Why You Should Travel Instead of Going to Graduate School

I could have seen this without ever considering grad school!
I could have seen this without ever considering grad school!

In the absence of direction, it’s an easy out.

What do you do? Oh, I’m a full-time student. I read a lot. I talk about a lot of things in classes. I have Research Arse (that characteristic gentle flattening and spreading of the gluteus maximus in those who spend their lives in front of computer and books). People will always ask that most life-collapsing of questions, that request to define of oneself and one’s worth by the activities that take up most of one’s day.

It’s worse once you leave university. You realise that your college budget now seems like a gift from the land of milk and honey itself compared with your postgrad one. People expect you to be moving in a specific direction, to be be buying a house and getting married and having a career.

It’s worse once you’re 25. Surely something must have stuck by now! Your acquaintances from high school are having children to fill their mortgaged houses they pay for with their stable careers. Surely you, who seemed so smart back then, should be doing something more than just travelling. It’s hard to say to those who ask, “I travel,” because all they seem to hear is “I’m dawdling.”

You aren’t tied down by a mortgage and a career and a child and a dog and a backyard that needs mowing. You’re drifting without purpose. Graduate school seems the easy way to get one. But take it from one who is now debt-bonded for the foreseeable future over a degree she isn’t even sure she wants anymore…don’t take that easy way. There are at least five reasons why you shouldn’t.

You should travel instead of going to graduate school.


1. It’s Cheaper.

I know, this sounds crazy. Travelling can cost thousands of monies. A passport and some visas are expensive pains in the arse to obtain. You have to like, save and shit. Believe me, it’s far easier and far better.

Case in point: studying in London. I am required by the UK Border Agency to have £1000 per month at my disposal in addition to anything I have to spend on tuition. That’s added up to more than £30,000 for the year. More than $50,000. I’m not shy about talking about my nascent student debt because practically everyone in my generation has some. If I were to attempt graduate school in the US, it would be about the same cost of more to attend a university in Denver. But for two years, not one.

A year ago, I was in Sulthan Batthery in India. I was covered from head to foot in the searing heat, my belly was angry over some ice cubes I’d dared touch, and I was unable to obtain a beer on International Women’s Day because I possessed a vagina. It was infinitely cheaper than even one day of classes at my uni in London, and not just because of the exchange rate. India is more expensive to travel in than I would have ever imagined, but it pales in comparison.

Not to mention that it gets worse every year. Our tuition, as international students, is £16,500 for 2013-2014. For next year? £17,400. An increase (IN ONE YEAR) of nearly £1000 and more than 5.4%. If that keeps going the way it is, it’ll be more than £28,000 for the same degree programme in ten years’ time. In 2014 pounds, don’t forget inflation.

Science Class!
Science Class!

2. You’ll learn more.

Yes, in graduate school you will sit in a classroom and learn the traditional way. You’ll write at incredible speeds. You’ll spend a huge amount of time reading. You’ll acquire specific knowledge of topics that very few care anything about. You will get disappointed and possibly depressed by your dissertation, even though you might well predict major world events like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street.

Travel will teach you more. You’ll learn languages. You’ll learn to cook. You’ll learn to handle you liquor. You’ll learn to appreciate wine. You’ll learn to take good photographs from the back of a speeding jeep. You’ll learn to hold that pee in lest you have to lie in it for eight more hours on the way to Bangalore. You might be lucky enough to learn to teach. You will learn to live.

Travel is the best teacher. I learned more in 1.5 years teaching than I could ever have hoped to learn in classrooms and through essays. I wrote more. I read more. I talked to more people, from more places and more backgrounds than I ever could have hoped to do in a graduate programme. Graduate school will teach you narrow things about a narrow subject. Travel will teach you much, much more. Phonology may have coerced me to write more than 4000 words this week (and to fail miserably in my analysis), but teaching science to Korean children means that I will never forget the Scientific Method. If ever I lapse, I need only remember my students yelling the steps at the tops of their little lungs.

Annecy 2011
Annecy 2011

3. Employability.

Travelling will teach you more than graduate school, but it will also make you more employable. You’ve got a master’s degree? Hmmm, we better not hire you for this barista job despite your desperation to have some job, any job, because you might bugger off for greener pastures (that don’t necessarily exist). You know how to write? Great, so do our undergraduate hires. You have a PhD and want a tenure job? Too bad those positions appear to be going the way of the Dodo.

Those who travel have global perspectives that are invaluable in the 21st century. You might even be lucky enough to learn a language or two. Your employer will want to see that you can adapt and change, and that you have a wide set of skills to put to work in their company. Travel will teach you hospitality, intercultural communication, innovation, perseverance…all in the pressure cooker of having to get it right immediately. Graduate school will teach you how to ignore all interdisciplinary information that might confuse a narrow, singular argument. Graduate school will lie to you and say that you don’t need a variety of skills. You’ll have to bank on that £30,000 piece of paper being a ticket to an entry-level job.

Just skip it. Get travelled.

Celebratory summit wine, from a mason jar. Totally healthy.
Celebratory summit wine, from a mason jar. Totally healthy.

4. Health

Yes, you might catch something tropical and nasty that makes your intestines just that extra bit insistent every morning (Who’s complaining? Natural alarm clock!). Yes, you have to get vaccines to go to South America and Africa and you probably should get boosters for several parts of the US since people have been forgoing their MMR shots. But there is no known cure for the existential crises that graduate school can provoke. Especially anything vaguely philosophical, say Linguistics. Alternatives exist; some retreat into heavy alcoholism. Some get obsessed with Nietzsche. Some live in the library. Few actually improve their overall health by doing so.

I am six months into a one-year master’s, and I have a stomach ulcer. I chipped a tooth the other night during a dream about syntax interfaces and predicate logic. Anyone with underlying mental health issues, even those undiagnosed, is likely to suffer a relapse.

Travel is soothing to the soul. You may encounter philosophical crises, but the ever-present basic needs of humanity (food, shelter, bathroom, sleep) will guide you back to concrete existence. You won’t risk flapping pellmell in the wind.

Ischia, 2010
Ischia, 2010

5. Your place in the world as human being > the stupid bullshit we prioritise.

Travel does what graduate school can only hope to do. It situates you in the world, in time and in space. You can attempt to leave you journals for posterity. Or at least for your own grandkids/grand-neices/fictive kin.

You are more than your ability to write a 1000 word essay. No one will remember what you wrote about politics or linguistics or anthropology in your MA course in six month’s time. Not even you. But you’ll remember the very taste of the air in South Italy, the fragile quality of light in Annecy at dawn, and the gentle breathing of your co-commuters on that bus in Suwon. Experience > inference. Movement > repeating the same shit from the early 1900s in different iterations over and over for 100 years. Knowing your existence and experiences are important and valid, if only to you > clinging to some notion that education is what it was ever trying to be.

Travel is more than the trumped up ‘knowledge’ research claims to produce. Get out there.

Torres del Paine 2011
Torres del Paine 2011

6. Your travel writing is far more valuable than any dissertation.

10,000 words on categorical boundaries? C’mon. I’ve literally written novels while travelling (bad ones, but still). And I don’t mean blogging about travels or tweeting them or tumblring them. Your journal is a hotbed of meaning. I’ve scrawled “I HATE THIS PLACE, WHY ARE THERE NO TOILETS. THEY ALL TELL YOU INDIA IS A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY BUT ACTUALLY IT’S JUST THE FIGHT NOT TO PISS YOURSELF ON A BUS” in mine. That outburst is surely worth 10,000 words.

Were I asked, I could provide a treatise on the interactions of culture, pressure to perform, and the Korean education system. I could write volumes on the social interactions of Chilean middle school students. I could produce far more than 10,000 words on how learning a language is not the same as teaching one. Admittedly, I would have little more than my own experiences (denigrated in most sciences as anecdotes) to go on.

But see #5 above. Travel teaches you more through experience than book learning could ever hope to produce. First-hand experience beats reading something someone else wrote about what someone else wrote any day.

Don’t be like me. Travel instead of graduate school. It’s a far more worthy investment.

4 thoughts on “Why You Should Travel Instead of Going to Graduate School

  1. What a great post Coleen, I thoroughly enjoyed it and the photos were great too. You are right, life teaches you many things, the sad thing is it doesn’t give you that coveted piece of paper. Don’t worry about your high school friends with their kids and mortgages, they’re jealous.

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