I applied to graduate school at the end of last year. After a brief 27th-birthday-breakdown/crisis in which I almost abandoned my job and apartment for a National Parks road trip, I instead opted for an application to a Masters program, a small period of fun-employment, and relocation back to my old research position in Hyde Park. The idea of allowing another year to pass without clicking submit on a graduate school application terrified me, especially if it meant another 12 months in a cubicle with a solar-powered bobblehead monkey, a buddha statue, and the white noise machines.

I gave notice at work and used my savings (from selling my car earlier that fall) to give the GRE and applications a true shot. Five acceptances to epidemiology programs for Masters in Public Health later and I’m at a bit of an impasse. By April 15, I have to notify the schools of my decision (accept or decline the offer of admission). And with less than two weeks until the deadline, I can’t make up my mind.

For one, it turns out Master’s Programs cost a lot of money, like between $40,000 and $60,000 annually. Two years of tuition plus room and board almost guarantees $75,000-100,000 in loans and no guarantee of finding work during or after my studies. Most schools don’t recommend research positions or teaching assistantships until after a year of school, which makes the idea of attending school almost financially impossible for someone like me who stupidly lives paycheck to paycheck and just spent his $2,000 savings account on a two-month coffee shop fellowship and Cavs tickets. The idea of debt is undesirable and the $10,000 in student loans I accumulated during undergraduate is plenty. I could manage an amount around $50,000, but after that, I’m almost under water and signing up for a lifetime of payment plans and limited income.

The five offers of admission could take me to Ann Arbor, Columbus, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, or keep me in Chicago. And the scholarships and fellowships I hoped would come with the offer of admission? Well, I am looking at the full cost of tuition at each location and just a few with in-state rates. That was disappointing.

Graduate school is kind of a scam, and it’s also a privilege. The resume I sent with my application has almost ten years of experience in health care and research and undergraduate studies in biology. And the personal statements I sent spoke to a period of five years since graduating from college where I developed a passion for public health and a skill set that supports that passion. Going to grad school would be the realization of about ten years of discernment and mistakes and coursework and data entry and payday donuts and panic attacks in bathroom stalls and weekly calls home asking what I’m doing with my life and a failed pursuit of a medical degree and the support of dozens of co-workers and family and friends and roommates. I worked hard to get to this decision, and instead of celebrating it, I’m budgeting it and asking why I did this in the first place.

Sometimes, I wake up, I wonder what it might be like to get a fresh start someplace new. What does my life look like in a studio apartment in Minneapolis? What if I got a dog? I can’t afford a dog. What if I moved to Pittsburgh? Would I live with my brother? Would I own a car and travel to Cleveland to see family on weekends? But I never seem to wonder what I’d be researching or what job I’d have two years from now. Instead, I wonder if I’d have more time to take my writing and art seriously; if being a student at a Big Ten school could afford me the opportunity to work for a student newspaper or cover the beat for the college basketball team.

On a train ride home after work, I’ll drift from my podcast and stare into the sun setting over Chicago’s western horizon and think about the world where I pack up and move to New Orleans. I didn’t even apply to the school in New Orleans and Tulane costs even more than the options I currently face. Still, a new life in New Orleans sounds kind of nice. Maybe I live in a row house and spend my mornings watching the sun rise on front steps, and swirl a single fancy ice cube and coffee concentrate in a plastic cup, warming the pads of my feet on concrete. A dog? A job? Maybe.  But I definitely go for runs on the weekends along the boulevard’s grassy median, just beside the streetcar rails. But maybe I should just vacation in New Orleans.


Other days, I bounce my friend’s toddler in my arms and wonder if she’s asleep-asleep or just kind of nodding off. And I’ll look to my roommate and ask if I’m really reading the clock right, that it’s 11:30 PM. And after failed attempts to tuck the toddler in her bed, I’ll resign to just laying back in a chair and wondering why I’d ever want to leave this 20-month-old child that is perfectly content to just sleep hugging my shoulder, and the roommate that is quietly sitting across from me on a Friday night, and the toddler’s parents that invite me over for Banh Mi sandwiches when my date night plans fall through. Chicago’s the cheapest option and the safest option and the option I usually land on. But these are friends that are like family, not my actual family. And if I’ve learned anything living in Chicago for four years it’s everything changes in June, and none of it is predictable.

And then there’s the truth that took me 800 words to get to: What if I don’t want a career in public health because I kind of want a career in journalism. And not the Mark Ruffalo Oscar-reel stuff, or even Newsroom beat. I mean sports journalism. In fact calling it journalism feels odd. Let’s just call it writing and illustrating about basketball.

At about the same time I left my cubicle, I got a media credential for a high school basketball showcase at the UIC Pavillion, and a small but rewarding assignment with an electronic magazine: a cover, a 2,000-word story on the showcase, and two full page illustrations for other stories. Since that point in time, I’ve written two more paid features for a web publication, published another 10 or so stories as a contributor to a noteworthy sports blog, joined another reputable (but homer) sports blog as a regular contributor, reviewed an advanced copy of a basketball book, and created another ten-plus illustrations. Last week I solicited another media credential and paid assignment, for which I just spent most my saved up PTO to pursue. And the opportunities keep coming, I’m a third of an iTunes podcast on sports and humor, I’m assisting the launch of a tiny letter publication, and I’ve procrastinated on two other paid illustration assignments. The grand total of my career earnings in writing and illustration are less than the three days pay I took in PTO last week, but they symbolize a reality that’s growing harder to ignore. I love writing and I love illustrating.

Running late with toast again except I'm not late and I've convinced McDonalds that I'm a member of the media. Still Spin Doctors tho.

A photo posted by Daniel Rowell (@mustlovemustlovedogs) on

So here’s the dilemma I keep shuffling in my mind: I’ve worked five years since graduation to get to a point where I could go to graduate school and jump start a career in healthcare. It’s a field I am passionate about, and a profession I’m experienced in. But for almost a year, but really just in the past few months, I’ve spent all my free time and paid time off and energy chasing an opportunity I’m much more passionate about, but way less experienced in. And suddenly the five to ten years of science education and research work are on pause so I can try to take my writing and art seriously. Yes, it’s a craft that I love, but it’s a pursuit I’m almost too embarrassed to admit that I’d like a career in it, and one I really have little idea how to earn a living with.

Most writers I’ve encountered in the blogger-sphere double as lawyers or teachers or desk jobs. The writing jobs don’t pay, and the paid positions at major publications are kind of rare, and usually require about two years experience at another major publication. My writing and reporting resume is maybe two months long, part time, with about a year of blogging before that. And the path to one of these full-time positions is kind of just working at this level of production for a couple years, taking the opportunities that come, and hoping some deputy editor somewhere has noticed. Which means I could spend two more years at a research job of some sort, and double as a writer on nights, and hopefully still maintain a gym membership and a healthy diet. Or I could go to school in the meantime, keep my plan B, and cross that decision to abandon my studies (and keep my student loans) if a writing opportunity ever presented itself. It just seems like a bad idea to start a degree that is expensive and has limited career options with poor pay on the other side, especially when I would choose a job in writing if it ever came my way.

And so each day I wake up and I roll through my routine and shuffle these scenarios in my head. I know the answer, I think. It’s just really scary to say it out loud or write on this abandoned self-help blog. I’d be happy with a degree in public health and career in research and the loans I’d acquire to get me there. But the three days I spent with the future of the NBA last week were three of the best days I’ve had in 2016, or 2015, or the “Year of Dan” or any year of Dan. But right now those three days are kind of a hobby. And by April 15, I need to find a way to tell myself and five schools that I want to take those three days more seriously.  And that idea is really scary.

Difficult to go back to the desk job, I miss the view.

A photo posted by Daniel Rowell (@mustlovemustlovedogs) on