grad school dreaming. for real this time.

Money isn’t everything. Beyond food and a shelter over your head and some savings for the future, it doesn’t make life that much better. The older I get, the harder it is to face the substantial, life-altering decision that is pursuing that next level of education. With an income of $150k a year, give or take, makes that decision all the more challenging – or maybe just stupid. Regardless, the longer I age into a fine wine of the workforce, the more I realize that undoubtedly I’m in a patch of the wrong grapes.

My dream graduate program — throwing rationality out the window — is a three year long masters program in design at a renowned STEM institution in the northeast where I’d study interaction design focused on wearable technology. Getting into the program is a daunting task alone — while my professional experience is mildly relevant my lack of ability to memorize vocabulary and mathematical equations has left me avoiding the GRE year after year (don’t ask me how I scored slightly above average on my SAT back in the day, I guess my brain just worked better then.) Even if I did get in, should I really throw away three years of earnings to earn a degree in a field that will, for quite some time after graduation, pay less than I’m making now?

Many would recommend that I just take classes on the side or even online — there are many programs that would let me do this and yet I still want to go to the graduate program. Why? I don’t do well at focusing on things part time, and I feel this shift in career is significant enough where I’d want to make the investment in time for serious study. I have a lot to learn. Mostly, though, I believe design is something that is best studied in person vs at a distance. And it wouldn’t hurt to earn a degree from one of the most renowned schools in the field either, providing credibility to my resume lacking in academic prestige.

If I go back to graduate school, it probably would make the most sense to get an MBA, but I’m longing to study design. I don’t regret my experience to date, but the fact that I’m often up at 1am sharing detailed UI feedback on a site or product makes me realize that I need to stop running from this passion of mine and just go after my dreams. Marketing has always been filler for me not knowing what to do. I wasn’t a good enough writer to be a journalist, so I found that people with slightly less-than-poetic skills were considered talented in the realm of business writing. My crappy blog post for a professional news pub was an A+ on a corporate blog. The lack of investigating reporting and delivery of fluff was rewarded versus shunned. And so I became a marketer. Or something like that.

I didn’t actually want to be a marketer… ever. I left journalism and wanted to create products. I didn’t know what UX was at the time, but I specifically sat out to be part of a design to come up with what products should be and what they look like. Of course I had no experience or skills to do that, so I became a writer for whoever needed copy. And someone, at some point, told me I was a marketer. There are all sorts of marketers, but as my former boss told me, everyone is good at one or two things, and I’m the type of marketer that can write. I’m “communications.” I.e. not product marketing. Not the side of marketing that is strategic and/or good with numbers. I’m the megaphone. I’m the voice.

And apparently if you’re good enough at being the voice you can get paid relatively well. Pay is certainly relative, as I’d say I’m paid well and yet for my level and in my region I think I’m probably still underpaid, but who knows. I don’t even care. What matters more to me is passion. Passion for the work that I do everyday. I’m not the type of person who can just work for money. I mean, I can work for money if I’m being paid to make a product better. Being the voice grates on me. I’m honestly not that good at it. The best voices I’ve met are the types that don’t really care about the quality of their work, beyond the minimum they can produce to achieve their goals.

I’m a perfectionist. An artist. A dreamer. I’m a designer. I feel comfortable saying that. I have yet to say “I’m a marketer” and for that to sit well with me. It isn’t actually what I am. I’m a designer trapped in a marketer’s body. A product guru who isn’t allowed near the product besides providing a list of feedback in a spreadsheet that may or may not be ignored. And I find myself going further and further down this path of being something I’m not. I have an incredible job and work with incredible people and god I feel like they pay me quite well even if maybe I could be making more and still — I just want to spend my days designing products. Period. That’s been the truth for the last 7 years. It will remain the truth for the next 7.

I need an action plan. How do I get there? I’m so fortunate that my s/o is supportive of my doing whatever it takes to achieve my dreams. He’s the last person to care about money and would be fine if we have to cut back in order to make this sort of thing work out. My parents would think I’m absolutely nuts (another reason why I stopped telling them my salary, I think they believe I still make $90k and will still pull a huge guilt trip on me if I drop out of the workforce to go back to school.) I just need to do this semi-soon because I’m going to try to have a kid when I’m 33 or 34. Unless I just decide not to have kids and focus on this dream of being a designer instead. Or perhaps I can do both. Some people do amazing things — I’ve never been one that’s managed time well but perhaps doing what I love would change that.

All I know is it’s 2014 and by fall of 2016 I want to be studying design. That gives me a good 18 months at my current role to focus on kicking ass and taking names while also putting together a solid portfolio, getting a reasonably good score on the GRE, and making this happen. I’m terrified. Absolutely terrified. But also, deep down, a whole bunch of excited. I need to start listening to the part of me that is excited and tell ms. terrified to STFU.


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One thought on “grad school dreaming. for real this time.”

  1. I say go for it! Having a large pile of money might be a nice security blanket but it won’t actually make you happy. And the world needs more UX designers who actually know what they’re talking about. You’re old enough to know what you want, you’ve clearly given this a lot of thought and aren’t making a change on a whim, and even if you make less I bet you’ll still be making enough while enjoying your job more.

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