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Is My Grad Student's Dream Realistic?

Adina Glickman

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Dear Adina,

My daughter is just completing her master's degree in Educational Psychology. She now realizes this degree will not help her towards her dream job of being a school guidance counselor. She is considering starting a new master's degree program.

The problem I see with this is that her student loans are already $85,000. I fear she will never be able to afford to pay her loans back on the salary of a guidance counselor. Any advice on how to help her realize that that dream might not be able to come true?

Dear Parent,

It can be terrifying as a newly minted grad student to stare at a number like $85,000 of debt. I felt a swell of secondhand nausea and panic when I read that. And as the parent of that newly minted grad student, $85K is certainly not a guillotine you want to see hanging over their head.

But there’s good news for both of you! First, $10,000 in student loan forgiveness was just put in place (or up to $20,000 if Federal Pell Grants are involved).

Second, if you can take a step back and get flexible about your definitions of “dream job” and when exactly dreams are supposed to come true, there’s a world of possibilities.

The evolution of a career is, for most people, an iterative process: a first imperfect job leads to a second more perfect one, which leads to a third, and so on. It’s good to think of this first job as an important stepping stone rather than a final destination.

As long as she is making enough to make payments on her loans, is learning and growing, and finding meaning in her work, there are many many jobs that will constitute a terrific first stepping stone in her career. And since the learning and the experience will change her, who she is becoming and what she wants to do professionally will become more clear. Every experience she has that turns out not to be what she wants will show her more clearly what she does want.

People stay in jobs an average of two years these days, partly because that’s how one climbs the financial leverage ladder. But it’s also partly because, especially at the beginning of a career, there’s still a fair amount of learning and growing and discovery of preferences. And while more training and education may be needed, making that investment seems like a lot to do in the hopes that the dream job turns out to be exactly the right job forever.

So I wouldn’t toss the Master’s in Ed Psych too quickly; there are many paths that can lead her towards her dream job. Although specific credentials are needed for certification as a K-12 school guidance counselor in some states, there are other options in terms of supporting students. Ironically, higher education might welcome her Master’s in Ed Psych as qualification for a position as an undergraduate advisor or student services officer in which she would be supporting young people in their growth and development.

In beginning a job search in earnest, it can be helpful to deconstruct what it is about that "dream job" that makes it so dreamy. Is it all about loving the energy of a certain age group (so would interacting with that age group in a different capacity be wonderful)? Is it all about the satisfaction of helping young people (so maybe hanging up a shingle and working as a private practitioner with kids and families would be wonderful)? Teasing out the elements and seeing where some jobs can provide those elements might allow her to take a step towards the dream without fulfilling the whole dream all at once.

If it’s younger kids she wants to work with, a position in higher education might still be a reasonable first step since many colleges and universities provide funding to employees for professional development. Getting a second master’s degree that would make her eligible for guidance counselor certification might be less expensive that way. It’s also possible she might fall in love with the college-age student experience and discover a new dream.

A final thought about dream jobs: there are many more layers to having the job than doing the work. I loved the work I did at Stanford. I was always happy to talk with students and help them learn how to learn, how to be effective and efficient, and how to have joy and satisfaction in their education. Loving the work kept me going for 20 years, and I was fortunate to be able to grow and change the work as I grew. But the politics of academia, the challenges of working within a big infrastructure, and being immersed in a culture of achievement and perfection were not so satisfying.

It was all worth it for me, but allowing myself to have new dreams, like getting to write this column, is what propels me now.


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Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching Group, which offers academic, life, parenting and career coaching. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at
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