Doing grad school was more of a when than an if for me. I had two undergraduate degrees under my belt (in pharmacy and then nursing), and I was just waiting for the right time in my life to come along before I did a master’s degree.
The timing appeared to be good about eight years into my mental health nursing career. I’d heard about a school that had recently started offering an online Master of Psychiatric Nursing degree, and it seemed like the perfect fit.
The timing turned out as well as expected, though. A couple of months into my very first term, I was hospitalized on a psych ward for three weeks for depression. Luckily my profs were understanding, and I was able to do some of my homework on my smartphone while I was in the psych ICU, as ridiculous as that sounds.
Despite that and a few other hiccups (okay, maybe a suicide attempt is a little more than just a hiccup) along the way, I graduated in 2015. Again, timing turned out to not really be my friend.
Shortly after obtaining the graduate degree that I thought was going to help set me up for new opportunities in clinical practice, everything fell apart. Workplace bullying. Blacklisting. Unemployment. Depression relapse. Another job with more bullying. Treatment resistance.
Now I’m not able to work much because of my illness. I have a casual job at a mental health facility that is badly run, and I do a handful of night shifts a month because that’s the only shift that’s low-BS enough to tolerate. Rather than drawing on my extensive repertoire of advanced practice skills, I’m handing out Tylenol and the odd sleeping pill here and there.
Considering the pretty looking graduate degree and the graduating class gold medal award that went along with it, I kind of look like a failure, at least through one type of lens. Certainly, some of the people I used to work with/for would quite happily say that I’m a failure.
I paid thousands of dollars for a degree that didn’t move my professional career forward by even a millimetre.
There’s another way to look at it, though.
My thesis work was an autoethnographic examination of how my experience of mental illness was shaped by nursing culture and broader society. That was when I began writing about my illness and started to feel confident in doing so. My literature review for my thesis covered a lot of the things I write about now, like stigma and identity.
I had thought the piece of paper my degree was on would open doors for me. That wasn’t the only reason I pursued a graduate degree, but it was definitely an outcome that I had anticipated with some degree of certainty. It turned out, though, that I could throw the piece of paper in the recycling for all the good it’s done me.
Would I give up my grad school experience and learning, though? Not a chance. It helped prepare me to find my new passion, writing about mental illness. Even if that doesn’t make me much money, it’s brought so much meaning into my life.
So sure, from certain angles I may appear overeducated and underemployed. Okay, maybe it’s more than just appearances; that really is what I am from a literal perspective. The people looking from those angles aren’t my people, though. To my people, my words and ideas matter much more than what’s on my CV.
I think many of us pursue higher education for a combination of reasons, but I suppose what I’ve learned is that the reasons you think matter may be entirely different from what you end up with. And those unexpected reasons are just as valid and meaningful.