© 2018 SMART Labs @ Wayne. Photos by Jake Mulka.

title.  Back to school: Grad edition.

date. 09.05.2017

author. Allison Elam (allisonbrettelam@gmail.com)

Today marks the first day back to school for many students across the country. Maybe you're considering whether or not to begin a new program yourself? The decision to attend a graduate program can be a difficult one. If you’re passionate about taking the leap, it can be a tough but worthwhile experience whether you’re fresh out of undergrad or a seasoned professional. 

 

A lot of people will tell you that your undergraduate career is the prime time for academic, professional and self-exploration, and that’s true. You may find yourself hemming and hawing about which major will take you where you want to go, or contemplating if that minor in a foreign language is really worth it.

 

I explored quite a bit in my undergrad career. In my senior year, I got involved with Dr. Stephanie Tong’s research team. Being a part of a research team with both master's and doctoral students sparked my interest, and the experience helped me uncover my passion for scholarly research.

 

But the harder part of self-exploration that people don’t always talk about happens when you’re standing in your cap and gown, diploma in hand, asking yourself: “What’s next?” That’s when you need to make some serious life choices.

 

Personally, I decided to continue my studies shortly after my undergrad. It wasn’t easy to decide to continue; I contemplated pursuing work in my field, taking a gap year, applying for a Fulbright scholarship, or even starting my own dog walking business. I asked my friends, family, and professors what they thought would be best for me. Their guidance and thoughtful advice was helpful, but they couldn’t make my decision for me. It had to be my own.

 

That research sparked during my undergrad years gave me stuck with me as I interned at various companies and interviewed for jobs. When I found myself picking up books strictly from the social science section of the bookstore, my next step became clear to me. I made a serious life choice and took the leap. I was eager to pursue what I had previously been so passionate about, but I was also scared beyond belief.

 

I was afraid of the stigma of academia. People said my goal of obtaining a Ph.D. was my own personal way of avoiding the “real world.” I was told the fun of undergrad was over, and now it was time to “get to work.” It was nervous that I would fall behind and not have enough on my resume to be employable if my hopes of being an academic failed and I was forced to make another move.

 

But after my first year of grad school (and adding a lot more to my resume), I can firmly say that sentiment is a misconception. Being in a graduate program is work. More importantly, it’s hard work.

 

As in any school--elementary to University--a grad program is what you make it. You have to open yourself up to the experience of creating knowledge, and that is not easy. The viewpoints you hold close will be challenged, and more often than not, it's uncomfortable. If you want to add to your resume and perform to your standards, you have to be willing to make personal sacrifices. Your time is valuable, and making the most of it while balancing your personal life can be difficult.

 

The sacrifices you make, like missing your favorite band to go to a lecture, are replaced with rewards. A graduate program helps you understand the value of teamwork, collaboration and interdisciplinary pursuits. Sure, you’ve seen those things your whole life. But their meaning is entirely different in grad school; you learn that outside perspectives, learning from your peers, and incorporating different approaches to your work isn’t just useful when solving complex problems. It's vital.

 

Before grad school, I was used to stopping in for my professor's’ office hours and clarifying content for the next exam, but I was not used to digging deeper. Most of the time, I was super nervous to even speak with them. But grad school teaches you that your professors aren’t the scary know-it-alls that put questions on exams to trip you up like they seemed to be in undergrad. They are there to work with you and want to hear your ideas. They might not always have the answers, but they have the tools and experience to help you succeed and want to help you find solutions. You learn that your professors will push you, offer clarification when needed (and usually only then, otherwise they’ll likely tell you to keep thinking until you figure it out). 

 

The last and biggest change I’ll mention is how your style of thinking evolves. In undergrad, I memorized; I didn't always think. I had to get used to doing a lot of it, and had to become comfortable being patient with myself and my thinking. In undergrad, everything moves fast. You’re hurrying through assignments and exams, and then you’re headed to your internship.

 

Grad school slows you down and widens the scope. Your midterms and finals are replaced with lengthy papers and proposals, which usually all build on each other. But in the end, you created something no one can take away from you. This type of thinking takes both consistent work and time, and it can sometimes be frustrating. It’s good to take time and observe the world around you, step away, but always come back. You can’t finish a large-scale research project like you could a six page research paper, and that’s okay. Grad school teaches you the importance of allowing yourself the time it takes to do big things.

 

If you’re contemplating a graduate program, know that is not an easy choice to make, and it isn’t meant to be one. If you do some serious self-exploration and find yourself taking the leap, grad school can be one of the most challenging, yet rewarding times of your life.