Why did you decide to go to college?

Diana Kugel

Sure, you may claim it was to expand your horizons, to make lifelong friends, to learn to live on your own and so on. But beyond these surface reasons, I think most students – and practically all parents – will agree that the main motivation is to be able to get a solid job somewhere down the line.

As much as we’re all tired of hearing the phrase “in this economy,” there is no denying the fact that the ideal job isn’t simply going to be waiting for you on the other side of that graduation stage. But that doesn’t mean that the answer necessarily lies with more education.

Let me preface this by saying that I myself am planning on enrolling in law school next year. Last semester, at a law school fair, I wandered around the Smith Center with hoards of other aspiring attorneys. How was it possible that all of us were going to get into law school, much less find jobs three years from now?

Well, it turns out that for the 2007-2008 school year, 49,082 first-year law students enrolled while 43,518 students received law degrees, according to the American Bar Association. That is a lot of lawyers.

This would all be well and good – someone has to fuel those lawyer jokes – if only the legal job market were immune to the current economic situation. According to CNN.com, the legal job market is shrinking for the first time in history, all while more and more potential attorneys are crowding America’s 200 law schools. Anyone else see a problem here?

It’s not just prospective law students that need to step back and think about their next move. With the latest wave of hiring freezes at universities throughout the country, the demand for humanities Ph.D.s is looking downright dismal. The number of job postings for Ph.D.s is down 21 percent, and many recent Ph.D. recipients have spent months sending out dozens of applications to no avail. Some are considering taking jobs where a B.A. or even a GED would have sufficed in order to start paying off their loans.

So, what to do?

At that same law school fair, when I stopped by the Boston College table, I asked the school’s representative what was most important to stress in my personal statement. Without even hesitating, she told me to simply explain why it is that I want to go to law school. If the answer is because I don’t know what else to do, or because it just seems like the next step, I should reconsider my plans. But if I could communicate why I feel strongly about the law as a career, it would be all the admissions office needs to hear.

That thought is perhaps the one thing keeping me from going into panic mode as I write this column about my future career’s bleak outlook. I have always wanted to go to law school, and I am positive that it is what I want to do with my life. I can accept that the competition will be intense and that maybe I won’t make as much money as I’d like at first, but I will be doing work I enjoy.

The current job market is about as welcoming as the Metro on Inauguration Day, and I am more than happy to take refuge in law school for the next few years while we all wait for the economy to turn around. But the fact of the matter is that more education no longer guarantees a higher salary – or even a job, for that matter. What it does guarantee is a mountain of loans, which will need to be paid back shortly after graduation, job or no job.

At least for now, graduate schools, law schools and business schools are no longer the assumed “next step.” If you are sure that you want to devote yourself to a field, then get ready to put up a good fight to make it. Otherwise, chancing the current job market may just be your best bet.

This editorial was originally published on Jan. 26, 2009 by the George Washington University GW Hatchet.