Next stop: grad school? Whether you continue on cruise control from one degree to the next or take a pause for whatever your cause may be, grad school is a huge commitment financially, mentally and emotionally. I survived the grad school rollercoaster and went on to achieve my MFA. Here are eight things I wish I knew before continuing my education.
1. Find alternative payment methods
Student loans are not always the answer to paying for your education. Research scholarships and grants before you apply. Some schools offer financial aid in exchange for grad assistant positions, where you can teach undergrads in exchange for tuition fees. There are also research grants/positions that involve assisting a professor with a research project and could defray some of your costs. Often, depending on the field of work, employers will offer tuition reimbursement programs, so knowing where you want to work first may be a plus.
2. Know the time commitment
Look at your current lifestyle. Can you realistically make time for grad school? I attended class two nights a week for about three hours. Prep for those classes required reading and writing assignments which often kept me home on weekends (because I also worked two part-time jobs) and reading on my lunch breaks. I had very little time for plain old fun. Consider what’s workable for you.
3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Don’t expect a total life transformation once you mount that shiny, new degree on the wall. Starting out, you imagine yourself reaching the mountain top and achieving this impressive credential. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a BIG deal, and you should definitely pat yourself on the back, but the work hasn’t ended, it’s only begun. Now it’s up to you to put all that acquired knowledge to work in the real world. Take your experience pitching story ideas in class and apply it at a publishing panel. If your dream is to write, introduce yourself to an editor you admire. If you’ve had your eye on a big tech company, set up an information session with a representative there. Degree in hand, keep it moving.
4. Make friends
Ok, so you won’t be everyone’s friend. Some people you just won’t like, or won’t like you. Keep in mind the contacts/relationships you build in school will be just as, if not more, important than the formal education you receive. Think twice about writing off the girl who smacks her chewing gum like a cow and never lets anyone finish a sentence during workshop discussions. She could be the person who connects you to an agent or recommends you to freelance for her employer.
5. Use your student status
Don’t just use it for the discounts at The Gap or the burrito joint. All students need proper dress and quality Mexican food, but even more valuable are the job opportunities and internships afforded to you as a student. Trust me and take full advantage. There will be a time when you are no longer eligible, for lack of a badly-photographed student ID, to apply to be in some of the coolest learning environments you could dream of. Go for the internships at big name publishers like Hearst and HarperCollins, or apply to apprentice with an engineer at your local power company. Your student status will get you in the door.
6. Embrace “The Real World”
You and several strangers are picked to study in a program and find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. Expect to learn more than what’s on the curriculum. Not only will you learn the “tricks of the trade” but prepare to take notes on how all the tricks affect everyone around you as they prepare to take on the trade. Grad school is an intense training where under varying degrees of stress and pressure you learn a lot about folks…and yourself. In my second semester, after struggling with class participation and feelings of inadequacy, I visited the school psychologist to help conquer my resurfacing anxiety attacks.
7. Compete if you must, but don’t compare
Comparing is for suckers and most certainly a loser’s going to be better than you at one thing or another. Gone are the high school days of assigning labels: Best Dressed, Most Popular, Most Likely to Succeed, etc. Grad school is about being YOUR best, not THE best. So, take note of your fellow student’s organization skills and beef up your own. Invite that super-articulate, close-reading phenom of a teacher’s pet to coffee and pick her brain. Allow what you see as others’ strengths and weaknesses to assist in developing the best possible version of you.
8. Understand the truth
Grad school may not be the ONLY way to get where you want to go career-wise. I know this is not what you’re expecting to hear, but it’s true. Depending on what field you are in or what you’d like to end up doing for work, there may be alternative routes to get there. Additional knowledge and actual real world experience can go a long way when paired together.
If you’re a writer like me, local colleges may offer seminars or classes on freelancing or blogging to boost your income and take you to that next level. Is IT your thing? Refine your skills and increase your earning potential by obtaining one of many certifications like Certified Information Security Manager or Certified ScrumMaster. Sometimes these smaller steps in the direction of a degree may be all you need. Or they can act as a stepping-stone on your path to grad school.