Should I go to grad school or join the military?

I've been planning all my life for an academic career, but now I'm afraid of all the debt.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 24, 2009 11:16AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a senior in college and will be graduating this spring. For a long time it has been my plan to go directly to graduate school after completing my B.A. and eventually gain my PhD so that I can teach at a university. I have worked hard to achieve this goal and will be graduating at the top of my class. That said: I am in a large amount of debt from school loans (over 50K) and the number would grow even higher as the interest accumulated throughout the period of my graduate work. After that, even with a PhD there is no guarantee that I'd get a job that would compensate me well enough to pay off the loans in a timely fashion. Frankly, I see several decades of monthly payments looming ahead of me and I am terrified.

This is partly what prompted me to apply for a commission in one of the branches of the military. Even if I stayed in for only four years, during that time I could pay off a large portion of my loans. This wasn't my only motivation, though, as I recognize that money alone is not the reason to go joining the armed forces. I would be honored to serve the country and believe that my skill set would be a useful asset to the military. Overall, it's a very good opportunity. My worry is that I just wouldn't fit in the military culture. I'm a bookish liberal who questions everything; all the people I know who are in the military are conservatives who aren't fond of change.

On one hand, my goal for years has been graduate school. On the other, the economy is terrible and I feel like I should not just go off chasing a dream merely because it's my dream. Perhaps the more responsible and worthwhile idea would be to join the Air Force. My problem is this: It's not that I don't have options, it's that I don't know how to choose between them. I've thought about this so much that I've lost perspective and am not sure how to make this decision. How do I go about sorting through this and choosing a direction?

I've Lost My Bearings

Dear Bearingless,

You have a dream.

A dream is the highest thing a man can chase.

A dream is not a dame. A dream is not a mechanical rabbit and you are not a greyhound. A dream is not a job offer. A dream is a summons from the gods. It is an invitation to answer your calling. Therefore, the one and only proper thing to do with a dream is to pursue it.

The thing about dreams, though, is that in their pursuit we encounter obstacles. These obstacles can arise before us in the road as tangible barriers; they can also arise as mysterious vapors that envelop us with self-doubt and fear; these obstacles can take the guise of common sense and wisdom, so that we feel wholly reasonable and responsible as we consider abandoning our dreams. And since a dream is unearthly, it has little defense against arguments of practicality. Dreams require faith. That is their only defense.

Somewhat in the way that religious people talk about the devil disguising himself, I would say that obstacles to our dreams seem to have agency and volition and complexity; they plot, or seem to plot. And all we have to answer them with is the rather thin-sounding retort, I have a dream.

So it is understandable that you are considering alternatives. But this is not such a good time to join the military. For one thing, there are wars going on. Many men and women are dying in these wars. Many are being maimed. It's terrible. Not only that, but our country needs many things right now. More than soldiers, it needs noble leadership, a whole generation of leaders, intelligent, courageous, well-educated leaders such as yourself. If you continue on your current path, and take steps to earn money as you continue your education, I think you may do far more service to your country by following your dream.


Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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