This past December I bid adieu to my graduate school experience. With a mix of emotions, I happily smiled upon my summa cum laude graduation status and tucked away the mountainous stacks of research and textbooks.
For the first time in 10 years, I’m no longer a student. This sits awkwardly in my chest and allows far too much free time for daydreaming. Now that it’s all said and done, the extra “M.S.” notation on my résumé doesn’t even begin to capture the experience. Looking back over the endless research and work, I can confidently say that the real lessons of graduate school aren’t found in the textbooks, advising meetings, or thesis arguments.
Real Lesson #1: The stress could always be worse.
As an undergraduate, I can’t begin to count the number of times I uttered, “I’m so stressed.” And when I was a graduate student, I spent many nights wishing for my undergraduate freedom back. Whether you are a fresh-faced 18-year-old starting college with no responsibilities outside of academia, or a 28-year-old working full-time and attending school, the stress could always be worse. Graduate school helps you keep it all in perspective, and pushes you to reflect back on different times of your life.
Real Lesson #2: If you think you know what you want in life, you have no idea.
I originally had the goal of becoming a department chair for a university. But the graduate school experience had another plan for me, as it does for so many people. I now have no real plans for my degree, but a solid business plan to start my farm. Grad school pushes you to face yourself, your passions, and your abilities. The experience urges you to examine if you want the career and lifestyle you are pursuing. You may enter a doctor wannabe, and leave as a missionary. The possibilities are endless.
Real Lesson #3: The experience (good or bad) is in the eye of the beholder.
In honor of being authentic, I can admit that I had more than one meltdown during grad school. Every free second of your day is dedicated to academic pursuits, leaving very little patience and wherewithal for the rest of life. Be patient and gentle with yourself; the time will pass either way and you can either enjoy the ride (the up’s and down’s) or fight it tooth and nail. The experience and choice are yours.
Real Lesson #4: Your “best” is always changing.
I completed my undergraduate degree in a fairly normal student fashion: lots of campus clubs, plenty of social blunders, and grades scattered from A to D. In stark comparison, I completed my graduate degree with a cumulative 4.0 GPA and the respect of my professors, but had virtually no social or personal life for two years. At different times in life, you have different capabilities of your “best”. What was your best at 18 will not be your best at 28. That doesn’t take away from either experience, it simply shows your journey.
Real Lesson #5: Similar to hard times, you’ll find out who is really there for you.
Bluntly put, grad school temporarily turns you into a selfish hole of your former self. You have to put your research (and nothing else) first if you hope to earn the degree. In the end, you’ll find out who is really there for you. They are the people still cheering you on at 3:00AM when you have 20 pages left to write of your 100 page thesis. They are the people who don’t cringe during the fourth round of venting about the internal review board. They are your cheerleaders and your strength; thank them, praise them, and remind them you couldn’t have survived the experience without them.
What life lessons did you learn in school?