Should This Guy Go Back to School?

It seems like I’ve been getting more of these kinds of emails lately:


I have been a big fan of your financial blog for quite some time, and I always check in every day to see what new topic has been posted.

Your July 8 post kind of touched on something in my life, somewhat. A little background: I graduated about seven years ago with a master’s degree in English. Since that time, I’ve been stuck in dead-end jobs that pay very little. It’s my fault, really. I pursued a degree in college that I knew would not lead to many professional opportunities, but I wasn’t thinking at the time.

For the past six-and-a-half years, I’ve been slaving away as a low-paid copywriter for a mid-size international company. My pay barely budges, despite the extra work that I take upon myself, coming in early every day, leaving late, working weekends, etc. As a result, it’s been difficult to put money aside for retirement (so far, I’ve only managed to save $30,000 in my 401(k), and I’m 37 years old) and savings.

After pondering my poor paycheck and job prospects, I’ve been contemplating a return to college, majoring in either business or engineering. The main problem is money. I plan on returning to college in January, 2009, but I’ll only have about $6000 in my savings and my 401(k) money. I have no debt right now, and no family to provide for, so that’s not a problem. However, it took me years to pay off debt that I incurred in college the first time around (mostly credit cards and an auto loan), so I’m terrified of any debt.

And this is the problem: for me to go back to college, I’ll either need to tap my 401(k) or take out loans. I do not want to tap my 401(k) at all, but the prospect of going back into debt kind of paralyzes me. I hope to work part-time while going to school full-time, but that would only cover rent and not tuition (that is, if I can find a job where I’ll be attending college).

Should I be so scared of student loan debt, considering that it’s not an auto loan or a credit card bill? Do you know if any of your readers have been in a similar quandary?

I’m essentially rebooting my professional career, and I don’t want to screw this help.

Thanks for your time!


Here’s my response:


Have you considered going to your superior and asking them what you can do to advance and earn more money? If you don’t get a straight answer or feel that your opportunities are limited, then consider moving on. Surely someone in your field is making a lot of money. I would find them and learn from them.

“If only I had this degree or that degree…”

Should you go back to college? Well, that’s a call only you can make. I do think too many people use the lack of a particular college degree as an excuse and I’m concerned you might be too. Why do I say that? Because I didn’t see a mention of what you would do with the degree. I’m not knocking a college degree and I realize that sometimes a drastic change is necessary. I think education is important. But, you already have a degree. I know lots of people working in fields that are different from their actual major. My dad met a women who was working at Charles Schwab. She had a history degree.

I think before I went back to college and spent all that money, I would begin a massive networking campaign. I would join every professional organization I could find and become an active member. I would volunteer to serve on boards and committees of those organizations. I would meet as many people in my industry as I could meet.

I would read every trade publication I could find. I would read books that are related to my field but are on aspects of the business that I don’t quite understand. I would start with business management and accounting. I would learn how to read and understand financial statements. I would keep up with what’s going on in the industry. Where’s it headed? What’s the future look like?

That said, all of this is moot if you’re entirely unhappy with your job. If you really don’t like what you’re doing, then maybe going back to school is the solution. I really think you need to ask yourself what you intend to gain by going back to college.

If college is still in the picture and you don’t have the money, then I would DEFINITELY GET A LOAN! Just make sure you don’t borrow any more than you need and make sure everything you borrow is going towards your education. DO NOT use your retirement money to fund your schooling.

Those are my thoughts. I hope you found them helpful. Now I would like to know what AFM readers think. What do you think V.M. should do?

22 thoughts on “Should This Guy Go Back to School?”

  1. I’m with JLP, I work at a college in a development office. There are three biology majors here, what does biology have to do with money? Nothing.

    You could always get a certificate, in a field to. Our college offers certificates in economic crime investigation for instance.

  2. There is plenty of money out there for people with English degrees. Writing is a skill that not many people have and it’s in high demand. It just took me six months to find two writers for a training firm. I’d recommend looking into careers like technical writing, proposal writing, or writing business training. Just get some books at the library to help transfer your writing skills to these fields. Or take one or two courses at a community college. No need to get an entire new degree.

  3. I would hate to see this person drop out, go back to school, borrow and spend a ton of money on tuition, and then end up in the same situation. Just racking up another degree and hoping it leads to a better job is not the answer. It makes more sense to look around and see what career or specific job you would like, with decent employment prospects, and then figure out what the education requirements are. It may not necessarily be another degree.

    They might ask about a tuition reimbursement program at their existing job and if it is available use it to pick up some more marketable skills. My daughter has used that route to pay for most of her college education. It is worth asking about.

  4. My father advised me half way through my career to look for opportunities in the tech sector. At that point I was quickly moving up the corporate ladder using my marketing degree and MBA, but still making 1/2 of what my non-degreed programming friends were making. I found someone to teach me DBA skills and worked for two years in that field. The combination of tech skills and the degrees has tripled my income over the past five years. Look for ways to leverage your degree in the tech sector. The money is way better and the treatment of employees is also a lot better.

  5. A couple of thoughts:

    – 6 and a half year at a dead end job – 1st and only job after college? It’s time to move on. See if you can find a better paying job. It’s time to go where the job is. If I didn’t have a family, I would look all over the US to the best paying job you can find. I think you limit yourself to the kind of job you think an English major should get. Having an English major should not prevent you from getting into Marketing, or Sale, or other areas of business. Go on interviews, apply for different kind of jobs – get in on the bottom if you have to.

    – If the only way you think to increase your pay is to go back to school, how about night school? You can even try to ask your employer to pay some, if not all of it. If your employer does not pay, find a job that does. There are many employers out there that have tuition reimbursement as a part of their benefit. It might take longer, but you have no family obligation so that should not be an issue. After I graduated from college, my 2nd company paid for the classes I took after work.

    – Like JLP said – network. Find out how some of the people that has an English major, now working in other fields. Ask them how they make the change. Find a mentor. Why invent something that has already been done. If you ask, most people would not mind sharing their success story.

    Good luck !!!

  6. I have no degree and am making six figures as a programmer analyst in the banking industry. My boss has a degree in anthropology. I say forget about getting another degree, figure out the type of job you want, start out at the bottom, learn everything you can and work your way up!

  7. Are you considering going back as an undergrad or grad? With one degree, there is no need to go back as an undergrad.
    You could consider law school – sure it may take loans, but it’s only 3 years and lawyers are doing OK.

    Are you thinking of any specific engineering program? If you are considering CS as well and have some math aptitude, you may be interested to know that some universities have a special graduate program for those whose undergrad wasn’t in a technical field. For example, among state schools, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – which is a state university but its CS grad program was rated among top 5 in the US – has a special degree called M.C.S. for those whose undergrad wasn’t in CS. English is OK, I knew a woman whose undergrand was in French and who was getting an M.C.S. there. Outside of UIUC nobody knows of the difference between M.C.S. – a non-thesis program that accepts those with non-CS bachelors degrees and their normal MS/CS digree. Online M.C.S. requires some programming experience, but there is no such requirement for the on-campus program, you’d just need to take a few more classes while there. Also, they have a really good assistanship program and an almost constant shortage of TAs. With no CS experience it may be difficult to get an assistantship position right away, but after the first year, you may qualify. This would reduce the cost.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with JLP on this one – if you really want to switch, you don’t need a college degree in that field. You’d have to work your way up anyways, without that industry experience.

    With your work ethic and networking, you’ll be flying in no time.

  9. I have a master’s in applied linguistics (TESOL) and am able to save 3 – 4K per month. How? I live in Asia and teach EFL at a university. By the way, I also get 20 weeks of vacation – paid, and free housing! Have you ever considered teaching English abroad? Your degree is exactly what these jobs require.

    Good luck from H

    PS. The girls here are very beautiful too!

  10. I am the same age as this guy and have gone through a somewhat similar process — although maybe in reverse? I studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad and worked as an engineer for over a decade. During that time, I got an MBA in a part-time program and fell in love with economics. I was debt-free, had no mortgage to pay, and no family to feed and always wanted to teach college. So I made the plunge and am currently working on my PhD in Economics full-time and qualified for a fellowship for my school’s dual PhD/JD (law degree) program. I just finished my third year of my PhD and first year of law school.

    Here are a few words of advice from my own journey:

    1) If you don’t have any debt and don’t enjoy what you do, change. There’s no reason you have to stay where you are. Be wise with your move and make sure you have your next landing pad before making the jump, but don’t feel trapped into staying where you are. Remember, there are a ton of ways to make a live a comfortable life in the US and many of them do not require a new degree.

    2) Read “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko” by Daniel Pink. It has some of the best career advice I’ve ever read and is written in the form of a comic book. You can easily read it in an hour.

    3) Have a clear definition of your goal. Studying “business or engineering” is a very broad goal. Specify. Have a clear idea in mind. If you already have your master’s in English, why not consider an MBA? It will probably take less time than a second bachelor’s degree and require much less make-up work than transitioning from English into engineering. (Unless you have a very strong mathematical background.) Having a clear goal is particularly important for helping make sure you complete whatever program you start. Going back to school after having been out for a while can be a bit of a shock. (Trust me, I know!)

    4) Pay attention to the accreditation of the school. For good or for ill, this matters to the marketplace. If you study engineering, make sure it is at an ABET accredited school. If you study business, make sure it is at an AACSB accredited school. Particularly for business schools, there are a lot of schools out there that offer the promise of an additional degree – particularly business ones. I have had several friends go to them and they usually end up stuck with a lot of debt and little return on the time and money they invested into their extra education.

    5) If you go for an MBA, consider a part-time program – particularly if your employer will help pay. I got my MBA this way and it gave me the flexibility to stay debt-free and continue on to my PhD afterwards.

    6) Do not raid your 401k! In economics, there’s an idea called “diminishing marginal utility of wealth” which says that every dollar you make is worth slightly less to you than the dollar before it. To illustrate, consider how much an extra $10,000 per year would change the life of someone who only made $10,000 per year. It would provide him with much greater opportunities, right? If someone made $100,000 per year, an extra $10,000 per year would be nice, but not life changing. If someone made $1,000,000 per year, an extra $10,000 would barely even show up on his radar. The intuition is that your first $10,000 you make in a given year is worth more than the next $10,000 you make that year, which in turn is worth more than the next $10,000.

    What does this have to do with a 401k and student loans? The idea behind saving today for retirement is that you skim off some of the less valuable dollars you make today and save it for the future when you have a lower income (retirement) and get more value out of those dollars. Taking out a student loan works the same way, but in reverse. You are skimming off the top portion of your future income (the less valuable dollars) and using it now when your income is low and those dollars are more valuable. I hope this makes sense.

    Bottom line: Borrowing within reason for education is a good idea — IF you expect it will help significantly boost your salary after you are done. Raiding your 401k to fund your education is not. The earlier you start investing for retirement the more time it has to grow. Raiding the account for school is counterproductive and will negatively impact your financial future more than student debt will. (If the debt is kept within reason.)

    7) Where you go to school matters. Particularly if you get an MBA. Make sure either the engineering or business degree is accredited (see #4). Be careful of schools that basically function as degree mills. The harder it is to get into, the more valued employers will probably consider the degree. (For example, if you go for an MBA, avoid schools that don’t require the GMAT.)

    8) Research the expected salaries of your potential options. If you’re changing for the sake of enjoyment, I’d encourage you to do so, but avoid debt as much as possible. If you’re changing to make a higher salary and get better opportunities, make sure you weigh the expected long-term payoffs of your various alternatives.

    9) Try to keep debt low. A lot of my friends in law school are up to their necks in debt and only a minority of them will come out making six-figure salaries. A lot will probably come out with close to six-figure debt. That is not a good situation to be in.

    10) Don’t be too debt averse. I’ve probably made the mistake of being a little to debt averse in my graduate education. I worked part-time during the first year of my PhD program (in addition to my fellowship), competing with many people who had been studying economics all their life whereas I was struggling with math I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I would have greatly benefitted from some extra time for both studying and de-stressing that first year. I’ve had to play catch-up ever since. My wallet is thankful, but it made for a rocky return to the life of a full-time student.

    11) Like JLP wrote, don’t get too fixated on the “magic” of a new degree. I am getting a PhD because it’s a barrier to entry into becoming a college professor. While I’ve been enjoying what I’ve been learning, the most important economic concepts that I enjoy the most are what you could learn from reading a basic microeconomics textbook such as Greg Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics”.

    12) If you do focus on getting an undergraduate degree, keep in mind that the more quantitative it is, the more valued it is in the marketplace. This translates into how much you should consider borrowing. If it’s a highly quantitative discipline, higher levels of school loans are more advisable.

    13) If you’re planning on getting a second bachelor’s (or master’s) degree and have ruled out the MBA, have you considered a degree in economics? Econ grads have very good long-term earning potential (beating out many engineering disciplines in the long-run), it can be a fun subject, and can help teach some valuable skills for financial management on a personal level. It also makes the news a lot more interesting to read. Finance would be another good choice for similar reasons. Other business majors may not be worth it financially to pursue at an undergraduate level. (I doubt an undergraduate business management or marketing degree will put you in much better shape than your master’s degree in English.)

    14) Don’t underestimate what you already know or the skills you already have. Getting a master’s in English is no easy task. I would infer from that you have a love of reading and writing. These are both very valuable skills. Leverage them in job searches. With those credentials, you are qualified to teach at a community college (something that would be conducive to earning an income while going back to school), be a writer for a wide variety of situations, and probably have most of the education you’d need for marketing and/or journalistic oriented careers.

    15) Don’t ignore the financials involved in your decision-making, but don’t let the bottom line be the bottom-line. Life is about more than just maximizing the number in your bank account. There’s merit and enjoyment in learning. If you can do so in a financially responsible way and it is something you truly enjoy, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing another degree even if it ultimately doesn’t make you better off financially. Just try to minimize the long-term financial effect it will likely have on you.

    These are just a few quick thoughts from someone who has gone back to school.

    Also, here are a few blog posts I’ve written on related topics:


  11. I agree with almost everything everyone’s said so far, so here’s a bit of new, additional advice. Should you decide to go back to school for a second degree — and I strongly urge you to consider what folks have said so far about retooling without reschooling — consider looking for a job at a university with a good program in the field of your choice and enrolling as a part-timer while working for the university full-time. Most universities offer significant tuition discounts to employees and their dependents. I should know; I earned a master’s degree in library science while working as a library assistant in my university’s science library. It was a tough two-and-a-half years; the library assistant’s job paid pennies, and I ate a lot of ramen during that time. But I got my degree and paid about $72.00/semester for it (two night classes a semester at $6.00/credit hour, plus fees), along with some additional taxes (the feds tax the difference between regular tuition and the discounted tuition rate as earned income; it’s still a sweet deal). You don’t necessarily have to work in an academic capacity to qualify for the discount; one of my classmates was a nurse’s aide in the university medical center, and another was a custodian. And if you’re already making peanuts as a copywriter, maybe a low-paying file clerk job won’t make much of a difference to your lifestyle — and even the folks with scut jobs at most universities get health, dental and retirement bennies. Twenty odd years and an associate professorship later, I can honestly say that the harsh times were definitely worth it. Good luck with whatever decision you make!

  12. You’ve got one of the best majors you can have. The ability to communicate well in writing and verbally is the best skill you can have. Don’t sell yourself short. If you’re stuck in a dead end postion, get out and get another job. Do that until you find the right fit. Few jobs out there are directly related to anything you learn in college. The aim of college is to teach one to think and solve problems, not to learn a trade. That, coupled with the ability to communicate is all you need to succeed. Many companies are looking for people with those abilities. They have problems to solve that don’t have textbook remedies, but that need fresh and innovative thinking. You already have the tools to do that. Find the job that will let you put them to work. You’ve got enough learning; you need to start earning.


  13. And by the way, if at some point you do need a particular skill at your job or in advance of a new job, you can usually get it a community college, where you can attend at hours compatible with your work schedule. There you can find down to earth courses, often taught by professionals in the field who can relate more directly to your real world needs. The courses won’t break you and you’ll find the instructors often willing to work with you one-on-one on your individual requirements. It’s also good for networking too. Many of the instructors are looking for promising students to work for their companies or are knowledgeable of opportunities elsewhere.

  14. Get over it! You are 37 years old and you want to start all over now??? I would look for other opportunities using the English degree that you already have. Nobody is going to hire a 40 year old in an entry level job. I know I would rather hire a fresh new college graduate than some 40 year old who didn’t know what he wanted in life early on and now has higher salary expectations. The statistics bear me out…a lot of the unemployed are in their 40s and 50s…

  15. My advise would be to look at what you like/dislike about your job and peruse job requirements for the job you want. Evaluate how the skills you already have will fit that new position and begin building on what you already know. Take a class, read up on a new topic, speak to people in your field.

    If you decide to go back to school, I believe its important to know what type of job you will be looking for or what company your interested in wants from new hires. Use the job requirements for the job you want dictate the course of your school work.

    There is no reason for anybody to remain in an entry level job for 6 years.

  16. My husband and I both have English degrees and we’re doing alright. I took the traditional route and became a teacher, which isn’t a high paying job but has great job security, once you’re tenured, and really good benefits in most places. My husband has done tech writing, project management, quality management, and proposal writing, all for companies who mostly employ engineers. In other words, if you’ve got engineering jobs in your area, you’ve got those kind of jobs too. And he never took any tech/business writing courses–he’s done all this with just a plain old bachelor’s degree in English.

  17. You can consider getting a Masters in Instructional Design. This degree goes well with English. And there is a fairly abundant number of jobs in the field. You just have to look at the job board.

    Also it only takes one year full-time and in some universities you can do it part time. In addition if you enroll at large schools like Florida State, University of Georgia and Indiana or Penn State which have some of the best programs, you can just get a parttime job on campus or off campus to help you out. But there is also the option of doing the Masters online too.

    I know lots of people myself included in their late 30s and 40s who have done a Masters in this field and got jobs fairly quickly.

    In the company I am working for, we have been trying to fill two ID positions for the past 4 months but have not been able to.

    So this is one of the many options you can consider.

    I agree with the sentiments of many of the comments that you should build on your currents degree and skills. Unless of course you are completely bored with it. You should consider reading the book, What color is your Parachute by Richard Bolles which shows you how to transition from one career to another.

    I also agree that you should take some time out to have a goal….a clear idea of what you want to do before making any major decisions.

    The best of luck!

  18. Why not parlay your established degree and experience into the business or engineering world? Think advertising, marketing, or sales- they all require similar skills to what you already possess. Ask of hire someone who is knowledgeable about career coaching. They can help you turn your strengths into industry specific skills.

    Ex: You’re a good writer vs. Excellent written and verbal communication skills OR Strong organizational skills with the ability to handle numerous projects simultaneously with a great attention to detail

  19. I can certainly indentify with the writer. I seem to be fond of learning life’s lessons the hard way too, and have made a number of major career changes during my 20-something years in the working word. This usually required some level of re-education or training. I’ve both had to borrow substantial sums for education, as well as, been fortunate to receive massive doses of company-sponsored training. It’s never really too late: for example, I have a friend who just completed medical school at the age of 40. That said, your age is a consideration. Do you really want to start from scratch in something totally foreign?

    As so many commenters have stated, its important to start out with some concrete objectives. Otherwise, you could end up spending a lot of time and money headed into another dead end. You must figure out what you want to be doing, find people who can help guide you, and only then execute on a plan to get you where you want to go.

    I firmly believe that our failures and screw-ups are an important part of the process of figuring out what we should really be doing with ourselves. So, take heart. At least you’ve figured out that your situation isn’t working for you. Given what you’ve learned, now you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, what you enjoy, etc… as well as how much money you would like to make to feel comfortable with your lifestyle.

    Put all that info together to come up with a plan.

  20. Hey JLP,

    I’m a geography major (hence the nickname) and I work in IT and consulting. I worked some dead-end jobs early on, but once I lasered in on what I really wanted to do, my career track was set. Goal setting and clear vision is essential.

    I have worked in higher education, equities, accounting, software in low-end and low-paying jobs. But I used the tuition reimbursement at one company to take the courses I really needed to change what I was doing. I got a few professional certs paid for by my employers and now I make double what I was making 4 years ago and I’m much happier.

    You don’t need to retool by going to grad school. That is a myth. Follow the advice given by people here. I did very similar things to get where I am.

    You also don’t need to take out loans. Use the benefits you already have. Take a second job on the weekends to pay for night classes. Do what it takes. I think the most I paid was $600-1200 out of pocket for night classes and a lot of Wendy’s fast food which I ate in my car in the school’s parking lot before class. I put my classes on credit cards and waited for reimbursement most of the time.

    I think the reader is discounting their English degree too much. I know folks with only a English degree who leverage their writing skills into great jobs in PR, journalism, etc. The key is to work for someone that values those skils.

    I’d find a personal coach or mentor. I was on a path towards the job I had now, but I had one really terrific boss who really took me under her wing and was my cheerleader. (It helped that she was getting her coaching certification and nudged me to use my tuition benefit with our firm.) Having someone to help clarify goals can make a huge difference in accomplishing them.

    Good luck!

  21. Have you ever thought of starting your own business? Web copy writing is an extremely lucrative field these days, and it’s something you can do at night/weekends until you build up your income. At some point you might be able to work a lot less hours and make multiples more than you make now, without having to go to an office everyday – it’s a great life. I would recommend you learn about internet marketing and see how you can apply your skills there.

    If this is too risky, try and get an entry level marketing job for a tech company – like writing white papers. Tech employees are treated MUCH better and paid MUCH more than any other field. Think about it, companies have to give everybody the same benefits at the company regardless of what they do, yet tech people are hard to find and keep, and you get those same benefits and stock options 🙂

    You can them move up from there, and learning the technical stuff for marketing purposes is not that hard even without a technical background.

  22. I agree with most other posters that your situation doesn’t necessarily require going back to grad school. However, let me also add that other shouldn’t tell you not to go back to school at all, because this may be something you actually want to do (as opposed to just getting a degree for career purposes).

    In my situation, I had political science undergrad (pretty much like english) with a good job in mgmt consulting (one large firm, one boutique). After a few years, the natural thing was to go to B-school, but when it came right down to it, I had no desire for an MBA. It was just what everyone was doing. Further, the OTJ training and experience I had gotten was way more advantageous than an MBA (this is what everyone was reaffirming to me too), including the access to network building that even an HBS MBA wouldn’t provide.

    But, I did have an interest in graduate school, so I chose a specialty masters in finance, b/c what I ultimately wanted to do with my career was in finance, i.e., investment mgmt, etc. So, I am currently finishing that, which I have done while working full time in my current position, which by the way is a very good job. It hasn’t been the easiest, but a masters you can cram through in about 12-18 mos if you work hard (I am scheduled to finish in 15 mos). I also know in Europe, specialty masters are just as highly regarded (if not more) than MBAs, b/c of the focus on specific area, rather than just a general business education that everyone shares.

    Another factor to keep in mind is that many people (I think the far majority) go to B-school for the network, so essentially they’re just paying all that money for the degree and the network, rather than learning material they will really apply. This is another key reason I chose my route – I didn’t want to be in a program where everyone got the same experience and went to do the exact same work (i.e., mgmt consulting, i-banking or tech start-up). Eventually I want to build my own business and needless to say, contacts are important, but I didn’t want to pay $120k to attend HBS so that I could shake hands at social meetings.

    Finally, I agree with the other suggestions about leveraging what you have already better. English is not useless, but it’s a good base to build on. If you’ve been out working for a few years, most firms don’t care as much about your education anyways. Experience is much more highly regarded. Now if you want to make a complete transition (i.e., engineering, etc) then clearly you will need additional training, but figure out what you really want to do and then build a gameplan to go after it.

    If you like your experience and would be open to using the same skills, there are lots of areas you could target IF you had the interest and dedication to improve yourself. For instance, there is PR, advertising, marketing, etc. Also, the political/public policy world is full of english types, b/c you have to know how to write. You also have expanded opportunities in publishing houses, think tanks, research organizations, nonprofits, etc. There’s a lot out there, but if you’re just floating around not knowing what you want (or at least having an idea) then you likely will never move into something you really enjoy.

    So, if you truly WANT to go back to school then do it full speed ahead. Don’t be afraid of some debt. Just make sure you know how to manage it correctly. Work part time or full time if you can. I agree with the suggestions about finding a job at the university where you are. I recommended to a friend of mine who went back to law school after being out a few years to treat it as your full time job, b/c you are indeed getting paid, even if you have to pay that money back. Make it worth it and if you manage it effectively, then it will pay off. If you decide school is indeed not what you need, do what others suggest and work on your network, attend educational conferences, go after certifications, READ, READ, READ. Become an expert. Better yourself and all that good stuff …

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