Monday, May 9, 2016

Doing a masters: is there regret?

It's been 2 years since I stepped out of the ivory tower, into the chaotic honking world, to undertake formal employment. Back then, if not for a very kind colleague-now-good-friend, I would not have known my rights and my agency as an employee. Back then, looking at how my colleagues the same age have already progressed so far ahead in their careers, I can't help but wonder if my decision to do a masters was hasty, or even a sign of reluctance to move out of "the school" where there are no longer any clear goals or scores to strive for.

I don't necessarily regret doing my masters for personal reasons. As a workaholic, I had more time to fall in love, and find meaning of life outside of my work. I also had more time to travel and see the world with good friends. I also rekindled my lifelong passion for theatre, and staged productions I can be proud of. Amidst, I made many great aquaintenances and social networks that continue to make an impact.

The dream of a well-educated scholar seeking to contribute outside of the ivory tower was quickly faced with a rude awakening. A masters in social sciences, outside of academia, is pretty much a footnote in anyone's CV. It is drastically different if one has an MBA. The hierarchy of disciplines exist in the market where social sciences post graduate degrees (I suspect PhD as well) may cause 2 blinks but not raise an eyebrow of employers. It vastly differs between industries of course, but in my experience, very few hire because of qualifications alone. I spoke to my bosses - ex and current - and they stated that while my masters was a good-to-have, and indicates that I may have maturity, they were more drawn to my event-organising experience and ability to interpret and work with stats. So ultimately, what value does a masters have? After 2 years, I seek to come to terms the returns of a postgraduate degree in social sciences.

Well, that is of course assuming you did a postgrad degree to advance in your career. Many of my colleagues in academia do it because they are truly passionate in their area of study. So passionate was I in exploring theatre as a method for young people's expression and education in socio-political matters, I decided to set aside 2 years of life for this pursuit. There's also very little avenues in life, now that I've realised on hindsight, that allows one to solely focus on a dedicated pursuit. Not even at a professor's level, not anywhere else except postgrad school. It's an extremely privileged position, and I was lucky to go to a proverbial mountain to metaphorically meditate on a subject of my choosing. I don't flaunt a masters like a degree because it is a privilege, not a right, I had due to complex social and economic path-dependencies.
At work, I'm not sure if my masters training contributed to anything. However, I must say that I've grown to be more patient of certain frustrations at work - i.e. Weberian iron cages of bureaucracy and a very Foucauldian sense of self-discipline in an open-plan office concept. I have also realised that social sciences knowledge have made me almost a walking encyclopedia to my clients/colleagues. People ask, "how do you know so much?" Which is, admittedly, always nice. At the same time, it grants perspective and in some areas of the industry, perspectives are what employers look for.

Perhaps it is of no coincidence that the french word, employer - to use - is also used to describe bosses that hire. Employer: to use, a user. The lesson I've gained over these 2 years is that, we are all being used for our skillsets or use others for the same reason. This increasingly dehumanising approach in companies is sadly the reality for many employees. Ultimately there will be those that find meaning in their work, especially those in the social and health services. If work is an empty shell, the empty hearse of the humdrum of life, then my masters is the continuing light and hearth that keeps me going especially during difficult times. It is comforting to be able to step back from a tough day at work and be able to reflect, to perhaps sometimes put on a geographical or sociological, or even historical lens to understand what factors contributed to my frustration.

Do I regret doing my masters? In terms of work skills and time "lost" in my career progression, absolutely. Yet, the time lost also ironically gave me more time to retreat and focus. If the skills and discipline developed during postgraduate study do not manifest themselves into focus, determination and fortitude, then having a masters is nothing but a self-indulgent pursuit. If reading endless literature does not translate into taking into account multiple stakeholders' interest and interconnecting symbiosis within an organisation, then all there is left are just words and concepts. If working cross culturally during conferences doesn't make you more sensitive or open to connections, then perhaps, ivory tower indeed. the process of doing a postgrad degree should leave you changed, transformed, humbled.

Ultimately, a masters is the sign, that signifies the educational journey, the proliferation of one's ideas through healthy debate and discussion. The semiotics of education cannot be so easily captured in a singular concept such as returns on investment. A dialectical process or abstraction, is necessary, to fully appreciate the qualities that proliferate in an individual. These qualities continue to unfold throughout life, and becomes a foundation upon other pursuits are built upon.

If spending 2 years gives me thirst for knowledge, compassion and lifelong learning, I gladly drink.

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