I’ve finished my coursework for my Library Science degree (the MLS).
I took 5 courses in the fall and 5 in the spring and 2 this summer for a total of 36 credit hours, which is the same amount of credit hours required for my Master’s in Comparative Literature. In Comp Lit, I took 3 courses per semester and found it challenging to get all my work done at the level of quality I wanted. I also wrote a thesis (which surprisingly many people seem to have read!) that I think was fairly good. From start to finish, the Comp Lit coursework and thesis took me three years (Fall 2002-Summer 2005). I didn’t mind taking a long time– I was a T.A., I was simultaneously writing Organic Furniture Cellar (the equivalent of an MFA thesis project, but for which I received no degree), I was planning to be in Academia indefinitely, and until the last year or so of that degree I found the coursework challenging and my contributions satisfying. I was able to be creative and intellectual and still get my ass kicked. I did get burned out, I ceased to feel challenged, etc., which is why I had that brilliant idea to transfer to UVA. But the point is, the degree took awhile. I didn’t go into debt for my M.A. because technically I was in the Ph.D. program, so I had a scholarship, stipend, and TA job.
For the MLS, my goal was to blaze through what I’d heard was an easy program, get my A’s, go into as little debt as possible, use the 1.5% interest student loans to pay down my credit card bills and create an emergency fund (essentially, use the extra cash to get out of the living-paycheck-to-paycheck cycle) and get out and get a Real Job. There were a few wrenches in this system. First of all, the students I knew who went to my MLS program went before it was overhauled and gained almost 100% new faculty, and before its accreditation was in jeopardy (partly for grade inflation). So although the work itself seemed easy, I felt like I was jumping through random hoops to get good grades, and that often the quality of my work had nothing to do with the grade I got. This drove me insane. I’ve always been a good student– my undergraduate GPA was 3.92 and my M.A. GPA was 4.0 (and the Comp Lit program was a lot more intellectually challenging than the MLS program). I know what an A looks like; I know what to do to produce A-level work. So anyway, I often felt like I was going crazy, that I wasn’t being evaluated in a consistent manner, and that although the intellectual level of the work wasn’t setting any high bars, figuring out how to get a letter grade to correspond to the quality of production was. (But then, this is not unlike jobs that I’ve had where the difficulty and quality of one’s work has nothing to do with promotions, raises, or the initial rate of pay, so if the MLS is a vocational program, it’s accurate.)
I went into about $25k of debt. In the fall semester I was working 40+ hrs/wk and was able to put away a lot of the student loan money, but because I got laid off of my two PT jobs in December, I had to use some of the spring semester loan money to live on. Thus I wasn’t able to put as much of it toward my higher-interest credit card debt as I wanted. But I did get to pay off about half my credit card debt and some personal debt, pay my bills, and put away some savings for the inevitable catastrophe (“inevitable catastrophes” usually have to do with cars or health– those repairs you didn’t expect, those bills the insurance company refuses to pay). For the past two years, I’ve been living on about $1600/mo, which is barely enough to cover my food, rent, bills, gas, cats, and consolidated credit card payment– certainly not enough for inevitable catastrophes. This is how people get, and stay, poor– it’s not that I wasn’t working or that I was buying crazy things (like Republicans always assume), it’s that once you get into a position where you’re living paycheck to paycheck, any little thing can throw everything into a downward spiral. I’m essentially using the student loans to try to vault out of that kind of poverty. Although going into debt doesn’t seem like the solution to poverty, having cash stores on hand (at an interest rate of 1.5%) allows one to avoid the credit pitfalls of not having enough money to pay bills on time or cover the unexpected. Of course, this brilliant plan assumes that I will someday get a job that pays more than about $25k/yr. Surely, somewhere in the world, there is such a job for someone like me.
I did finish the degree quickly with a good GPA (sadly, not a lovely round 4.0) and I went into very little debt doing it.
As for finding a Real Job, that’s next on the plate. I’m moving to Birmingham in August, and I’m hoping to find a library or related position there, so the next month of my summer will be consumed with tying up loose ends here in Buffalo, job seeking, and packing. In the case that I can’t find a job easily, I have some savings so I can squeak by for a few months without employment (and without Unemployment, which I’ve had since the December layoffs but which is about to run out). It’s not a great economy to be looking for a job, but having a shiny new degree that’s not in something completely irrelevant (like Comparative Literature) gives me some hope.