Bullish For Higher Learning Week: Making A Profit On Your Education

Jennifer Dziura career advice Fridays on TheGrindstone and life coaching advice Tuesdays on our sister site, TheGloss.

Let me start off by saying that if you want to get an education purely for the sake of educating yourself, then please do. Plenty of people immerse themselves wholly in philosophy or Russian literature or Asian studies for four years and have the time of their lives and work out that silly “job” thing later.

Some people do the same with grad school, which works out well if you have rich parents and/or a trust fund.

But you’re reading The Grindstone, right? And you clicked on something called “making a profit on your education.” You’re bullish!

Making Your Education Do Double-Duty

I’m absolutely in favor of making all the things you want to do (such as your education and your career) feed and sustain each other – sometimes it’s easier to do two things at once than to focus entirely on just one thing, especially if double-tracking lessens your constant worry about student debt and the economy. If you are the sort of person who fears a lack of shelter and health care, a mercenary approach to higher ed can actually provide a feeling of security and thus help you focus more on your education.

In high school, I was the teen columnist for the local newspaper. My portfolio of 150+ published pieces surely contributed to my getting into an Ivy League school. And yet, I was tortured by deadlines. Tortured.

At fifteen, I was sitting in front of an electric typewriter (the Internet existed, but only for wealthy people) wanting to kill myself. My columns were often late. I didn’t plan my ideas far enough in advance. If I wrote the column far enough ahead of time, I could mail it; if not, I had to walk the column a couple of miles to OfficeMax and pay to fax it. (See Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for the Young and Sprightly – I assure you, walking two miles to a fax machine is not one of the tips therein).

Later at Dartmouth, I took a women’s studies class on women and journalism. I was fine with learning about historical figures in journalism (Ida Tarbell!), but when we were actually supposed to do some reporting ourselves … well, I just “skipped” that assignment. The memory of 150 late-nights of self-doubt related to 150 adolescent deadlines weighed upon my soul. Having ripped so many columns out of myself at such a psychic cost, all I could think was, “I can’t do it again … for free.” I got a C in the class.

Once you’ve gone into the working world – and gotten paid, and made real things, for real clients or readers or audience members – it’s very hard to go back to doing “homework.”

If you are so inclined, it’s possible to make a lot of one’s education do double duty – and I don’t mean by selling your essays to a pay-for-papers website to help cheaters (I admit once having considered this, and fortunately declined what might actually be the easiest way in the world to get paid for writing). It’s also possible to do the same with graduate degrees.

You Can Impress Decisionmakers, If You Play It Right

 Some employers, potential mentors, and adults in general are overly impressed by higher education, by your particular program or university, or by “kids these days” and how smart they are.

Back when I was running a company, and occasionally hiring young people with good computer skills, my brother and I were chatting online. I was 23, and he was 19. He was majoring in marketing. As president of my little company, I was doing a lot of marketing, but I had majored in philosophy.

My brother emailed me a Powerpoint presentation that was due for his class. I read over it in wonder. “This is so cool!” I said. None of my homework had ever been in Powerpoint, nor had it been so obviously useful.

Around the same time, I went to the bank to set up a business account. The banker who assisted me learned that I had majored in philosophy and developed an expression both reverential and deeply forsaken. “I would have loved to major in philosophy,” he said, “but my parents made me do finance.”

On the one hand, yes, it’s true that getting a four-year degree is no longer very impressive since nearly everyone has one (see Bullish: Basing Your Career on a Resume is Like Competing in a Brothel Lineup). Many college degrees are just proof that someone has rich parents or that he or she was willing to go into debt in order to party for four years. However, having been adult enough to take those four years seriously and have something to show for them other than a line on a resume is actually pretty impressive.

Whatever type of education you’re obtaining – from ivory-tower to vo-tech – someone out there is feeling inadequate and finds you more impressive than you think, if you know how to talk about your work.

Plenty of adults fear that what they learned in college is either completely outdated, or else not up to snuff, since the college admissions game has become so much more competitive in the last 10-20 years. Graduates of Ivy League schools can often be heard to say, “I would never have even gotten in if I had to apply these days.”

And just as some state-school grads are bowled over by young Ivy Leaguers, some middle-aged Ivy Leaguers are somewhat intimidated by, say, a whip-smart young computer programmer – someone who can actually do something at an age when they could only muse about Ulysses at something called an “eating club.”

There will always be some people who look down on you for whatever reasons, but there will also be people out there who will be surprisingly impressed with any self-betterment you have taken seriously. Meet a lot of adults, and talk clearly and openly about what is, so far, your life’s work.

Your Coursework is Your Portfolio

Over the course of four years, you’ll probably write 50 papers, no?

Write them as though there will be a real audience. If you’re majoring in business, naturally, the business plan your team worked on is very instructive of your ability to develop business plans and work in teams. But if you’re majoring in art semiotics, your papers are still a testament to your writing skills, as well as your ability to consistently get things done.

If you are in college, you’re too old to think about “homework.” You should think about your “life’s work” or your “body of contributions.”

Save everything. Pull out the best of it – maybe one or two assignments per class.

You Wrote It; You’re Allowed to Put it On the Internet

 Start a website. Post your work. It belongs to you; it’s allowed to see the light of day.

I’ve written frequently – practically every week – suggesting that young people without much job experience create a “work portfolio.” In some types of jobs, that might be an actual book –like a modeling or art portfolio, but showing window displays you designed or events you promoted or even some very interesting charts and tables about the online advertising campaigns you ran. Or you might start a blog in your field, or publish whitepapers (see Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College).

If you have some kind of website that contains 20 of the best papers you wrote on topics in Asian studies (and you are applying for a job wholly unrelated to Asian studies), I will think that you are interesting, intellectual, mature, and the sort of person who does even small tasks with great care. I will also check to see if your punctuation is correct.

When you apply for jobs, you will be Googled (if you’re lucky enough to make it through the first round of resume-weeding). Your life’s work at age 22 doesn’t have to be on-topic, especially for the entry-level jobs you may be applying to (I would actually kind of question the choices of someone who had a website dedicated to her love of answering customer service phone lines). But you should have some kind of life’s work.

 Design Your Own Assignments

In my (obviously ample!) spare time, I’m getting a masters in education. It’s not from a prestigious program – I’m using the knowledge as I receive it, and my degree will allow me to teach at places like community colleges, so I’m getting exactly what I need and paying cash as I go.

However, working through the program is still enough money and time that I am constantly looking for ways to make everything I do – Bullish, entrepreneurship, teaching test prep, getting a degree – work together. I was able to say to the president of a company I work for: “By the way, I’m getting a masters in education. I’d like to do a seminar here at the office for our students. You don’t have to pay me for developing it.” (I did, however, get paid for teaching it.)

That went over very well. I did a seminar on “Higher-Level Thinking Skills for Standardized Tests” that was greatly inspired by a class I took – intended largely for teachers of young children – on the many microsteps required for what people generally tend to think of as genius-level performance. As it turns out, the mind is not some magic box wherein stuff goes in and more awesome stuff comes out, and some people simply lack magic; rather, what we think of as intelligence is often simply the execution of many microsteps (some that have automatic over time) that can be taught. By me, and by my colleagues.

Wherever you are in your education, many professors are open to students suggesting alternative assignments, especially if you’ve already established yourself as someone who is genuinely intellectually interested in the coursework, and not just looking for an easy path to an A.

There is no reason in the world that you can’t start a business while you’re in college. (See Bullish: You Can Start a Business by Tuesday and Bullish: Launching Your Empire While Your Youthful Mojo is Sky-High). Two weeks ago, I recommended to a reader studying computer programming that she start designing smartphone apps, or do some freelancing on Elance or Guru. If you don’t have a lot of time (understandable), set prices high. You don’t have to do much business to credibly have a business.

Once you’re either running a small business or developing a portfolio that will later help demonstrate your knowledge and character to future employers, you’ll be able to think about whether some of your assignments could be refigured to better serve those purposes.

Instead of writing a paper about something that’s already been done, could you go actually do something and then write about it? Could you design a website or a Flash presentation instead of writing a paper? Instead of writing four separate and unrelated papers throughout the term, could you string the assignments together as four parts of a larger work that you could later publish online? Could you write papers that people actually find when they’re Googling, looking for useful information in a field in which you’re interested?

When you’re in college, or headed back to school, it’s easy to get overloaded. You’re away from home for the first time, and now you’re supposed to think about all this stuff? (If you’re an undergrad, I love you already for reading this far.)

But the American lady-dream surely involves some combination of education, achievement, respect from one’s colleagues and peers, healthy and pleasurable relationships, and contribution to the world. The more we can make all those things work in tandem, like strands of the DNA of awesomeness, the easier the American lady-dream will be to achieve over decades.

Photo: mostafa fawzy/Shutterstock.com

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