Before coming to Paris to study, I had done my fair share of research. I had lived in France before–working as an English teaching assistant–and I was aware that getting a master’s degree is pretty much mandatory for a young person in France who is seeking any kind of white collar job. Still, I didn’t fully grasp what kind of impact that had on the general population of young adults. Furthermore, I didn’t realize what kind of impact that would have on me as an “older” student moving to France to get my master’s.
I come from a country where getting a master’s degree is definitely seen as more of the exception rather than the norm (depending on which circles you run in, of course). It can be seen as more of a luxury than a necessity. According to data gathered by the American Community Survey, in 2017, 8.2% of American women and 5.5% of American men aged 18-34 had a graduate degree as their highest level of educational attainment. I had been assured by many friends and mentors that it was perfectly fine and perhaps even strategic to take a break between my bachelor’s and master’s degree.
In a country where 1 in 3 people between the ages of 18-29 have some kind of student loan debt, it is understandable why people might not continue their education after their bachelor’s degree. This educational attrition makes even more sense, when we examine the median amount of student debt held by people who have attained post-secondary degrees. In 2016, bachelor’s degree holders owed a median of $25,000, while those with a postgraduate degree owed a median of $45,000. To put it simply, the more educated you are in the United States, the more likely you are to carry higher student debt.
In any case, I’m not here to talk about the problem of student debt in the United States. I’m just trying to make a point that cost of education in the United States was in fact one of several factors which ultimately led me to choose Sciences Po. I’m also trying to contextualize the perspectives I’m about to share as an American who is now getting a master’s degree in France.
I call myself an “older” student because the majority of my classmates are somewhere between the ages of 21-23. I even have a few classmates who are 20 in my program. I realize in the grand scheme of life, 3 to 6 years is not really that much of a difference. I also realize that I still have a lot of life ahead of me, but in the current context, I feel a bit “old.”
I think back to when I was 21. 21-year-old me would have never imagined that I’d end up in Paris in 5 years. I would have never thought that I would live in Nancy, France for a year. And I would have never of thought that I’d spend about 2 years working as a fundraiser in the non-profit sector. I have changed and grown a lot in the last 5 years, both personally and professionally. I’m not saying that my classmates aren’t mature or extremely intelligent and critical. I’m just saying that there’s a lot that can happen in 5 years.
My French classmates, tend to be younger because it is quite normal for French students to go directly from bachelor’s to master’s without a break. I have been told by several of my classmates that they are almost pushed to do their schooling in this way because it’s not really possible for them to find a “real” job unless they have a master’s degree. In addition to this specificity of the French job market, students who do their bachelor’s degrees at Sciences Po, don’t need to reapply for their master’s degrees. They are directly admitted to the master’s degree of their choice after successfully completing their bachelor’s. This makes it much easier to go immediately from one degree to the next.
All of that being said, I’m not trying to paint my experience here as a negative one. After all, I’ve only been here for a month and it’s hard to make a fair assessment of a project, especially one as lengthy as getting a graduate degree in a foreign country, in one month’s time. This first month of school, and moving to Paris in general, has just taken a lot of getting used to. I knew it was going to be a big change, coming to France again, but it’s always hard to anticipate exactly what that change will feel like.
So, here are some observations and feelings that I’ve had about the experience thus far.
No More Youth Discounts
Being in France between the ages of 18-25 is great. There are so many programs and offers for young people to get out, do things, and experience the culture. Nothing makes you feel like you’re getting old like when you stop qualifying for youth discounts. Many discounts in France (and Europe) are for people under 26. I just turned 26 this year and I am officially no longer a “jeune” in the eyes of the Paris Metro (RATP). This means I have to pay full price for the metro pass each month. This also means that I no long qualify for free entry to museums (it’s devastating). Even though I am a student again, many benefits in France are age restricted and not based on whether or not you are a student. However, the good news is, there are still some deals for “young people” under the age of 30. You bet I will be maximizing on those while I still can.
Differences in Pedagogy
I don’t know what it’s like for every school in France. I can only speak to my personal experience at Sciences Po. Some things that I’ve noticed in my first month is that the educational style here is really different from what I would expect in an American classroom and an American master’s program.
My course load here is quite heavy, not so much in terms of assignments per class, but in terms of the sheer number of classes I am required to take. I have 8 required classes this semester, however each class only meets once per week. This is pretty different than the American style of higher education, where we might take only 5-6 classes per semester and meet more often per week. I’m finding it challenging to keep track of so many different topics and professors.
Something else that has been shocking to me are the class sizes. Most of my classes have a large number of students, which basically limits in-class discussions. To be honest, that’s one aspect that I don’t really like. I wish there were more opportunities to engage in verbal exchange with my professors and classmates.
Also, another big difference is that most of my classes are graded purely on mid-term exam grade and final exam and/or final essay grade. This means it’s pretty much just up to me to make sure I keep up with my readings and self-study. Having never done graduate studies in the US, it’s hard for me to say whether or not that’s a common thing in the US. I’ve always been pretty self-disciplined, so I’m not too worried about this kind of evaluation method.
Two other common evaluation methods in my classes are “exposés” (oral presentations) and group essays. Yes, that’s right. Group essays. As someone who enjoys reading and writing well-written essays, the thought of having your final grade based a group essay is just a little bit irksome. The challenge of coordinating 3-5 busy master’s students with different schedules and unifying different writing styles seems daunting, especially as we head towards mid-terms and final exams. I guess I’ll be finding out how that all pans out soon enough.
Being a few years older and having some full-time work experience under my belt isn’t all bad. Going back to school, I feel like I have more clearly defined professional goals. I have a better idea of what I really want from my education. I see going back to school as a huge opportunity to gain new skills, try different areas of work, and a way to build new networks.
Something I quickly realized soon after I started working is that once you are in a full-time role, it is really easy to get pigeonholed into doing the same work over and over again. Of course, you can always look for new ways to do the tasks you are responsible for and look for ways to optimize your workflow, but it’s more difficult to try new areas of work. Your scope of work can be limited by factors that are not in your control.
Being in school again is a way for me to gain professional skills in a relatively low risk environment. As a student, you are given so much more freedom to test new ideas. For example, in my previous job, I realized that I have an interest in strategic planning and market analytics. These are skills that are important in the non-profit sector, but are definitely more prominent and advanced in the private sector. Since getting to Sciences Po, I’ve pushed myself to find opportunities to develop skills in this area and I make a targeted effort to go outside of my professional comfort zone. An added bonus of having been out in the working world and then going back to school is that I now feel a lot less scared to take risks in the classroom because I know that being in school is basically like being in a controlled environment. There are almost no repercussions for making mistakes for the sake of learning.
Upon graduating from my bachelor’s, I really had very little idea of what I tangibly wanted in life. It sounds naive, but it’s true. I was overly idealistic and optimistic. All I wanted to do was make the world a better place in whatever small way I could. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to do this. I still have a strong desire to do work that serves others, but in the last few years, I’ve also come to realize how much I also really want to be self-sufficient. To me, that means being financially, physically, and emotionally independent. I want to make sure that I can take care of myself, no matter what situation arises, and that takes a lot of work.
Working towards these two goals can be challenging because there are moments when I question whether or not they are in direct conflict with each other. If I choose to work in the private sector am I selling out? By pursuing higher paying jobs, am I contributing to growing inequities in wealth, race, gender, sexuality, and environmental degradation? Am I being selfish if I choose to take care of myself first?
I’m not sure. But I figure now is the best time to test these things out.
Finally, on a lighter note. I’m also learning about the physical limitations of being in school as someone in their mid-twenties. I’m a lot less willing to sacrifice sleep to go party or socialize on a week night. I find that I just can’t function at my best if I stay up all night trying to do work. I like going to bed early and waking up early. I’d rather get my work done in the mornings while my brain is still sharp. I’ve always leaned towards this tendency even in my undergraduate years, but it’s definitely become more pronounced in the last few years.
All in all, my first month here has been a whirlwind. It’s been a steep learning curve in so many ways, from getting used to speaking French again to getting used to the urban-ness of Paris (perhaps I might explore this experience in a later blog), to getting used to being back in school. That being said, I am as grateful as ever to be here. I’ve always been a firm believer that radical growth happens with radical change.
So, yes. I plan on taking these changes head on.