In Backstory

Backstory Part 2: Things don’t always go as planned

Lesson 2: Things don’t always go as planned. Understand your worst case scenario and at least be aware of it. Or, even better, be prepared for it.

Then law school happened.

Katie has an undergraduate degree in Physiology and Developmental Biology and wanted to use her scientific knowledge to become a patent attorney. I have a (useless) Political Science degree and wanted to work in politics. We had done some research on the job market for attorneys going into our chosen fields and learned that, in the market that existed in 2007 when we were entering school, Katie could expect to earn a very good income when she graduated (about $140k/yr), and that I would be able to earn enough to make law school worth my time (about $80k/yr).

Our plan seemed reasonable. We took out our allotment of student loans with full confidence that we would earn our degrees, begin jobs in our chosen fields, and pay back our student loans over the course of the next decade.

Then life happened.

Katie had a crisis when she felt the distinct impression that law school wasn’t the right path for her. She spent months agonizing over her decision. Finally, near the end of our first semester, she took a permanent leave of absence.

We were so caught up in whether this was the right decision for her, we didn’t have time to think about the financial impact Katie’s leaving school would have on us long term. It turned out that the impact was bigger than we realized.

Although Katie had a full-tuition scholarship to the law school we attended, we had still taken out some loans on her behalf to pay a portion of our living expenses. More importantly, most of the (very little) math we had done around how long it would take to pay back our loans assumed her high expected income upon graduation. With that patent attorney paycheck out of the equation, our ability to pay back loans looked bleak.

Then, in 2008, our outlook went from bleak to impossible. The legal profession was one of the hardest hit by the economic crisis. Many attorneys who graduated in 2007 and 2008 lost their jobs. The attorneys who graduated in 2009 weren’t able to find jobs. When I graduated in 2010 the market was at its worst. Fewer than 20% of my graduating class was able to find work. Those looking for work were competing for spots with the experienced attorneys who had been displaced at the beginning of the crisis. All government agencies were on hiring freezes. I started looking in earnest for full-time work at the beginning of 2010. By the middle of 2010 finding a job looked increasingly impossible so I delayed graduation a semester (taking on more loans in the process) to give myself more time to look. It was futile. I applied to hundreds of jobs in 2010 (5-10 jobs a day, many of which required multiple very specific essays), and got only a handful of interviews. Besides that, the jobs I was applying for were nowhere near the pay I had expected going into school.

So, what did we learn?

First, things don’t always work out how you plan. We entered law school fully expecting that our best case scenario would be waiting for us with open loving arms upon graduation. We were probably more delusional than optimistic.

We should have at least taken a few minutes to think about the answers to a few questions, like:

What do we do if either of us feel like law school isn’t the right path?

What do we do if we’re not able to get a job?

What if one of us gets really ill?

What if we have a child?

You get the idea, there are a lot of MAJOR things that can happen over the course of a few years and we hadn’t considered any of them. Having not even considered them, there was no way we could have had a plan in place to be prepared for them.

For those of you thinking about post-graduate education, think about what could happen.

For those of you in post-graduate education, think about what is happening.

For those of you with advanced degrees, how did it go? Exactly as planned, I’m sure.

Take time to think in real terms about what you’re getting yourself into with post-graduate education: debt, time, uncertainty, changing preferences, changing industries, etc.; and make a plan taking your worst case scenario in mind. Then, if everything turns out perfectly: GREAT! If not, at least you’ll be prepared to deal with the fallout.

Next week: the fallout.

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