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Cousin Jimmy’s Dilemma
by Jack Beuttell -- October 12th, 2011

re: “Cousin Jimmy,” class selections, connecting the dots, and the grad school decision.

Last night I got a frantic phone call from Cousin Jimmy, who just began his freshman year at college. I knew something was up when he didn’t address me as “Mr. Jack,” his normal salutation.

“Tell me something good, Jimmy.”

Jimmy is just like any other kid starting classes at one of the nation’s top liberal arts universities: intelligent, ambitious, excited, and a little nervous.  You might be surprised to discover, however, given my profile picture, that Cousin Jimmy is an 18-year-old native of Haiti.

“Cousin”…because Jimmy spent that last two years under my grandmother’s guardianship in Florida.  And while I wish I had his stature and good looks, the only biological association I can claim is that we were both raised, in part, by the venerable Gertrude Terry.  (God bless her third retirement from motherhood).

Jimmy was in a panic over his class selections and the impact they would have on what internship he would get, in what job that would eventuate after college and how much money he would make.  In spite of the specter of his dilemma, I managed to talk him down: “Make some popcorn and call me back in November when you have to register for spring classes.”

It wasn’t until today that I realized the questions Jimmy is asking are the same questions I asked myself 10 years ago when I was in college, and the same questions I’m asking myself now as a grad student: which classes, in what order, will they meet the requirements, keep me interested, overwhelm me, etc.?  And more importantly, are all of my choices connecting the dots and forming a coherent picture?

While it’s different for everyone, I’m so old now that I finally have an idea of what I want to do when I grow up.  And I can’t tell you how important that appears to be.  Bringing even a remote sense of purpose and direction to grad school can make a huge difference.  In an environment where there are literally hundreds of ways to invest or waste your time, knowing how to be selective and intentional can change the entire character of your experience.

That said, it’s not a problem if you come to school with nothing more than curiosity and ambition, even as a grad student; I would guess that at least half of my classmates fall into this category. Academia is an incredibly exhilarating environment.  It’s an open invitation to do what we should be doing every day of our lives: imagine, explore, sample, test, fail, redirect, and so on.  Until we find something that fits.

So if you’re deliberating on the question of grad school, I offer my opinion:

  1. If you know what you want to do with your life and grad school is not essential in getting you there, don’t waste your time or money;
  2. If you know what you want to do with your life and you’re missing some essential knowledge, skills, or networks that grad school can provide, don’t waste time getting here;
  3. If you know what you’re passionate about, but not sure what that means career-wise, send in an application and go from there;
  4. If you have no concept of where you want to be in five years, focus instead on where you need to be in order to figure that out.  

Things have a way of working themselves out when you’re thoughtful, intentional and patient.  They did in my case, and I’m confident they will for Cousin Jimmy and for you, too.

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