The Real Lessons of Graduate School.

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.

Climbing Up the Career Ladder / from

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.

Reality of Grad School / from

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.

Keep Calm & Graduate / from

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?

45 responses to “The Real Lessons of Graduate School.

  1. Isn’t that the truth!

  2. Wonderful post Caitlin! And CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!!
    Going to pass this on to a dear friend of mine who is in his final semester. Think he will really appreciate your words of wisdom!

  3. Sounds like a great journey – congrats on all your hard work – now enjoy it! Xx

  4. truth and wisdom. and congratulations.

  5. I know how it feels, except the cumulative 4.00 GPA, mine was worse 🙂 🙂
    and #5 was the sweetest lesson for me, my best friends even stayed at my room for cheering me 😀

  6. I’ve grappled a lot with the grad school option and just haven’t been able to convince myself to go back. Thanks so much for sharing your authentic experience and congratulations on the M.S. and the new adventures that it brings into your life. When I went into undergrad, a family friend wrote me a card that said, “Don’t let school get in the way of your college education.” So true in so many ways.

    • Kelly, even though I loved my graduate school experience and I’m proud of how hard I worked, I can say that for me (personally), looking back – I’m not sure if I would do it again. I grew a lot as a person in the past two years, maybe thanks to grad school or maybe just because of life. But either way, I now have more student debt and a flickering passion for the area I studied. Some people swear by graduate school and continuing education, but I just don’t think it was the right track for me. If there was more of a financial payoff to earning the degree, it would be. Maybe time will tell 🙂

  7. I hope you start of farm. 🙂 congratulations!

  8. congrats girl! been there, done that, and came out alive. and don’t you worry, you don’t have that “free time” feeling for long, so embrace it!

    • It’s funny you mention that, because I was just starting to feel like the ‘free time’ is now being eaten up by other ‘have to’s’. Either way, I’m going to enjoy not being a student and never having to argue a thesis again! 🙂 Thanks for your kindness.

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more, Caitlin! Grad school is not for the vaguely interested or the faint of heart. It kicks your butt, turns you into a social recluse, and adds to the student loan debt you started in your undergraduate years. Yet, it is by far more fulfilling than I would have ever imagined. I liked learning for the sake of exploring topics that were interesting to me with like-minded people who were also enjoying the ride. Sure, some classes sucked and I had to give up an entire summer to hole up in the library writing my capstone project, but it will be a time of my life that I look back on fondly. Congratulations on getting through it and realizing what your true dreams are. 🙂

    • Jessica, I was really surprised by how fulfilling the experience was. Sure, I complained and muttered about the increasing student debt versus my stagnant pay rate (still in the same boat so far), but the actual two year experience taught me so much about myself, what interests me, what drives me, etc. Thank you for the well wishes! If anything, I’m so thankful for graduate school because it opened my eyes that I can pursue a million business-esque careers, but my heart and passion still lie in farming and homesteading.

  10. Congratulations on your graduation!! I can relate to this post word for word seeing as I’m going through the same phase at the moment! Beautifully expressed!! 🙂

  11. Congratulations!!!!!!!!

  12. Congratulations! It is a wonderful feeling isn’t it, once you complete that degree. It is interesting to me how, although my experience was different from yours (I had a baby while working on my graduate degree, and priorities were slightly different) the basic life lessons I learned were the same. Perhaps it’s not just the graduate degree process itself, so much as maturing. The growth we gain as we go through life and discover our priorities and desires as they develop and change.

    • R.J., I really think the experience pushes you to mature and it just so happens to fall along the lines of the same time you’re pursuing a degree. It’s a very enlightening period of time where you suddenly see things in your life much more clearly.

      Congratulations on earning your degree and having a baby as well! That must have been so much to juggle at once, so I have a lot of respect for you 🙂 I pushed off having kids until the degree was done, but now I feel almost too eager to start. Can’t win them all!

  13. Thanks for this. I’m a freshman doing my first degree and certainly know what you mean by 1# after having to juggle part time work and three societies! It’s nice to not feel alone and you put it all in perspective.

    • Hi there! Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting 🙂 College is one big learning experience (both in the classroom and out of it). There are hard times, good days, and lots of lessons to be learned. But in the end, you’ll be amazed at how much you grow throughout your bachelor’s degree and further degrees if you pursue them. I wish you the best of luck.. you’ll rock it out! 🙂

  14. I started working right after undergrad and never had the desire to go back to pursue a grad degree – it’s not a big leg up in my career, and I don’t have the time to do it. Doing grad school after undergrad would be the way to go if I did it all again!

    • Steph, grad school is definitely a choice everyone has to approach individually. I started working full-time in my first professional field (mental health) when I was still a sophomore in my undergraduate program. I’ve been working full-time in that field (or education) since, so it seemed only natural to continue the path I was on of working full-time and going to school full-time into graduate school. If it didn’t make a difference (money-wise) in my career, I wouldn’t have done it to be honest. It costs too much money and is a big personal sacrifice. And though I haven’t seen the increase in salary yet, only being one month out from school, I’m hopeful the investment will pay off one day 🙂

  15. Congratulations. Hard work always pays off, no matter how long it takes.
    For me, i never wanted a degree, i just have a 3 year national diploma. I chose not to do my degree in my field for several reasons.
    1. i work well with my hands and create pretty pictures. i can handle books and exams.
    2. i had no idea what i would write a thesis about, and chose not to waste my money not being sure and maybe also failing. i had 3 years of student loans to pay back and i wanted that off my name asap
    3. i’ve always know what i wanted to do. my path was clear and direct and sometimes so easy. SOMETIMES. it was simple, studied art at school. applied to one college for one course and got in. didn’t even apply for a job but got referred by another ex student to a company who like to give graduates a start. I was blessed and my career has always been blessed like that.

    I still dont see myself studying further. again.. not the studying type. but i would mind doing work shops, lol somethign that doens’t require me to pass or fail. i simply do and learn and apply.

    • Hard work definitely brings you farther in life than wishing, dreaming, and hoping. I’m glad I was able to wrap up graduate school in two years.. I know so many people who have been in graduate school 4+ years and are still arguing their thesis. Poor things!

      Your reasons are all good reasons to not attend graduate school, and it’s definitely a decision each person has to make for themselves individually. I, personally, loved graduate school because it wasn’t about studying. It was about being hands-on, being creative, and finding your path.

  16. You are just so wise and I’m so proud of you! so PROUD! You did it!! I never did. You are a thousand steps ahead of me and the pay off will be wonderful and I’m so excited for the farm. I’m honored to be able to follow you via this blog, to read your wise thoughts on things and to watch your dreams come into reality. Much love.

    • Aww, Tracie, your words made me tear up! Thank you so much for your kindness and your belief in me 🙂 In the end, I’m so happy I went through the school experience because it helped me identify what my real dreams are. Here’s to starting the farm at the beginning of 2015, and purchasing the land at the end of this year!

  17. Yes to every single one of these!! And for a split second you make me wish that I was still in grad school (loved the experience and the people) but then I remember OMG It was so hard! And I didn’t even have twitter to distract me back then (thank goodness). Best wishes to you post-graduation!!

    • I feel the same way, Trish! Part of me misses school, then the other part of me thinks: ‘No way, never again! That was way too hard!’

      Social media is definitely such a distraction. It was hard to work on papers for hours/days straight and never check in on my blog, twitter, etc.

  18. Grad school is actually never something I wanted to do. Obviously I think it’s great if you want to, and I liked school, but when I graduated from college, I was like I’M DONE. The one good thing is that I didn’t get into crazy debt, but hopefully it pays off eventually because you can get a job where you’re paid more!

    • Amanda, I think a lot of people (possibly more people than not?) feel the way you do when they’re done with college. I’ve always had a goal of becoming the first person in my family to attain a master’s degree, so I’m glad I met the goal for personal reasons. But man oh man, was it tough! I definitely don’t think it’s a road for everyone (especially when you start to consider the additional student debt), but I’m glad it’s checked off my ‘to do’ list!

  19. This is a great accomplishment, Caitlin! I love that your life’s path changed as you went through this and I’m intrigued by your new plan:) I can’t wait to see it all unfold!

  20. Pingback: Adventures in Canning. | The Siren's Tale

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