Even if your grad school is paid for, if it is not moving you forward in life it is keeping you from doing other things. Delaying those other things (relationships, kids, contributing to retirement, being happy ) can set you back in life.  So be 85% sure this is the path for you, and make sure you have thought about where you want your life to be five years from now.

We all know what they say about advise: everyone loves to give it but no one wants to take it.   But hind sight is also 20/20, and for what it is worth this is what I wish someone would have told me.

This is the End My Friend: Pulling the Final Trigger

It has been nine months since I left my Ph D program.  As we gear up for another academic year, the day is fast approaching when I would have been returning to school.  A year ago it was difficult to fathom what leaving would look like, or even that I would ever get out. I had a hard time imagining myself no longer wandering the halls of the University--either via graduation or some other path.

While I said my good byes last December, and even paid off that $10 library fine that finally got mailed out to me in April, there is still one last step that awaits me:  filing the form ending my degree progress.  I've known it was coming all summer long.

When I quit my faculty still wanted me to leave the door open to returning.  Quitting graduate school gracefully meant my advisor wanted me to find the least permanant way of exiting, which I accomplished by simply withdrawing from classes and failing to register.  If I decided I didn't want to come back, or thought I would be out for longer than a year, it was suggested I end my degree progress.  That would stop the clock on my degree, and if I wanted to return later I would need to reapply to the program. While this wouldn't hold my place, given my status, relationships with faculty, and timely degree progress the odds were high I would be reaccepted. The benefit of reapplying included that they would budget a teaching position for me, which would mean my funding was more secure.

Having been out of my program for nine months, it makes sense to file the last and final form.  If I  do decide at some point to go back, filing now preseves my eligiblity to return since I would have at least a year left on my degree clock.  The reality is that I am enjoying my life outside of academia.  My career path is leading me further and further away from finishing, and even in the short six months I have been out of school big changes have hit my department through retirements, and recruitments and loss of faculty. My own advisors are all senior faculty who are starting to look at retirement, and even if I did want to return in five years it is not entirely clear that any of my current committee members would still be around.

Filing the end to my degree status  suddenly feels very final.  Driving the forty minutes out to the University to do so also seems like a pain.  But I have thirty more days to procrastinate.  Instead of going back to school this year, I will be officially severing all ties.  Leaving is always a gradual process, but even it eventually comes to an end.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Teenage Mother

I was a teenage mom.  By which I do not mean that I was a teenager who got pregnant.  No, instead I suddenly became a mom to a teenager:  A Sudden Mother.   I had agreed to host a foreign exchange student.  The only thing that remained was I had to ask my husband.  Oops.

He was in Chicago on business when I called him.  "Honey," I frantically blurted into the phone, "Can we have one, can we get an exchange student?"  There was silence on the other end of the phone.  He had grown up with exchange students, and we had discussed it in the abstract.  "When would this happen?"  He asked.  "In three hours" I replied.  The company had called me for a reference for my friends who were hosting, and they still had students left.  We would be doing them a huge favor since some families had backed out at the last minute.  It all happened so fast.

"Wait," my friend said when I told her.  "Like they actually gave you a kid? You have him now?"

It did seem ludicrous.  My husband and I have no children, and as busy young professionals we did not seem well suited to becoming parents overnight.  We were to drive him to and from school, feed him three meals a day, and keep him alive.  We didn't even eat three meals a day I reflected when I thought about what we had signed on to.  My coworker wondered out loud that this seemed like a good deal.  Would I feed her breakfast, too?

That night I was so busy frantically cleaning out our guest room that I didn't have time to go to the store.  He arrived to an empty fridge, and we swung by the grocery store and In-N-Out burgers on the way home.  I had him pose by the sign and told him about how Americans from out of state come to try their burgers, but really the visit was most meaningful as a signpost around which my life was organized:  most nights I did not cook, and my husband and I used our dining table for storage.  The flashing sign signified the itinerant and rushed nature of my weeknights.  I had just left graduate school for a real job, which in and of itself was a transition, and now I was suddenly responsible for someone else.

The first few days of hosting were an adjustment.  I had to wake up an hour earlier to get him to school on time.  I found that in making him breakfast, I ate too.  Still, the first week was rocky juggling work committments and trying to keep him fed and on time.  When I asked what he found most surprising about America, he answered "How frequently you eat out."  I felt like a spoiled ridiculous brat and resolved to cook more.  The second week I hit my stride:  he didn't like to eat until 9:30pm which was closer to when my husband and I got around to dinner anyway, so some of the pressure of rushing home to make food was relieved.  I packed lunches at night: one for him, one for me, and one for my husband.  I enjoyed my extra time in the morning since once I had rushed to drop him off  I had 45 lesiurely minutes to grab coffee or go for a walk before I had to be at work.

Still, having to rush home from work, meal plan, and go to the store and get up so early only to do it again grew tiresome. I had childcare issues some nights in figuring out how he was going to get home when I had to work late.  I was psyched when we left for a pre arranged vacation and he went to stay with another family for a few days.

Toward the end of the trip he drove me nuts.  I called my mother and vented about how all he did was sit in his room on the Internet, that his teenage boy friends smelled, and he was late when I went to pick him up at the mall.  My parents laughed and reminded me what a brat I was at 16.  I attended a friend's baby shower and while everyone oogled the tiny clothes I got to play the jaded parent and give knowing nods as the other mothers dispensed advice, and warn her that eventually her little angel would be a tween.

Finally, at the end of the three and a half weeks I got to do what every frustrated parent secretly fantasizes about and get rid of him:  we sent him off on a one way flight back to Russia.  He was going back to his own parents, who would be get to wake him up in the morning, and rush him out of the house, and be ignored by him as he obsessively used his phone.

I don't really miss him.  Instead, I marvel at how free I feel, how much less harried my life is, and wonder what to do with all my time.  I sleep in late and still make it to work on time.  I go out for a beer with my coworker.  I may even have a chance to call my friend and check in on her and her new baby. I'll nod knowingly as she complains about the lack of sleep, the stress of feedings.   And I'll hang up and feel relieved that the hard part is over since my kid is actually someone else's kid, grown and off in the world.

Where to Live After Grad School

Now that I have been out of graduate school and have a "real" job, the question of where to live has become a pressing concern.  Since I wasn't living in student housing quitting school didn't involve having to move into a new apartment.  However, now that I have had some time to adjust to my new job and just recieved notice of a new rent increase I've started considering whether it's time for a move.

My husband and I have always lived downtown, but lately we have been looking at housing prices and coming to the conclusion that buying just isn't going to happen in our current neighborhood.  The question of where we should look instead has been a challenging one.  We have only ever lived downtown or walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, and places of interest.  Partly this has been by design:  we both hate doing cardio at the gym and like to be able to walk as a form of recreation as well as exercise.  He works from home and I worry living in an unwalkable suburb would be unhealthy physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

In looking at alternatives, we have some difficult to reconcile goals in mind:

  • Be close to my work both to save gas and money, reduce our carbon footprint, and hedge against increases in gas prices.  I agree with Mr. Money Mustache and his analysis on the true cost of commuting in time and cash--it doesn't make financial or lifestyle sense to lock in a long commute.
  • Be walking distance or have the ability to recreate and get our exercise in a fun way.  This could alternatively include being by the bike path so that we could ride, jog or walk along there.  It may also mean being happy with walking to a smaller selection of locations.
  • Purchase a public transit accessible home. This is important for me because my job prospects in this region mean I may have to commute to another city for a job at some point in the future.  It also helps us narrow in on three neighborhoods in our current city.
  • A desire to do something a little different.  A cookie cutter suburban tract home seems pretty boring, so rather than look at traditional suburban neighborhoods we have actually been considering moving outside of town so we can live in a more remote, natural setting but with what is still a relatively short commute to work for me.  Of course this introduces a challenge since the shortest commutes are on septic systems, while the slightly longer commute has public sewer lines; it necessitates a second car; and heading out of town moves us into an area that is much hotter and may necessitate air conditioning (think $$$). The question is whether the costs of such a move would outweigh the benefits or end up costing the same as buying in the area we currently think we can't afford. 
We are by no means alone in grappling with these calculations.  The Atlantic recently featured an article on the rediscovery of suburban living, and even the hipsters of Brooklyn and Williamsburg are discovering what the NY Times dubs "hipsburbia" as they are priced out of their desired neighborhoods. The Observer may mock these families for thinking they are pioneers, but to be fair these people are seeking a very different kind of 'burb than their parents: all of these articles portray as suburban the kinds of compact development patterns and walkable neighborhoods most Americans think of as dense neighborhoods.   

Ironically, the New Republic may have it right.  The problem with downtown these days isn't just that it is expensive, but that the economic exclusion these areas are starting to present to moderate and low income
workers and young families is producing the exact kind of monotony that led most of us to move to these places in the first place.  Neighborhoods that are dynamic and interesting are attractive to all incomes, but when an area prices out all but the wealthy it starts to lose the very qualities that made it attractive to begin with.  This is the problem communities like Greenwich Village and Santa Monica have faced:  a cycle of gentrification that becomes so exclusionary that the only ones who can live there are the wealthy, with the result that downtown risks becoming the monotonous, sterile wastland critics associate wth the traditional American suburb.

This very dynamic is currently playing out in my home town, where fights over affordable housing, inclusionary polices vs. in lieu fees, and high home and rent prices are causing many young families to take stock of whether sticking around makes economic sense. While some leave the city for the promise of the suburb, many more move back.  There are no easy answers.

Given the surge in real estate prices recently, and our lack of clarity on what options make the most sense, we are holding off for now.  Maybe once we start a family what we want will change.  Or perhaps we will make more money and be able to get into the neighborhood we want after all. The fact that home prices are rising with no commeserate rise in wages, and 60% cash buyers indicates we may be in a real estate mania that could deflate come the winter selling season or a continued rise in interest rates.

The best bet seems to be to become awesome at what you do, and try to live as cheaply as possible.