By Esther Shin
MFA Graduate Student

On Tuesday, May 15, 2018, I wrote the following to myself:

I sat in on the MFA poetry reading this evening and I enjoyed it so much. The students did such a great job—their voice, style and subject matter was so diverse. I was slightly envious of them getting to immerse themselves in writing and the creative process. I know I made the right choice to get my MBA, but it is a lot of work. I wonder what it would be like if I had chosen to study something more intuitive and engaging for me… something that feels less like having to constantly tackle brick walls.

I wrote this journal entry as a graduate student in business. I had convinced myself that, despite my undergraduate degree in history and my lack of quantitative skills, it would be a good career move to get a master’s degree in business administration. I had been working for arts institutions in various external affairs roles out of college and had recently decided to pursue marketing and communications specifically. I entered the MBA program because I thought that a business degree with an emphasis in marketing would propel my career. But my hope for that business degree began deteriorating during the very first week of that program. Immediately, I sensed it wasn’t a good fit.

I lost many hours of sleep trying to solve equations in statistics, economics, and business analytics. I experienced an existential crisis every time I got stuck on a complicated problem with probability or supply and demand. It wasn’t just the rigorous coursework that gave me anxiety, though. When I looked ahead, I grew increasingly unconvinced that I would want a job that required the skills I was gaining in the MBA program. In other words, I was not only suffering on the journey, but the destination was no longer appealing to me.

Something similar had occurred when I was an undergraduate student. I was studying nutrition. For two years, I scraped by in math and chemistry courses. Then, I took a western civilization history course as a part of my general education, and it excited me more than anything I had ever studied before. I had no idea what I would do with a history degree, but I was convinced that it would be an injustice for me to ignore my newfound passion.

I almost stuck to my business program out of pride. But I took time to think about what I wanted to do in the future and what skills would help me get there. After attending half a dozen events hosted by the English department and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, I decided that what I really wanted to pursue was an MFA in Creative Writing. I wanted to immerse myself in the creative process; I wanted to become a better writer—professionally and personally. I wanted to land my dream job as a digital editor in the future, and an MFA would help me get there. After one academic year of the MBA on a part-time track, I applied to the MFA in Creative Writing. I switched degree programs.

At first, in each of these big switches in my studies and in my career path, I was worried. Like many others, I believed that I needed an undergraduate degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to secure a job. Like many others, I believed that a degree in business would give me a secure job. But this hasn’t been the case for me personally, and it’s not the case generally either.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ report, “The State of the Humanities 2018: Graduates in the Workforce & Beyond,” provides results that graduates in STEM fields earn about $10,000–$30,000 more than humanities majors in their first jobs out of college. And that’s probably the sort of data that formed the assumptions I picked up about what I should study. But humanities majors start closing the pay gap over the next few years. The older the humanities major grows, the smaller the gap between humanities major’s income and that of higher-paying majors, and people in every field seem to wish they had more money. Humanities majors also report roughly the same level of job satisfaction, even for salary, as many other majors, and that’s become increasingly important to me as I’ve grown older. Those with advanced degrees in the arts and humanities report are slightly more satisfied with their jobs overall. Though I didn’t need these statistics to make decisions for myself, this report validates my belief that I will be happier with my MFA than I could have been with an MBA.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, I let my anxiety about employability affect the field of study that I chose to pursue. However, in each case, I eventually switched to a liberal arts degree. Now as an MFA in Creative Writing student, as I look back on my decisions, I can confidently say that I made the right choice both times.