That Time I Went to Grad School

This post offers up some reflection on my personal graduate school experience and some general opinions about higher education. 

The fall semester of my senior year of college started in August of 2008 and I was set to graduate with a Bachelor’s of Science in Public Health the following May. I loved my program and was very passionate about my field, which had awarded me the opportunity to work abroad doing sometimes difficult but very fulfilling public health outreach work. My specialty had sort of come to be volunteer leadership and health education, as I wasn’t very good at biostatistics or epidemiology, which were the technical, kind of pragmatical veins of the field (though I found both fascinating).

In case you don’t recall, 2009 was not exactly lining up to be the greatest year to get a job straight after graduation. Unemployment was creeping up and up after the “Great Recession,” and job losses from 2008 to 2010 were sky-high, some of the worst rates in decades. The terrible financial and employment predictions for my class were common knowledge among us students, especially since I was at school in Washington, DC, where politics are as much a part of daily life as triple-shot espressos and presidential motorcades. It was not awesome to constantly hear that the job market was down and down and down as graduation approached. This was made even a bit harder for me, as anyone working in public health knows that much of our work is in nonprofits or government positions and public services.

The outlook was just not looking good.

So early in the fall of 2008 I started considering graduate school. I knew I wanted to move to Atlanta and it just so happened that Emory University had one of the top public health programs in the world at the Rollins School of Public Health. In my head, applying to grad school offered at least a little bit of security and something concrete for after graduation and it just kind of made sense, like why not go get this degree now and just knock it out and have that fancy qualification? If I was going to be unemployed or waiting tables otherwise, this seemed like a smart enough thing to go ahead and do.

The truth that I was not acknowledging within myself was that I was not the biggest fan of school. Having some “alphabet soup” after my name with an advanced degree was appealing, but actually thinking about being in school for another two years– after I had been doing this school shit for almost the last two decades— was kind of a downer. But I told myself I’d just plug on through, get ‘er done, and then do whatever I wanted with this degree to fall back on.

So I applied to Emory. Their program was pretty appealing because it was selective and class sizes were small, just like at GW for my undergrad program. I was accustomed to being in classes with only about 15 other people in all of my public health courses, and I appreciated that intimate learning environment where everyone got to know each other and work together. I figured two years would fly by enjoyably if I wasn’t being sardined into giant lecture courses with people I would never get to know. I was absolutely thrilled when I got the call that I had been accepted to Rollins. My next two years were secured with something concrete to do and work towards and wait out the recession.

One funny thing about that phone call– I had aced the written/reasoning part of the GRE, but my quantitative section (read: THE MATHS) left something to be desired. The woman on the phone noticeably slowed her voice down after the initial “Congratulations” and said, articulating every word: “Now, our program is pretty math-heavy. From what I can tell, you’re going to need to take a few RE-ME-DIAL MATH CLASS-ES okay?” I actually laughed out loud and said yes, I would practice my times tables.

Fast-forward to the Fall of 2009: Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, and weeeeeeeeeellllllllppppppppppp, it seemed like a LOT of my colleagues around the country had had the exact same idea to go to grad school instead of try to find a job in the bad economy. Emory had reportedly accepted a graduate class that was over twice the size of the year before, and far larger than any public health graduate class in the school’s history. I believe there were about 500 of us, compared to 200 or so in prior classes.

Now this is an important detail…

I had applied to this program with the impression that I would be in small, intimate classes and build strong relationships with my professors and advisers. I had done my share of giant-lecture-hall classes in my non-major courses during undergrad, and I knew I didn’t enjoy that style of learning. But Rollins had accepted this giant mob of graduate students that year, and we all came flocking. Physically they didn’t have any place to put us (the new academic building was still under construction). So there I was again in classes of 50 or 60 or more students where almost none of the teachers knew me from anybody else. That was a real disappointment for me. To make it worse, our lab sections, which were smaller, were led mostly by second-year MPH students; people in the same program who had a few more credits than me. Truly a big turn-off for someone who appreciates developing relationships with my mentors. In Emory/Rollins’ defense, I don’t think they could have known that it would turn out like that, and there were many times that it was clear that everyone– faculty and students alike– were just kind of trying to make it work and adapting.

A second unexpected disappointment for me was that my first year of graduate courses was almost an exact repetition of my undergrad education. As it turns out, there are only a dozen or so undergraduate public health programs in the nation, and I was lucky enough to have been in one. My graduate colleagues were coming from very different and varying fields– psychology, sociology, engineering, foreign languages– and were only beginning their study of public health. Legitimately all of my first year course material was the same as my last two years in college. Sitting in classes that I had essentially already taken, I began to grow more and more impatient with this whole grad school thing.

Luckily the focus of our second year was writing our theses.

The second year was also full of epidemiology and biostatistics courses which presented a very different challenge for me– THE MATHS– and I struggled pretty badly. Turns out times tables can’t predict the 10-year morbidity rate of tuberculosis in Niger. So. Don’t ask me.

I had a pretty cool thesis project idea that I was excited to get started on– a photography project involving youth in one of Atlanta’s tougher neighborhoods, photographing what they perceived to be barriers to their wellbeing. The method is called Photovoice and it’s pretty cool, you should check it out. By the end of the summer I had met with community leaders, reached out to potential participants, and had it all drawn up and ready for the Internal Review Board. Then in the middle of the semester my funding fell through. Not a good sign– when many people were already carrying out research, gathering data, and even starting analyses, I was back at square one.

Alright, better think of something else.

I drafted up an outline for doing some health education and outreach in conjunction with local churches, but that one got nixed by my adviser– too loose, not enough time to carry it out. By the time Christmas break rolled around, I still had nothing.

That spring semester felt like a clusterfuck. By that time I was feeling almost completely burnt out; I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for thesis ideas and I finally settled on writing up some volunteer manuals for the nonprofit I was working for. Though I felt alright about the subject matter, I wasn’t 3,000% in love with it, and when you have to write 100+ pages of original material on something you aren’t completely passionate about, it isn’t very enjoyable. I was a bit resentful that I had pushed all the way through grad school and when it had come time for me to do my own project, I wasn’t even doing something I really liked. Completing my thesis truly came down to the wire– I did mostly research from January to early March and then had a month and a half to write the thing. I didn’t go home much those few months, and the baristas stopped making me pay for coffee at some point. I actually wrote a small dedication to the coffee shop staff in my final thesis product. It was that real.

During one of many all-nighters, a small group of classmates invited me to go with them to take a study break in the snowy early morning hours. Unbeknownst to me, one of them had a penchant for finding hidden passageways, tunnels, and forbidden rooftop escapes. On that night, five burnt-out, sleepy graduate students stood together in solidarity in the snow on top of our academic building and looked south to the downtown skyline, talking about our experiences in global health. Pretty dope moment in my memory, especially since I hadn’t made a ton of close friends in my program.

I eventually did finish a thesis project that I felt good about, presented it, and graduated in May 2011. I finally got my alphabet soup: Ally M. Petrilla, MPH. I also got tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Crushing. Debt.

Now onto some opinions….

As I felt completely burnt out of public health after my graduate school experience, I decided to take my degree and take a step back from the field for a while. I have yet to use my Master’s, either in a job or to get a job, and for that reason I am not all the way sure that I feel the degree was worth the price tag. I can hardly make payments on my loans at this point and the fact that that debt still hangs over my head truly makes me question whether I would do it all again the same way if I had a re-do. A big part of me feels a twinge of resentment and says no, I don’t need a Master’s degree to help people; GWU had equipped me pretty well to do good in the world. Part of me is hoping I will find a way to use it some day.

The take-away from this story is that I don’t know how valid the higher-education-increases-your-chances-of-success model is anymore. There are a ton of ways to “make it” nowadays, all you seem to need is an entrepreneurial mindset and a camera phone. I think it is even less important to pursue advanced or graduate degrees, as so many of us Masters and PhDs and JDs are still broke and unemployed.


I don’t want to trash talk the educational system– many of my colleagues found work that they love and are doing great– but it can be a money trap if you’re not careful and not precisely positive of what you want to use your education for. And even then, a degree doesn’t create a job opening out of thin air. I would say to consider what you’re really after before you dump time and money into more school– there may be a way to get where you want to be and skip that step. Your credit score will thank you.

As for myself, public health will always be a core part of my knowledge and driving passion. I have taken the last few years away from it to pursue other interests in the arts and just living life as a single young woman in the city. My gut tells me that I will get back into the field in time, when I am ready to settle down in a job that is steady and commitment-worthy. But I also have the rest of my entire life to find that, so I am not in any rush. The fact that I finished grad school is a reassurance that I can indeed do anything I put my mind to, and maybe even that I earned a little fuck-around time for all the hours I spent studying and researching. For now I have a nice piece of $60,000 (plus interest) wall art in my bedroom to remind me I’m smart.

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