Random Asides

I’m a Lawyer, but I’m Going Back to School Anyway. Here’s Why.

I’m going back to school in five weeks. If you’ll allow me a few moments of narcissism and self-indulgence, I’d like to tell you why.

I’m a lawyer. Technically, in that I passed the bar exam and pay mad scrilla to keep my license current. But I don’t practice. I never wanted to. Most people don’t understand that. Suffice it to say that a legal education teaches many great, transferable skills and I wanted to take those skills into the nonprofit sector. I did what I could to make that happen. I did that whole DC internship thing, I went off to study human rights law for a summer at Oxford, and I did some major volunteer work for Amnesty International. But I graduated in 2010, a couple of years into the financial crisis. Yeah…not great timing.

I knew that there were very few firms coming in to interview third year law students for jobs, but I managed to keep my optimism up because, hey, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to do something else. I wanted to work on issues I care about: women’s rights, LGBT rights, health care, death penalty abolition, and other various progressive causes. And I truly felt – as I still do – that working at a law firm or in a court would be excruciating. As someone with a paralyzing fear of public speaking and being in the spotlight in any way, I knew that practicing law was the wrong way to go.

Luckily, I knew that I had marketable skills. But oh, remember how I graduated in the middle of the Great Recession? Things didn’t work out so well.

I kind of floated around for two years, doing part time legal research, freelance writing and organizing, with periods of unemployment. It was awful. I was miserable. (Although, it was during this time that I joined Skepchick. They don’t now it, they helped me a lot. But I digress.)

Then something kind of magical happened: I got a job. It was a temp job, sure. But I had somewhere to go every day and people to talk to. It was scheduled to last nine months, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Anyway, it’s pretty much the most most boring job I’ve ever had. The people were great, but the work was…not challenging. My mood started to yo-yo. When the assignment got extended, I was happy – because, you know, money – but I was also really, really sad. Because I knew it wasn’t going anywhere, and the job market wasn’t really that great so my options were still very limited.

On a particularly bad day, my lovely, wonderful, and selfless partner took me to see The Avengers. (For the second time.) When it was over, we were talking about much I love Bruce Banner, and how I wished I could understand physics. (Look, I know using a movie like The Avengers isn’t a great segue into talking about actual science, but that’s how it happened.) He told me that I said that a lot, and that maybe I should take a class or something.

Psh. No. Physics requires math. That ship had sailed. I hadn’t taken a math class in 10 years. And when I had to take math classes, I was really bad at it. I was a cliche. Which is too bad, because I was a giant astronomy nerd. But because it required math, I abandoned it.

I know, I know, I know. I’m completely ashamed of myself. Can I get back to my story now? Thank you.

I thought, Well, I guess taking a class can’t hurt. So I rearranged my schedule at work and audited a physics class at the local university. It was Physics for Non-majors, so there was minimal math. However, I thought that maybe I could gauge how deep my interest in physics ran.

This is when things started to accelerate. Everythings would have been so much simpler if I’d hated it. But I didn’t. I really liked it, and I started to think that checking out of math-heavy disciplines was a huge mistake. But, remember, the class I took had very little math. My history with math is horrible. Many tears were shed and stressful nights spent just trying to work my way through high school trig. I needed to know if a decade removed from any kind of math had changed my perspective.

So I took the next step. The last math class I took was college algebra as a freshman in college, so I saved my pennies and enrolled in a college trig class. I decided to actually pay for the class for two reasons: 1. If I paid money for it, I would be less likely to rage quit in the middle and 2. If I decided to actually pursue a degree I would need trig to get into the required calculus classes.

That was last spring. What happened?

It was a lot of work. There were many nights at the library. I still need to come at problems very slowly and methodically. And yes, there were times when I was so frustrated that I was reduced to tears. But this time…I liked it. Every time I solved a problem I was having trouble with, I got this weird high. I just wanted to run down the halls of whatever building I was in, showing everyone what I did. All by myself! It made me want to take on more and more difficult problems.

Let me tell you something, guys. This was unexpected. This was new.

Crap. You know what this means, right? Something clicked. I like math now. I may not be very good at it yet, but I like it.

In many ways, my life would be simpler if I’d hated everything about this trig class. It would have at least affirmed that, even though my employment situation is tough right now, going down the humanities path was the right way to go. But that wasn’t what happened.

I had a decision to make. Do I stay in my crappy temp job for however long it lasts, not moving my life forward at all? Or do it take a risk and call a mulligan?

I’m calling a mulligan.

Not everyone understands this. Some people – mostly old law school buddies – really don’t get it. That’s understandable. Going back for a physics degree must seem like a really random decision to make for people who do not live in my head. In reality, however, it’s not so out of the blue. I love physics. I love astronomy. I always have. But, as I explained above, I was scared away. For some reason, I felt like those fields weren’t for me. They were for other people. Smarter people. I had to find something else.

Law school was an expensive mistake to make (that study abroad at Oxford did not come cheap). I’m told that, if I’m having trouble finding a permanent job, I should just hang out my own shingle. But this totally misses the point.

I know that I’ll owe a lot – a lot – of money at the end of this. That alone almost scared me away. But life is short, you know? I want to do something fun and challenging and interesting. Sometimes I feel selfish for wanting this. I don’t think I’m special. I don’t think that I have a unique brain who will unite all the forces or discover some heretofore unknown particle or finally confirm life outside our solar system. Besides, I had my chance, and I wasted it.

Then I think, Fuck that. Yeah, I’ll be up to my eyeballs in student loan debt which I acquired through a variety of installment loans. But you know what? I’m already up to my eyeballs in student loan debt. If I’m going to paying this off for the rest of my life I might as well be doing something I actually like. Is it foolish? I don’t know. Probably. But is it any more foolish than the path I’m on now? That’s less clear. I’ve weighed my options. I haven’t jumped into this without a lot of thought. I think I’ve made the best decision for me. I think.

So, in five weeks time, I get to quit my crappy, boring temp job and go back to school full time. I’m incredibly excited. And terrified. There is no guarantee that I’ll succeed. That’s a very scary headspace to be in, and it’s very unfamiliar to me. (Don’t let lawyers intimidate you. Law school is not as hard as it seems.) It puts my stomach in knots. In a good way, though, if that’s possible.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, or if there even is one. It’s never too late to do what you love? Never stop learning? Take risks? Don’t go to law school? I don’t know. I also don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’ll be any good at this. If I’m not good at it, at least I tried. If I am good at it, well, I guess I’ll have more decisions to make.

Until then, five weeks, people. Wish me luck.

Featured image credit: Flickr


Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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  1. Mindy,
    I know lots of people who have gone back to study and changed their lives as a result. My wife’s best mate walked out on her asshole husband in her mid forties, eventually did a Law degree and found a well paid and interesting niche working for international clients.. Many colleagues walked out of chemistry into further study and different professions in the recession of the mid nineties. My own kids followed a fairly eclectic path of education and experience by a long road into well paid and rewarding jobs.

    So, yes, it is never too late, and I’m sure you will find some rewarding niche that fits your own unique talents.
    Best of luck, Mindy!

  2. Congrats! I think you’re doing exactly the right thing. Follow your passion and your interests. Life is too short to sit at boring jobs doing shit you have no interest in. I’d rather be paying back student loan debt for the rest of my existence than be debt free working some crap job that makes me hate my life.

  3. I registered for WordPress just to write this comment! It’s important. I’m a physicist with a PhD and I’ve been working in industry for 3 years. There are basically two points I wanted to make. First, realize that being a physicist still allows you to have a lot of different career paths, but pretty much all of them are going to be computational in some way. Some career paths include academics, industry, teaching (non-research), finance, consulting, etc. You have many options, don’t just settle for academia, because it’s totally not for everyone (me, for example). Secondly, somewhat like law school, taking classes in physics doesn’t really give you a good idea of what being a physicist is like. I highly recommend you take on an internship in the type of industry you think you might like to work in (typically academics) while you’re still studying physics, not after graduating. With typical career paths, undergraduate students start taking paid summer research internships as early as freshman year. You might not be able to do interesting research right away, but you can get a feel for what the day-to-day life is like. You might even be able to start now! I did internships in a variety of different types of physics, and that really helped me decide what I wanted to do. Many students don’t do this and get stuck doing whatever it is their mentor does.

    Please feel free to contact me directly!

    1. I do have some idea of what I want to do, ultimately, but it’s such a pipe dream that I don’t really like to talk about it. But I will. If I can swing it, I’d love to be a planetary scientist and study exoplanets and meteors and Titan (I’m kind of in moon-love with Titan). I considered studying geology but: 1. The university in my town doesn’t have a geology program. A university close by does, but that would have been pretty inconvenient. And 2. I just really like physics and it still seems really relevant to the study of planets. But I have to figure out if I’m any good at this first.

      I’m definitely looking into summer research opportunities. Since I already have a bachelors degree, I only really need to fit in the physics and math courses. So I feel a lot of pressure to get all of this stuff in as soon as possible. Time goes so slowly when I don’t want it to, and so fast when I want I want it to slow down. Gah!

      1. Go for it. I’m an exoplanet scientist. It’s the fastest growing subfield of astronomy. We need more passionate people.

        (But the job prospects suck … but there are lots of good fall-back options if your top choice doesn’t pan out.)

        Good luck! I found your post inspiring.

  4. “I don’t know what the moral of this story is, or if there even is one. It’s never too late to do what you love? Never stop learning? Take risks? Don’t go to law school?”

    Another lawyer here. Congrats on your decision! And, I DO think the moral of the story is “don’t go to law school,” unless 1. you actually want to be a lawyer, and 2. you have some real idea of what “being a lawyer” is that is not taken from TV/movies. There are too many law schools taking advantage of people who think that a law degree is some kind of golden ticket to a six figure job, and for most of us, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

    1. Sing it! I put that in as kind of a joke, but I believe it. There are too many law schools and too many lawyers. The advice given to me as an undergrad by one of my professors (a lawyer) was that legal skills are very desirable and applicable to many different areas. That may be true, but I feel like there was probably a less expensive way to get those skills.

      1. I agree that legal skills can be incredibly useful in a wide variety of fields – nonprofit management, to be sure! The problem is that so few of those alternative careers pay enough to service law school debt. It’s misleading to market law school to prospective students in that way, in my opinion. But law schools have literally nothing to lose – they can pack their classrooms with students and make money hand over fist doing it. There’s no incentive for them to be honest about students’ career prospects.

  5. Pretty much the same thing happened to me. I spent nearly ten years (money and two pregnancies…) trying to get my bachelors in graphic design. I was naturally good at art and enjoyed it as a hobby, but the more I interacted with people though, the more I realized that I did not want to create commissioned art. Halfway through my second pregnancy I got into a religious argument with someone about the Big Bang which amounted to him claiming I was wrong ’cause I wasn’t a physicist (…he wasn’t either.)

    I lamented at that point about how I had chosen the wrong profession, and oh, how I wished I could’ve gone into astronomy like I had always dreamed of. My S/O told to me change my degree if that’s what I wanted to do, despite being four classes away from finally graduating. “But I am so bad at math,” I explained, to which he tilted his head to the side, then promptly sat me down and taught me calculus in half an hour.

    Turns out I’m pretty good at it, but between living in a society that deems girls incapable of understanding math and having undiagnosed ADHD, I had managed to convince myself to settle for something else. Both issues are being managed now though, and I am slowly, but happily making my way through the science and math classes!

  6. Mindy, your story is kind of similar to mine. My previous education was in German (Master’s degree, finished 2003), which – shock of all shocks – turned out not to be every employer’s dream. Three years ago, I finally decided to start all over, and now I got a Bachelor’s degree in renewable energy engineering, which – given the climate crisis – feels about as meaningful and important as anything I can possibly imagine..

    Like you I also used to have an aversion to math (had my last class in 1992, and passed by a hair’s breadth). But this time I was determined to learn it properly, so I bought the most basic math book I could find, starting with the number line, and worked my way through every problem. And not only was I surprised to discover that I wasn’t as bad at is as I had always believed, but like you, I also found that I actually enjoyed it.

    So It can be done. I congratulate you on your decision, and wish you good luck with your studies :)

  7. Going back to college as an adult can be tough, but I’m finding it very worth it so far. I, too, am pursuing a Physics degree. I got all of my undergrad stuff done at the local community college and am transferring to a 4 year this Fall. It’s a lot of work and it can be strange being around people so much younger than you, but I’m absolutely loving it.
    Good luck!

    1. It was totally weird to be around people 8 to 10 years my junior! Just in the trig class I took last spring I felt so old! I thought I was siphoning off all the Teen Skepchick’s youth, but I guess I was wrong :)

  8. I’ve been contemplating something similar for a long time, but kind of inverse to you. I majored in physics in college (minor in philosophy, so no, I never knew what I wanted to when I graduated) and while I haven’t exactly been working in that field, long ago having realized that research was not for me, I’ve found steady work in informal science education. You know, going into different schools and doing science programs with the kids. Lately, though, I’ve been having this ongoing fantasy of going back to school to get my MLS and becoming a librarian. That is among the dorkier sentences I’ve ever written.

    1. Oh! I have a friend who is getting her MLS! (Actually, not an MLS. Something about information systems. But she wants to use it to become a librarian.) From what she’s told me, that’s not a terrible idea. I’m told it’s a hot career field, if you can believe it.

  9. Hmmm…when I was considering going back to school a few years ago, I decided to audit an English lit course at NYC’s Hunter College, since English had been my major. My mistake might have been attempting to stick with what I know because while I would have aced the class had I been enrolled according to the prof (18th Century Literature & Slavery), I found myself not really that engaged. I liked what we were working on and that I was good at it … but I wasn’t excited by the end of that class. Maybe my mistake was sticking too close to the stuff I already knew.

    1. I’d suggest hitting up a local community college and trying some survey courses or intro courses in random areas. It’s a great way to find out if a particular subject is at all interesting to you.

    2. I’ve certainly found it more challenging and rewarding to do something different. I think if I were to take a poli sci class at this point I would be very, very bored.

  10. This is so exciting!

    I have a friend who went back to school for a biology degree, and I am kind of envious. I only took the big picture science for non-majors classes during college, and while I really enjoyed them, they certainly didn’t provide me with any kind of expertise. After reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, I seriously considered going back to school to study neurology. I decided against after coming to the conclusion that I prefer communicating information to researching it, and I’m now getting my MBA in Sustainable Management, hoping to get a job supporting the business operations of a science communication organization.

    All this to say: congratulations, lady! It’s gonna be awesome!

  11. Wow, that takes a lot of courage! Good for you! I hope you make it. And honestly, at the end of the day, if worst comes to worse, you DO have the law degree to fall back on as insurance. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of your time at all.

    Good luck!

  12. I don’t think you’re weird, but that may be because I’m somewhat your doppelganger! I have a law degree (and a B.A) but never really wanted to be a lawyer and so, after working in mediation for a few years, went back to become a teacher, which is what I love. But, I get bored easily so I’m now doing an MSci in Astronomy part time.

    I’m fortunate that, as an Australian, it isn’t costing me the Earth to indulge my curiosity as I’m certainly not looking to change careers. I know exactly how you feel – to like maths and physics but need time to digest things. All of the people in my masters have maths and science backgrounds and so regularly say things that sound like a foreign language to this little humanities gal but, just like I did with languages, I break it down, work it out bit by bit and I eventually get there. Except when I don’t, but that is OK too.

    1. That’s bananas! I’m so jealous of your higher education system. Good luck with your MSci! I wish I’d had an astronomer for a teacher when I was in school :)

      1. I should say, each unit is $1500 and so the Masters is $18 000, which is still significant money and I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t. I know that would be prohibitive for many people, but it is affordable when compared with US prices and I am very thankful for that.

  13. Hi Mindy! That’s so exciting. I’m doing a similar thing – I have a PhD in astrophysics, and have been working in the world of tech for the last year. But it’s SO not for me, so I’m going to go back to uni and study for a masters in animal behaviour this September! I’m super excited and I can’t believe I didn’t figure out sooner that this is what I really want to do. Every time I’ve watched a nature documentary (and that is a LOT of times) a voice in the back of my head has said ‘I want to do that! I want to study wildlife!’, and a few months ago I finally started paying attention to it and got my arse in gear to do something about it. I’m also worried about more student debt, but I only have one life and there’s no point spending it being miserable (which I have been doing in both this and my last job). Yay us!

    1. Ermahgerd! Every time I saw a physics documentary I totally thought the same thing! The math is what kept me away for so long. Damn/Than you, PBS/Brian Green for keeping me interested all these years!

  14. One hopes that your passion and drive for choosing a specific field of interest will also yield a significant return on your investment ie. bring home the bacon. It is disheartening when graduates of Music, Literature, History or Philosophy, etc.. can’t get a job. But, a good friend of mine who was an out of work opera singer completed medical school and ultimately ended up the Chair of Neurology at a major teaching hospital. Another friend completed medical school but she ultimately did not want to be a doctor. She followed her desires and she now runs a successful bakery in Quebec City with her spouse. Your story is inspiring and all the more reason I’ll tell my children to follow their dreams.

    But there are dreams that will only be dreams that will lead to unemployment. As a parent I would be worried if my kids put all their eggs into making it big on American Idol or become a professional video game player (yes there are jobs like this but vanishingly few). And yes, I know that kids will ultimately do what they choose to do. But as a parent, I can’t help but want success for my kids ie. a great job, well paid, a decent home, etc..

  15. There’s a running joke (I think it is said, however, with well-fortified seriousness) amongst my friends in college right now that the math grad students are some of the chipper people that you’ll ever meet, but the physics grads seem like they had the soul sucked out of them. If you’re going for undergraduate, you’ll be fine I suppose; but, if you’re thinking of grad school, maybe look into prepping for that by seeing how much you can overlap math and physics ;-)

    This is great too. Best of luck to you; if I could justify to myself taking another year to finish college I would dual enroll with my university’s LSA college and get a math and stats major to accompany the engineering one I’m getting (which is, oddly, actually going to be a climate science/engineering degree), but I’ll just be getting the math and stats minors for now. So far my two favorite classes have been math classes, it can be great fun.

    I also believe in networking – you should already have my contact info from our recent brief back-and-forths about Teen Skepchick, so I’d like to also extend an offer for any help you might possibly want for understanding any of the material you’ll be learning. Perhaps our own classes will at some point start to parallel each other.

  16. Best of luck! One point I’d like to add — with degrees in law and physics you would be very much in demand for patent law. I don’t know if that’s exactly what you want to do with your life but it might at least provide a way to pay the bills.

  17. Here’s another take on it. I am 57 years old, and am planning on going to the local University in January to pursue Physics. My situation appears to be a bit different than most. I already got a two-year degree in Physics in 1991. I kept planning to continue, but life got in the way. I am anything but math-phobic; I’m something of a lightning calculator. I recall not having to really study math until second semester calculus.
    But, still, I am a couple of months shy of my 58th birthday. Am I OUT OF MY MIND?

  18. I’m impressed. So many people are put off mathematics by a bad experience and never revisit the subject. May you have much joy from your studies.

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