Hello everyone! I’m back with another blog entry.
It’s been a few months since I’ve been in Paris. I’m finally feeling a bit more settled and I’m getting ready to start my second semester at Sciences Po. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on what my experience has been like doing a master’s here versus my time doing the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF).
I know a good amount of people consider doing a master’s in France before, during, or after TAPIF, so I thought I would summarize some of my observations thus far as someone who did TAPIF, went back to the US to work for a few years, then came back to France for a master’s.
Needless to say, everyone’s experiences are going to be different based on lots of factors. For more specifics on my situation, I’m doing my master’s at Sciences Po Paris. This school has a different admissions process than most public French universities. I also worked in the US for several years between doing my bachelor’s and master’s. I have a scholarship to attend Sciences Po.
I think it’s important to outline these conditions because they have greatly impacted my experiences here and they are an important part of my story. Another person who is doing a different master’s in France could have a completely different experience.
In an effort to provide insight that might be helpful for other TAPIF alumni who are considering a master’s in France, here are some observations from my personal experiences.
Looking back at my time doing TAPIF, I can now fully appreciate how sweet of a gig the job was. In my case, it was 12 hours of teaching a week, free housing was provided by my school, and I was compensated 790 euros per month by the program. It wasn’t a lot of money, but for the amount of work required it was a pretty good deal.
12 hours of work meant I had a lot of free time to write, to research and plan travel, to study French, and just enjoy my time in the city of Nancy. Of course, there is lesson prep involved with being an assistant, but I would typically organize activities for my classes that I could be re-used multiple times. Also as the assistant and not the teacher, I didn’t have to deal with grading or other administrative tasks that often get tacked onto the responsibilities of being a full-time teacher.
As a full-time master’s student here, I find that I have a lot less free time. I’m not sure what the course load is like at other French universities, but the course load at Sciences Po is rather heavy. We are in class for at least 16 hours per week, not accounting for homework and studying outside of class. 16 hours seems manageable, but it is deceptive because at Sciences Po, there are an enormous amount of “optional” classes, workshops, and sports activities that are offered. These “optional” classes are a great opportunity to learn more skills, but there is required attendance and sometimes additional homework associated with them (even if these classes are “optional”).
In my eagerness to return to academia, I registered for two additional courses my first semester, which brought my total in-class hours to 20 hours per week. The additional courses I chose were academic ones (a second foreign language course and a seminar on international philanthropy), which added more homework and exams to my workload.
Sciences Po also has a particular pedagogy that emphasizes team work and group projects. Almost every class has at least one, sometimes two group projects associated with it. Finding times to meet for a group of 4 or 5 students is often very challenging because all Sciences Po students have hectic schedules and tons of group projects for other classes.
I don’t regret taking those extra classes, but I have to admit, my social life did suffer a bit as a result. This coming semester, I’ve learned to think ahead and intentionally create space in my schedule for things like group meetings and socializing.
The cost of higher education is something that most Americans have to consider when thinking about whether or not to continue schooling. I know it was something I thought a lot about. It was definitely one reason why I didn’t go straight from bachelor’s to master’s. I didn’t want to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a master’s degree that I wasn’t sure that I really wanted.
Now that I’m in France, I can see how different the entire culture of higher education is here. The idea of working for a few years after your bachelor’s to save up for paying for a master’s does not really exist because most master’s degrees are very lost cost, if not free. Even at Sciences Po (which is unique because there is tuition), EU tax residents benefit from automatic tiered tuition pricing.
When I landed my first full-time salaried position after TAPIF, I knew that I wanted to eventually go back to school. At the time, I didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to go back to France or what I wanted to study, but I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. So I immediately made a savings plan.
For the first time in my life, I had a job that paid me every two weeks. I was able to set up a savings account and transfer automatic deductions from my paycheck to that account every pay period. Over the course of two years of full-time work, I was able to build a nest egg to support my graduate studies.
This is important because I anticipated that getting my master’s degree meant foregoing steady income and other financial goals for at least two years. I needed to be financially prepared for that decision. Rationally, I understood this. I prepared for it. I’m even lucky enough to be at Sciences Po on a scholarship.
However, something that I did not anticipate was the psychological effects of going from a position of financial stability back to a position of financial unpredictability.
Dare I say it? I actually find myself missing that humble monthly TAPIF income.
I did TAPIF immediately after finishing my bachelor’s. I had only ever had a collection of hourly jobs/internships prior to TAPIF, so the financial transition wasn’t too difficult. Going from full-time employee back to student has proven to more psychologically draining. At times, I feel like I’m regressing on financial goals in order to progress in personal and professional goals.
Thankfully, past me prepared for this period of time by putting together a savings plan, but that doesn’t mean that current me feels at ease about living for months at a time on savings while picking up a few hours of side-hustle money here and there. I sometimes find myself questioning whether or not I made the smart financial decision by moving back to France.
Like I said, I know I’ll be OK thanks to my plan, but I’ve since learned that the feeling of implementing a plan is always a bit different than creating one.
I should clarify, on the whole, I’m still happy with my decision. I know there are very few times in one’s life when one is lucky enough to make a nearly no-strings-attached decision to live in a foreign country. Moving to Paris, this degree, and living abroad again was something that I spent a long time planning for. Whenever I get a bit stressed, I try to think back to 2018, when living in Paris was a pipe dream that I was almost too scared to articulate, even to myself.
During my TAPIF year, I gained a lot of experience being in front of a class. Classroom management skills are useful in lots of different settings, however, I also realized that I wasn’t interested in pursuing teaching as a full-time career. This was one of the reasons why I chose not to extend the teaching contract for a second year. It is possible to renew your TAPIF contract for a second term, but I didn’t see the point of doing it because I knew I wanted to pursue work in the arts and cultural sector.
Even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, TAPIF was still valuable to me. It helped me develop communication and public speaking skills. I became more fluent and confident in French. I clarified and defined the type of work that I want to do. I learned more about the world of arts and culture by living in a foreign country. I wholeheartedly believe that I wouldn’t be pursuing my current degree at Sciences Po if I hadn’t done TAPIF.
For me, the biggest difference between doing TAPIF and a master’s degree is that my master’s program is in the field that I want to develop a career in. Through my program, I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects, meet professionals in the field, and learn more about how the arts and cultural sector functions in France. I’ve been introduced to new ideas, perspectives and career paths in the field. I get to spend most of my days immersed in, thinking and working in cultural policy, arts administration and related topics. As an international student, I’m not sure if I could have accessed these opportunities in the French job market if I wasn’t doing my current program.
In the end, doing TAPIF and a master’s in France has been a very different experience for me. A lot of that has to do with the stage of life I was in when I was doing TAPIF and the stage of life I am at now after a few years of working experience. A lot of that has to do with the city I was assigned to for TAPIF versus living in Paris.
At this point, I feel like this saying is such a cliché, but I will go ahead and affirm it. We are all on our own life paths and we all go at different paces. If anything, the most important thing that I have learned from doing TAPIF and now my master’s in France is that so much of life is really just a weird combination of timing, being proactive, and a little bit of luck.
It would be foolish for me to say I know exactly where I’m going next, but I believe that all our past experiences help us define who we are and where we’re going. For now, I’m just going to do my best to enjoy where I am and to make the most of my time in Paris.