I’m Going to Graduate School at 30

I’m Going to Graduate School at 30


Remember how I said I’d update you on the most recent events of my crazy life?

Whelp, I’m going to get a masters at the ripe, old age of 30.

In my ‘turning 30’ post I wrote back in February, I mentioned some big life plans in the works that might involve graduate school–and, well, let’s just say it all worked out.  I got in.  I committed.  I accepted the student loan.  I live in graduate housing (aka, a dorm) and, somehow, I live with a Chinese family.  Don’t ask.  At least I’m not sleeping on an inflatable bed anymore.

Basically, as much anxiety as I have about this, there’s no turning back.  I’m going to get my Masters at 30 in Foreign Policy.

First of All, Be Prepared

This is me writing a paper for 10 hours. And it's 2 paragraphs. photo credit: Executive via photopin (license)
This is me writing a paper for 10 hours. And it’s 2 paragraphs.
photo credit: Executive via photopin (license)

The reason I put this off for so long is mainly the cost, because my family is not rich.  When I was accepted into a fairly reputable university at 18, my father’s first words to me were:

We can’t afford it.  Sorry, dear.

So, I worked three jobs as a full-time student to lessen the blow of student loans.

Although I do think 30 is a little ‘too old’ for graduate school, I have no regrets for not going directly out of undergraduate.  When it comes to finding a job, a combination of job experience and higher education will result in moolah and a meaningful job (unless you’re a tech guy).  I’m very happy that I worked, gained real world experience and achieved my dream of living and working abroad.

Yet even now, eight years after graduating from university and with some savings to boot, I’m still stressing out about the cost of this graduate degree.  A lot.  I found ways to subsidize costs and I thought long and hard about the repayment plan, as well as the potential payoff the degree could have.

Basically, don’t go into thousands of dollars of debt thinking that it’s all worth it in the end.  The world has changed.  In fact, you should go into school with the mindset that, worst case scenario, you will be unemployed for months upon graduation.  If you can live with that, then go for it.  Take the plunge.

I’ve thought about this masters degree long and hard (believe me, I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it), but I think that my subject of study and my experience, combined with the relatively “affordable” tuition (I turned down better schools that wanted 120k in tuition money), will be more of a help than hindrance.

Surprisingly, I’m the Youngest Person in my Class


I signed up for a special, one-year executive Masters degree.  Although the cost is equivalent to a two year degree, I will finish in nine months instead of two years (a definite plus for me).

All of my classmates are lieutenants. Majors.  Admirals.  Diplomats.  I’m probably the only “normal” person in my class and, surprisingly, I’m the baby.  All my classmates are older.

So while I was paranoid about my “old age,” the tables have turned and I am, without a doubt, the young novice.  It’s been really fun getting to know diplomats from other countries and to talk with foreign policy leaders in the military.

Living in a Dorm

photo credit: 1938 Hall via photopin (license)
photo credit: 1938 Hall via photopin (license)

When I found out my school was in San Diego, I knew that my cost of living was going to be $$$$$$.  San Diego is a retirement playground for the rich and white, and constantly ranks as one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.  It didn’t help that my University was located in the Beverly Hills of San Diego, and rent was sky high.

When this view is only minutes away, property don’t come cheap

When graduate housing offered me a room for half the cost of other housing in the area, it was hard to say no.  So, I signed up to live in a single room in a two bedroom apartment in student housing.

Let me just tell you: the media aren’t lying.  China is taking over the world, and Chinese people are everywhere.  I hear more Mandarin than English on campus. When I learned my would-be roommate was Chinese, I had to feign shock.

I didn’t feign shock, however, when my roommate told me she was living in northern California for the summer and thus sublet her room to her Chinese friend–and her parents.

So, I’m living with a Chinese family.

They wash their clothes by hand every single day (despite the fact we are a two minute walk from laundry machines).  They never leave the house (all three of them are here from morning to night, doing god knows what).  They are constantly cooking in the kitchen making an oily mess out of the walls and stove.  The dad chastised me for not having a vacuum, despite the fact I’ve only lived here for a week.

At least there is a perk: the mom makes me an awesome bowl of noodles for breakfast.  Tastes like China.

Student Anxiety

This is where I go when Chinese roommate drives me insane

While I’m perfectly fine giving a work presentation to an audience of 200 strangers, going to class with the unsaid pressure to socialize, be intelligent, write awesome papers and read hundreds of pages of text in a week is quite overwhelming.  It’s been stressful for me, but I’m trying to stay positive.  After eight plus years of not being a student, I imagine it will take a few more months for me to settle back into the groove of researching, writing and citing.

During this time, boyfriend and I will also be living apart.  After living together for two years, this is going to be a difficult adjustment.  Boyfriend will remain in Norcal while I tough it out in Socal.  I’m really going to miss him.

Tips for Older Students Interested in Masters Degree

  • If you’re going to major in a degree that doesn’t need to be completed in the U.S., then for god’s sake, go abroad.  Tuition in the UK/Europe is half the cost of the USA (even at the best schools!).  Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until it was too late… but, if you can get away with a degree in a foreign country, save yourself 40k and do it.
  • Think long and hard about what you can gain from this degree.  Intellectual stimulation isn’t enough.  If you think that this degree will honestly introduce you to more promotions at work or better opportunities in the future, then go for it.  If you’re doing it because you’re not sure what you want in life or you can’t find a job, then please, exercise restraint.  We’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Financial experts say you shouldn’t take out more debt than one year’s worth of your expected annual salary upon graduation.
  • Going back to school is hard.  You’ll have to learn how to socialize again, and possibly study with fellow classmates that are fresh out of undergraduate studies.  Not to mention you might have to live with a Chinese family in graduate housing, like yours truly.
  • I’ve tried to get a Masters Degree three times.  I was accepted for the Japanese Government scholarship, but it was later canceled due to lost funding from the 2011 tsunami.  I was offered a full-ride scholarship to attend interpreting school in China, but the school was truly awful and I quit.  So here’s my third attempt at a Masters, and I hope it pulls through.

In a nutshell: if getting a masters is your dream–and you can do it within reasonable cost (try not to take out over 50k of debt)–then just do it.  Don’t let age stop you.  I have a 50 and 55 year old in my class, and they’re kicking my ass.


So, here’s to nine months of graduate school and San Diego!

31 thoughts on “I’m Going to Graduate School at 30

  1. •”Think long and hard about what you can gain from this degree. Intellectual stimulation isn’t enough. If you think that this degree will honestly introduce you to more promotions at work or better opportunities in the future, then go for it. If you’re doing it because you’re not sure what you want in life or you can’t find a job, then please, exercise restraint”

    Id have to agree with that; seems when somebody wants a new job or a promotion, they get a masters, so now those people are everywhere. It does help with getting government work, because (before at least) there would be a vet preference OR- education for an annouced job posting. Say the positon was for a GS position, sometimes a vet with 5 or 10 points would trump a civilian, but if that civilian had a Masters or Phd (some of these jobs were for like logisitcs etc, go figure) then they were on the same playing field.

    Private sector? MBA I guess is where its at or if your good at accounting etc, hard skills that they can use. A masters in anthropology might get you a job at a muesum or something on USAjobs but Im sure there are 100 other masters looking at that too. I really dont know, so I dont know if its overrated or underrated. Good luck to you, I aint got the money for it! Im sure it will open many doors for you, or else you wouldnt of took it on.

    Sometimes I wonder if its part of the American experience, like that guy who wrote good dad bad dad, everybody digs in for more education, but would never take a risk for business. Then again business isnt for everybody. If everybody in America would think about making business like the Chinese do, maybe there wouldnt be so many US people working for foriegners?

    1. Yeah I’m aiming to work in the government after graduation (crossin fingers!). I can handle pressure in the private sector, and I work better under it, but good god, I get way way way way stressed. When I worked in business consulting I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep because of tight deadlines and ruthless managers. I think with my personality and language skills I will better excel in gov/ngo work.

      When I was job hunting for work in gov/ngo, the new minimum requirement seems to be a masters. I think getting a masters is all relative to industry as well. STEM probably doesn’t need a masters, but when it comes to stuff like humanities or social sciences, having an advanced degree can be the one factor that gets you hired or denied.

      I think American universities are wonderful, which is why you pay $$$. They assemble 23 orientations so you always know what’s going on, they have someone hold your hand and tell you what meetings to go to, what events are going on, when you should sign up for classes… the professors also assign a lot of reading and homework. I hear in EU/UK class isn’t even mandatory and grades are usually determined on one paper you write throughout the semester with no direction. It’s very independent-study focused.

      Anyhoo, thanks for your comment! I’ll do my best.

  2. I won’t tell my friend who is 56 and in the middle of slogging through her master’s degree that you think 30 is too old 😛

    So, actually, I’m not surprised you are the youngest, many these days can’t afford to buy a house because of – you guessed it – student loans. *Sigh* I really do wish America would at least offer free undergraduate tuition. After all, we want everyone to be educated, right? Right???

    I never finished my MA because of the crushing debt. I couldn’t take it. I had to go back to work. So, don’t be like me with half a degree and all of the debt.

    You know, of all the people who could handle living with a Chinese family in a dorm room, it would be you! I’ll send you luck on that one – the MA should be a breeze in comparision

    1. Oh dang 56!?! RESPECT!

      Yeah I think America needs to make education #1 priority. It’s just too damn expensive here. I’m not saying everything should be FREE (a little too much change, too fast), but I think free undergraduate–or even community college–would be a huge help.

      Crushing debt I hear ya… I’ll make it through the program Lani, thanks for your support!

      1. Actually I hear there are free junior colleges (sorry, dont have the links) and some apprenticeship programs in the U.S> are free, and many accept ex cons, but you got to work. There are people attending US universities overseas, some very expensive, using their GI bill, that pays for room and board as well. Not bad for an easy stint in the US air force. I dont quite get the return on investment to the tax payer, like how is a degree in economics in Tokyo differ from a degree in economics from the University of Alaska, except one location is 10x more expensive. Back in the day you got a GI bill for 14000$ and that was it, no room and board, books, nothing. I think people these days have MANY opportunites we didnt have before. There are also scholarships and work programs for hospitialiy and chef industry. I think the US has tons of opportunities.

        1. Guys, I’d like to make a general point which isn’t specifically in response to your points, but was brought out by reading them.

          I understand what you are saying about US tuition being too expensive and how in Europe it is much more affordable. Yet a common theme I’ve also noticed when discussing education with Americans is that they say American universities are ‘better’ with more resources, renowned academics, and hand-holding etc than universities in Europe.

          However, all of that resource and hand-holding comes at a price. It doesn’t come for free. Now, I’m not saying that justifies the extremely high tuition fees in the US (it does not, in my view), but I think my more general point is that we can’t have it all. Either we pay high(er) fees and get the swanky resources and hand-holding and career finders, or we pay less and get less of that.

          Reality, is of course, more messy than that and maybe somewhere in-between.

  3. I’m not surprised you are the youngest, either! I was the only person in my MFA program who went there straight out of undergrad. I was decades younger than everyone. I am not sure I got as much out of the program as my older peers — real life experience is a huge help. Now I wish I’d talked less and listened more.

    I could not cope with ANY family in my dorm, noodles or no noodles. When are they leaving?! And if they stay, can you report the illegal subletting?!

    I hope you chastised Mr. Vacuum back immediately. In Mandarin.

    1. Well I’m the youngest in the one year program, in the two year program I’m one of the ‘older’ ones. Did you get your MFA in creative writing by the way? I hear that’s completely covered nowadays? At least, one of my friends is getting that degree and he doesn’t pay anything!

      The family was truly driving me crazy. They moved out yesterday.

      ….But then my roommate moved in. With her boyfriend. Sigh. Chinese people. I think this housing situation is going to make me very racist by the end of the year, haha…

      1. My MFA was actually in screenwriting, and no, it wasn’t covered, it cost a small fortune. The training in narrative structure is applicable to any sort of storytelling, though. 🙂

  4. In Spain many people do their Masters right after finishing their degrees. I think it’s better to have some work experience first. So I’m sure it will be very useful for you, Mary!

    Sometimes I think I would like to study again but right now I’m not sure it would help me find a better job in the field I’m in (and in China). So I’ll wait and see.

    1. I think in UK/EU/Asia most students get a masters right after undergrad. In the USA though, it’s all ages, although most graduate students tend to be in their 20s.

      I always thought going back to school sounded so nice, but now that I’m back I’m already swamped and stressed haha. Working is so much easier!!!

      Thanks for the support Marta!

  5. I’m not surprised you’re the youngest either, considering your field. I was actually surprised that I was one of the oldest at 27 when I went for my MA, but you know how Chinese people are about getting their MA right out of undergrad.

    Good luck! It’ll be a hard slog, but with classmates like yours, I’m sure you’ll learn a ton!

    1. When I studied Chinese interpreting all of my classmates were 22. And since they were Chinese, I honestly felt like I was in school with really elite people that had the emotional maturity of an American high school freshman. It was odd.

      Yeah there’s a lot of variety in my class, I like it.

      Thanks for all your help and advice in the past by the way. It really contributed to my decision!

  6. Wow, good on you! It sounds like you have thought long and hard about this and that you have the determination and life experience behind you to pull it off. Wishing you all the best!

    1. Thank you so much! Your most recent post about quitting your job was also inspirational to me! I hope I can graduate and do 厉害 jobs like you!


      1. haha not sure about my jobs being 厉害! I think the fact that you are fluent in so many languages is much more 厉害! That inspires me 🙂

  7. Nice! – except the whole roommate thing. After 25, roommates get a lot more annoying. And with a boyfriend…fantasies of coming home to a brutal double murder are in your future.

    I think 30 should be the minimum age for a foreign policy degree (with time spent living abroad). Just imagine having to listen to a 22 year old in one of your class discussion.

    One nice degree trick (often not available in the social sciences) is to enroll in a PhD. program, work as a TA/research assist, get a stipend and tuition paid by the program and then just quit once you’ve completed enough work for the master’s degree. I know lots of people who have done that.

  8. You are so right about the after 25 roommate theory. I’m just too old for this sh-t.

    The boyfriend moved in and he’s b-o-r-i-n-g. The dude speaks English, Mandarin, Japanese and finished my program already–yet talking to my desk lamp is more enjoyable. I hope there’s more interesting Chinese people in my future.

    Dang, I should have used that PhD trick. Although it is really, really hard to get a PhD I hear. I barely got into a Masters Program, I think scoring a PhD would have been a miracle, haha.

    Thanks for the comment about my age, I feel better! There are some 22 year olds in my class and I think to myself: go get a job! But, I shouldn’t judge.

    Thanks for your comment!

  9. When I was job hunting for work in gov/ngo, the new minimum requirement seems to be a masters”

    Thats not exactly always the case. Ive worked from some gov types who were nearly illiterate but they used their veterans pref points to get the position, but if you didnt have those points, then you had to make up for it with education. So you got a guy in a GS9 position with a GED but the position calls for a Masters if your not a vet.

    I think the FS only requires a BA or BS but you might get a post in some horrible place. Probably best to get your masters then roll into something big. 30 is incredibly young, I cant believe you think that is old. Even 38 is young. Good luck!

    1. Yeah unfortunately I’m not a veteran so I don’t get that special preference…

      You do know your stuff! To qualify for GS9 positions you need to have a masters (and these are jobs that start at 50k or so). I think FSO is a little different, but I heard that test is a crazy piece of work. I have heard from people who graduated from my program that if you get a masters in IR you can usually pass the first part of the test–but the interview questions depend soley on your personality.

      I don’t think 30 is old, but when I have 22 year old classmates it makes me feel a little old, haha.

  10. I guess it depends on which gov sector your aiming for, like HR, procurement, etc. and what agency like DOD, DOS, DOJ, TSA, Dept of the Interior, and you can find the rest of them There are programs for undergrads, as I recall as well. Id make sure you like what you get because it might be hard to transfer out of that section once you get in, depends on the place and the competition. And for the FS you might have to live in a housing arrangement if its overseas, but they are pretty nice. Id check it out really hard before you get into it, the gov sector and private sector are two entirely different animals. One is about taking money, the other is about making it. Ive seen people go for weeks without doing anything at all, and that creates a really strange enviroment. Some are cool with that, I cant say its something I like; to each his own. It really depends on the place, job etc. also.

  11. “To qualify for GS9 positions you need to have a masters”

    Thats because at the 9 level you can be a” supervisor”, that doesnt mean youll be using your masters degree intellect to delegate any authority….lol ) Dont be intimidated by all that. Or you can go in as a 4,5,6 and be above all your peers once you get your masters, but you might have to wait forever for the 9 slot in your section to open because the 9 has to go somewhere also, so he/she is waiting for their 10. so lets say you got a retired military guy with 20 years of logistics or procurement or whatever, he/she applies for the 9, and you with no gov experience but with a masters apply, who they going to select? and that whole section might be vets and they bring that culture, but you dont and have issues etc with the heiarchy. Thats why I said look at all the sectors, like science or ocean or the list is almost endless, where your in a good position to get selected or a program that gets you in with like minded peers. Its not that difficult if you go the right way.

    1. I think it’s harder because I know “how” to study but it’s been many, many years. And the sheer amount of work in graduate school (or at least, in this program) is overwhelming. It’s 5x as much work as undergrad (I didn’t think undergrad was that hard, so it’s nice that this program is ACTUALLY tough).

      I like being back in school, but I think I’m definitely one of those people that prefer work to school. I like working for 8-10 hours, coming home, then not having to worry about work until the next day. With school, because of homework and the sheer volume of assignments the professors here assign, I’m thinking about homework constantly (or I’m always doing it constantly, I spent 10 hours in the library last week!). I also like to go out there, apply concepts and actually do something, rather than just talk about it. Although this program is good in that it prepares you to do that instead of have you research something meaningless yet interesting (like how Christianity spread through Fiji in the 1950’s… or some other random humanities dissertation).

      Anyway, I like it but I’m glad I picked one year. I’m not an academic, haha.

      1. Glad to hear you are enjoying it. You are right that grad school tends to involve mountains of endless reading which is never finished, whereas work has a more defined boundary (usually…). What kind of assignments do you get set? Is it mainly analytical essays or case studies or other activities?

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