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What I Didn’t Know About Grad School

I’ve known a lot of people who went to grad school and seemed to sail right through all the coursework, so I didn’t really think that earning a Master of Arts in English would be that tough. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when my degree required rigorous, and I mean rigorous, study.

It’s not that I didn’t expect to be challenged. My undergraduate experience proved to me that an English degree required some serious time for reading, analytical thinking and academic writing. But I just assumed my grad school coursework would consist of jumping through some hoops and, namely, paying for the diploma.

As it turns out, the hoops were on fire, and I was going to spend numerous hours reading tiny print and re-writing countless drafts. Yet the experience was well worth the work, and I learned some important lessons beyond just my English coursework.

If you’re about to head off to grad school, then here are a few pieces of advice:

Finding your niche is crucial.

The world of academia is a world of its own. My undergraduate environment consisted of a tight-knit community of professors who both challenged and supported their students and of peers who encouraged one another along the way. It was wonderful.

Grad school was much more competitive in nature. Peers seemed to be looking out for themselves, and you muddled your own way through your courses. I wasn’t exactly expecting this world of such serious research and straight academia, but once I recognized the environment, I was better able to adapt. I was lucky enough to have a professor who was willing to direct my studies, find a few students to whom I could ask candid questions and discover the love I have for eighteenth-century literature. In doing so, I found my niche.

As is the case with any goal-oriented task, when we find both an atmosphere of comfort and a rhythm that we settle into, it’s much easier to thrive. Be on the lookout for people who are willing to help you and for what part of your degree you find most interesting.

… when we find both an atmosphere of comfort and a rhythm that we settle into, it’s much easier to thrive.

Be willing to learn all that you can, but maintain a healthy perspective of what’s important.

For the amount of time I spent studying, I sometimes wondered if I should have sought a different degree. However, English is what I love, which is probably part of the reason I spent so much time studying.

The other reason I poured into my books for hours is because I’m a bit of a perfectionist (even though that doesn’t mean everything always turns out perfectly). I can honestly say that I truly learned in graduate school. But I probably could have spent a little less time stressing about my grades. It’s always wise to gauge your time as you work toward any achievement, but it’s just as important not to put more emphasis on the achievement than is necessary.

Anything worth having requires work — and the occasional curve ball.

Thankfully, I liked the coursework I was doing to earn the degree I needed for my dream job. However, one thing I hadn’t expected was how difficult the foreign language component of my degree would be. Faced with the task of meeting that requirement, I had to hurdle an unforeseen difficulty. But that was part of the degree.

To earn any achievement for which we strive, we must put forth the work required to do so. Taking the easy way out will never truly give us the skill set nor the satisfaction in having completed the real deal.

Putting forth effort can open doors in the future.

I don’t know exactly where this degree will take me, but I know that right now I could not be doing what I’m doing without it. I wouldn’t have the credentials or the knowledge I need – and I still have plenty to learn! Yet, I am excited to see how the future unfolds now that I’ve earned this degree. Working hard for the credentials you need to be able to do what you love and to ensure others can trust your knowledge in a particular area is a worthwhile endeavor.

Above all, strive to do your best work and such work may unveil dreamed-of opportunities.

If you’ve gone to grad school, what are some things the experience taught you?

Image via Kailas Michael for Darling Issue No. 23

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