Deciding to pursue higher education is a big decision. It’s definitely a gamble in today’s economy. You only really win big when you invest big. When I first decided to pursue higher education, I had come to a realization that I want to save the world through art. Honestly, it’s kind of a silly goal and not SMART in anyway, but it was big. I had just finished my first year of AmeriCorps service and only recently graduated in 2011 from undergrad. I knew I wanted to get back into my artsy roots, but I was set on going back to Theatre. I also knew that I want to get more involved in the business aspect of the arts. So I applied to, was accepted, completed all requirements and then some, and graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
When I started my master’s program, I would laugh at all the people who wanted to pursue doctorate schooling. It was such a crazy idea at the time. You pay thousands of dollars for two years, who would want to keep paying money for school for (what seemed like) a relatively low pay-off?
Then I applied (and was accepted) to two doctoral programs in Scotland.
So. Getting your mind right for graduate school, whether it’s a doctoral program or a master’s program or something in-between (does something like that exist?), can really make you rethink many of the thoughts you may have had in the past. And I think that is what makes successful graduate students.
Grad School is About Making Connections
In graduate school a lot of students are older (and more or less wiser), many in their late-20s or 30s, and coming from fulltime jobs in various sectors. It may sound harsh, but a lot of graduate students aren’t looking to make new BFFs. Rather, they are looking to make connections to those in the industry and cultivate colleagues for the future. That’s no reason to write them off as unapproachable, though. I consider the first day of graduate school to be a chance to practice something I like to call: “soft networking”.
Soft networking, to me, is a way of getting to know people informally and finding out how you both relate to each other. It’s less about making a big first impression, and more about making a small connection that can be built upon in future classes and group projects. Many people get nervous about the idea of Networking and feel as if they aren’t good at it. But, soft networking is a way to test your networking chops. Why? Because you’re already going to be work with your classmates anyway, so it helps you remember what their past experiences are, which helps you identify their strengths, and opens up doors to discovering how you might work together in the future.
I tend to think of grad school as a web of orchestrated experience where I can really test out my ideas with a wealth of resources to utilize. It prepares me for the future. And, because I know I’m a very focused and independent worker, it’s helpful to know who I can and should tap on for help and when.
You, Definitely, Know More Than You Think You Do
Being book smart isn’t everything. There’s a lot of theory taught in school before and even during grad school. Someone once told me that many employers don’t care what your major was in undergrad, they care that you “learned how to learn”.
This is true. I’ve worked for many places where the chief executive may have studied English but is running a company that sells houses. There are select fields where a direct degree is important, but many industries are looking for people who are problem solvers.
If you’re able to learn and adjust and solve problems in the practical world, then you will be successful. You’ll be a top of your class, especially in grad school. Nothing will prepare you for the work environment like actually working on a challenging project or in a tough internship, where your understanding of theoretical explanations have to be made into strategic decisions and actions.
There’s a big discussion in a lot of grad schools around theory vs. applied. I’ve found that people who are flexible enough to understand when to use one or the other (or both!) are better poised to rise quickly in the job market. It’s almost the same as the old discourse around thinkers or doers. People can be both thinkers and doers, but many only engage in one or the other for the rest of their lives.
I believe flexibility is the stuff of champions. If I had a quarter for the amount of times my fellow students refused to do something because they a) didn’t know what it was and didn’t think to ask, or b) didn’t understand why taking a new approach would yield better results, then I could probably pay for graduate school ten times over.
One of my favorite things about grad school is that it challenges you to be both a thinker and a doer in a relatively low-risk learning environment. It’ll show you that you really do know more than you probably think you do, or that what you thought you knew doesn’t always work in every situation so it’s okay to adjust. It’s okay to use your theoretical knowledge to forecast multiple solutions to a seemingly unsolvable problem.
(day)Dream Big, There’s No Limit To What Can Be Achieved
Grad school will let you have big dreams. Hell the application process encourages it, for the most part. So, it’s already known that you’re supposed to be able to have big plans and that you’re willing to pursue them, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered applying, right?
The time before school starts is a great opportunity to really dream about what you want the next two to eight years to be about.
Before starting my master’s program, I dreamt about creating a network of arts administrators. I dreamt about working my way up in an arts organization. I dreamt about traveling abroad to learn about arts cultures in other countries.
All of those things happened in unexpected ways. I created a network of black women and supporters who met monthly to discuss cultural issues surrounding the black female identity. I traveled to four different countries in Europe learning about the outsider art movement and culture of the past and present. I started interning for an ephemeral theater company, where I quickly went from an executive level assistant to the finance manager in less than a year.
Dreams can really come true, when you’re flexible, focused, and willing to step back to recognize when it’s happening.
I keep bringing up concept of “flexibility” because having the capacity to adapt to your surroundings is part of being a healthy, strong human. Evolutionarily, we adapt to your environments in order to survive. Professionally, academically, and personally, we can do the same.
Dreaming big is a way to transmit positive projections for the rest of your life. I dream a lot and some of my dreams are really massive. I also try to find a few of the dreams that keep recurring and turn them into reality. More often than not, those dreams come to fruition in an unexpected way. So, it’s important for me to recognize when my dream shows itself and to be flexible enough to enjoy it.
A dream I had when I was in high school was to study in the UK. I now that dream is also a reality. Though it’s not exactly what I thought it would be (again, it never is), it’s amazing to be able to recognize it when it arrives.
When you make a dream reality, then you get to pursue more dreams. There’s not right or wrong way to dream and they don’t have to occur on a schedule. There’s also no limit to how big or how much you can dream.
Get some rest. Right now.
Grad school is a lot of work. It’ll challenge you and change you in so many unexpected ways. You’re going to meet a lot of people, many of whom you’d never think you would actually enjoy spending time with. Your morals and beliefs might even change. And this is all for a better, stronger you.
So get your rest now, if you can.
The first time I went to grad school, I didn’t get but maybe a weeklong break before school started. I was working 50+ hours a week, I was moving from Louisville to Chicago, and I didn’t take any breaths. I went from one job to another and spent the entire week I had off unpacking and setting up Wi-Fi (which was a disaster). I began my master’s degree already feeling critical about everything. Oh, and my estranged father died the weekend of school starting. There just wasn’t any room to really process my life before beginning that new transition. I was so burnt out by the time summer came around in 2014 that I slept for a month! Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but I did sleep a lot during that summer (even though I also started a new job then too… I just can’t stop!)
The second time around for grad school, I FORCED myself to have a summer break. I knew this one was bigger than the first, I was moving across the world! I had to let go of past ways of thinking and doing, so it was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve made. I quit my job and sat around in my apartment in Chicago for a month, before moving whatever would fit in my mom’s trunk back to Indiana. I lived in this transitional space between moving away from Chicago and moving to Glasgow for two months in the guest room of my childhood home.
Resting is hard, but it’s necessary. At first I planned all of my “rest”. Do a little yoga at 6 am, eat a healthy breakfast, write, do some research, read, etc. But then I started to feel tired of that too. I was tired of “resting”. I was truly resting though.
Everyone kept telling me to “get some rest”. And I tended to look at them like: “what are you talking about, I am resting. I’ve got it all planned out!” I finally realized that my kind of rest is really allowing myself to be free from constant planning. I started listening to my body more, and I sat in nature more too. The Indiana summers are hot, but soft rain in the afternoon is one of my favorite moments in summer.
Spending that time to take long breaths in my little space of rest was so VERY necessary. Burnt out is a real thing. It festers in the mind and body, and makes people bitter and jaded. Who would want to start a new degree already half way down that path? I know I didn’t want to make that mistake twice.
Two-thirds of the way into summer, I finally started to enjoy the days before school started and gain clarity by removing all of the built up junk from the past years.