Kio Stark: the people’s champion of not going to grad school

Kio Stark thinks your grad school savings have better places to go. Like around the world.

In the middle of getting a PhD in American Studies, Kio Stark dropped out after she realized how much she could be learning on her own. Now, she’s one of the leading evangelists for independent learning and, perhaps ironically, an adjunct faculty  at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. She is the author of Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Almost Anything, featuring interviews with successful independent learners like Cory Doctorow, Dan Sinker, and Quinn Norton. We spoke to her about how to DIY grad school, the growing recognition of self-education and what it takes to get a really awesome job right now. Spoiler! It’s not that piece of paper. You know. That one. 

Your book isn’t just about not going to grad school, it’s about creating alternatives. How did you come up with the idea of DIYing a grad degree  – and how did you structure your learning?

I dropped out of graduate school myself. I thought about the most significant things I got out of it: wonderful professors and really engaging fellow students. But the part of the process where I actually felt like I got an education was the reading I did for my oral exams, which is when you take a year and create your own reading list. I basically created four fields of knowledge that I wanted to become a modest expert in and spent a year doing the readings. I checked in with my advisors every once in a while just to be sure I was on the right track, but honestly, those conversations could have been accomplished with other smart people, too. By the end of that, I felt like, “Ok, I know stuff now. This was an American Studies program and I feel like I have a grasp of certain parts of American history and culture.” And I got that myself.

I also have a lot of friends who are self-taught in many areas. The question I had going into the project was “How do people do this?” Because school gives you infrastructure in both the literal and figurative sense.

Certainly you’d save a lot of money this way. But doesn’t the part of school where you have a set time for learning and listening and reading and writing help?

I talked to lots of people who’ve learned languages on their own. And a lot of times that is easier in a class because you have people you can practice with. But when you’re learning independently, you also have autonomy over your learning. You’re following your curiosity. And that actually gives you a different kind of motivation that’s even more powerful than having deadlines for a classroom.

You dropped out of grad school, but you’re an instructor at NYU. How does that work?

I’m an adjunct, but it’s not out of the question for me to get a faculty job. That said, I also know people without advanced degrees who are tenure-track faculty at other schools. And there’s a terrible glut of PhDs who can’t find jobs, because we made too many of them over the past 20 years, so maybe they feel some responsibility around that, I don’t know. But in so many cases, people who are stuck in a totally academic model, where that’s their only qualification in life, are not thriving. And not thriving means not being an attractive hire.

So do your colleagues at NYU consider you a radical for writing this book?

About half the faculty backed the project, as well as many of my former students. I’m not considered a radical at all. I think the DIY ethos of the place is very supportive of projects that extend the reach of learning and education to a wider population. This year a lot of prospective students wrote to me asking for help deciding whether they should accept their offers. What I said to them was, what do you hope to get out of going to grad school, and is there a way for you to get that without it? I don’t think any of my colleagues would have any argument with encouraging that form of soul searching. You want students who know what they want out of school, if they’re going to go.

Has writing and researching the book changed your teaching style?

I find that teaching has made me interested in helping the students get what they need out of it, rather than, thinking, “Everyone needs to accomplish this set of things.” As for how it’s changed, instead of assigning my students field experiments for a final project, I tried letting the students design their own this semester. Which was kind of daunting for them, but then they got really excited about it because they realized they could do whatever they wanted.

Based on all the interviews I did and how clear it was that that feeling of autonomy was really crucial to peoples’ success, I wanted students to have that experience in school so that they’d be inspired to keep learning outside of school.

You used Kickstarter to fund this project. And it was successful! What was that like?

Amazing. I first was just going to make a pamphlet and interview maybe 10 or 15 people. Then I started the interviews, and people had such amazing things to say, so I thought I’d expand it. I put up the Kickstarter and thought I’d maybe sell 500 copies, and that would be successful. It ended up getting over 1,500 backers.

How does an independently taught person compete in the working world? Can you print out and sign your own Master’s degree?

I think these answers will change a lot in the next five years. More and more people who are in a position to hire are interested more in skills and less in degrees. It used to be that having a liberal arts degree or a credentialed degree was some kind of guarantee. That’s increasingly not the case. What really matters are people’s personal qualities and their skills.

For example, I talked to Tony Hsieh who runs Zappos. He said he doesn’t even look at resumes. While he’s hiring at a pretty high level now, even when he was hiring people to do customer service, he really didn’t care where you went to school or even about your previous jobs. He told me he cares that you can do that job and fit into the culture.

What about the application process? How does a self-taught expert present him/herself to a hiring team?

I think there are some stodgier professions where this will be harder, at least until things have changed a little bit. Finance would be one. Although I talked to plenty of people in finance who didn’t do an MBA or even have a college degree, but I think that’s difficult to do. In general, what I hear most from people who hire is that the best candidates are the ones who walk in and say “This is my dream job” and say it persuasively. That’s infinitely more of a qualification than anything else. I used to hire interns at The Nation, and I almost never looked at resumes. Those cover letters was what got people in for an interview.

This is starting to sound like the best idea ever. But what are the downsides? 

You have to make the time and you have to find the self-discipline, which is really a lot easier to do when you’re working on your own steam. A lot of people I talked to said — and not necessarily unhappily — that they had some holes in their knowledge because they didn’t go to school. Because no one had forced them to take pre-1700 History or something. But they don’t necessarily feel like it’s hurt them.

So if you’re not going to grad school, what can you spend your money on instead? How many brunches at Roberta’s could you get with your tuition funds?

One of the things people reported as an amazing learning experience was extensive, intensive travel. So I’d say quit your job and take a big trip. While you’re there, talk to a lot of people who live in that place. If you’re entrepreneurially inclined, start a business. Most of the people I talked to who are in business said to skip business school and put the money into starting an actual business. Even if it fails, you learn everything that way.

Don’t Go Back to School will be released in the fall of 2012. This Friday (April 20), she will be among the ten speakers at the Skillshare Penny Conference, a symposium for higher education alternatives. Find more information about Kio and her work on her website.

Kio’s recommended resources:
The Public School: “For those interested in fancy liberal arts grad school kinds of thinking, they run really interesting classes”
Skillshare: “A really wide range of classes for people who want to share all sorts of knowledge” (and where Kio will be at the Penny Conference, presenting on formal education alternatives, on April 20)
Hackerspaces.org: “You can find open nights where you can learn with other people”
iTunesU: “Free class podcasts, you can find really good stuff here”
AskMetaFilter: “For finding textbooks in any subject, and a community of field experts weighing in on what the best materials are”
OpenCulture.com: See their list of 425 Best Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Follow Karina: @Karinabthatsme.

8 Comment

  • It must be nice to have the money to travel…via quitting your job(???), the money to start a business without working (because you were traveling) and holes in your knowledge that leave you with no shot at employment.

    Zappos may not look at resumes but I’m fairly certain everyone else does. This woman is doing a disservice to a lot of people by saying “quit school, quit work, travel, start a business.” She’s living in a dream world.

    • Actually, Kio acknowledged this fact – that most of the time, people will be taking out loans and realistically, don’t have the money up front to then spend on other things – but for the sake of condensing, we ended up editing that out.

  • Sorry, but this is kind of silly. IT may be plausible for some fields, such as American Studies, but for many others, you simply need to take classes to learn the material. My field, for instance, is statistics. It would be very difficult to be self-taught in this field. Coursework helps a lot.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lauren. Do you think coursework is particularly limited to the classroom? The idea here is that people can create their own “coursework”, using actual textbooks, resources like OpenCourseware, experts or people who can give input, etc. While grad school may give you a specific infrastructure in which to learn statistics, learning the materials is not limited to grad school. I haven’t read the book, but after speaking with Kio, it was more clear that other fields besides just the humanities could apply this approach, even though the challenges might be different or greater.

      • In my case, yes it did help a great deal to take actual courses. For one, there was a syllabus, which was a guideline of what exactly we needed to be learning, and in what order. It also helped to be able to listen to a professor lecture, with the opportunity to ask questions, and to gain insight from the questions asked by other students. It helped to study for exams and to work on assignments with other students. I also often went to my professors’ or TAs’ office hours. Basically, if I got stuck on a concept, it was helpful to have professors, TAs, and other students to go to for help.

  • Everyone in the academy knows that American Studies isn’t even a real doctoral program. Its all just interdisciplinary quackery.

  • I’m sure some people have used this approach and found it to be successful, but I don’t think it would work for me. I just finished my master’s thesis in educational theory, and I found in my studies that learning doesn’t just come from books or experts; it’s a collaborative, collective process. Many contemporary educators focus on community building and student-driven curricula, which sounds a lot like what Kio is saying, except that it is still within a structured environment, and you’re benefiting from the insights of others. Self-education isn’t that innovative an idea. Emerson and Thoreau were preaching it over a century ago, but educational theorists since have understood that more happens in classrooms than just lectures and reading textbooks.

    On top of that, there’s something to be said for having some skin in the game. A motivated person doesn’t need graduate school the same way a motivated person doesn’t need to belong to a gym to get in shape. It’s even harder with education, as you become reliant on the dedication of others to help create the learning environment with you. I have trouble keeping book clubs together, and that’s just for fiction.

  • I think learning is possible anywhere.The knowledge gained in the classroom, you need to be sure in practice.