Why did I decide to go to grad school?

February 23, 2020

To be blunt, I decided to go to grad school for all the wrong reasons. My inner-critic was very loud at the time and the life-changing effects of anxiety medication and therapy had not yet entered my life. I was one year out of undergrad, living with my parents, and desperately searching for a recognizable path to success. Basically, I was in my early twenties and tired of feeling like I was frolicking around with no real direction.  Acquaintances would regularly ask me “where are you working and living now?” and I hated my lack-of an answer. So, why not go back to school?

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade my graduate experience. It was damn hard, but that was mostly the pressure I put on myself, not the actual program. However, if you’re coming to the end of your junior year of college or, like I was, trying to find the easy path after a few years away from school, I’d like to offer some advice:

  1. Do not go to grad school just because it’s the next step in the educational process. Grad school is like 4 years of college squished into 2 years with very little of the fun. Your intellect will expand immensely and your view of the world will definitely change, but free time will be rare. Do not go to grad school just to add it to your resume. ESPECIALLY if you’re going into even more debt for the program.
  2. Do your very best to find an alternative way to cover the cost. I was in a program that covered the cost of attending in exchange for teaching and TA experience. Were my small cohort and I underpaid? Probably. But I left the University of Minnesota with my master’s degree and no student debt. I realize this is not how most grad programs are structured, but there are ways to go back  to school without paying. If you can find a job that will support your education while working, do it. Get to work and do some research to find options. 
  3. Go to grad school for something you are genuinely interested in. If you choose to go to grad school, your life for the next 2-3 years is going to be heavily invested in learning about one topic. Graduate school is designed to hone your knowledge in one area so you can be an expert on the topic and use those skills in the appropriate position. Therefore, if you’re not really interested in the field in which you’re gaining expert knowledge, you’re going to want to bail in the first semester. 
  4. Don’t “should” yourself into grad school. Is a masters degree helpful in the long run in a professional setting? Yes. But so is experience, free internal training, professional conference attendance, mentorship programs, and more.  The “I feel like I should go to grad school because… my parents said I should, my friends are going, my older sibling did, it seems like a good idea, I don’t have a good job yet, I’ve always said I wanted to do this….” reasons are not good reasons to go back to school
  5. Check your mental health before jumping into school. Grad school is mostly reading and writing with some interaction thrown in. For many, myself included, this process can feel very isolating.  Check in with yourself to determine whether or not you’re in a healthy place to spend a lot of time alone while reading and writing. This is one of the bigger reasons I struggled in my first semester. It’s a difficult transition that’s made easier with a support system there to cheer you on (thanks, Mom). Also, if you’re going to any kind of critical media program or a public service oriented/ social justice program, be prepared to feel angry and sad… like a lot. 
  6. Go to grad school if it’s something you want for yourself and your goals. You’re the one investing the time and money, so make sure it’s something you want to do because it will help you grow into the person you want to be. I will never be one to say education is a waste of time, but it should be a very personal desire that you feel passionate about and excited to begin. If you feel something other than that, take a beat and reflect on what the underlying pressure might be. 

On the other hand, I hope you’re never too afraid to go back to school and take yourself a step further in the same or a new career. Education is a gift you can give yourself, but it takes so much more than a simple desire to learn. Discipline, perseverance, blood, sweat, tears, lack of sleep, stress, and quite possibly feeling like an idiot for the first couple of weeks are all necessary to get you to that finish line. Trust me, when you’re in it, that finish line will come along faster than you realize. You may develop a love/hate relationship with the process, but in the end you’re going to feel immensely proud of yourself knowing you finished the degree and that can never be taken away from you.  

If you’re debating the grad school question, I’d be happy to chat with you! Send an email to camryn.c.nelson@gmail.com 

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