Three Things You Didn’t Know About Grad School

Via Taekwonweirdo on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Via Taekwonweirdo on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Despite successfully completing a Master of Arts degree in the recent past, I never thought I would be capable, academically speaking, of getting into grad school.

It seems like we all know at least a few people – the real high achievers – for whom that doesn’t seem to be the case. They walk the path of life casting a constant shadow of success and achievement. No one is surprised when they reach milestone after milestone and keep right on going.

Of course, that’s just what we see, and it’s quite possible they’re just as unhappy as everyone else.

Point being, I didn’t see myself as one of those people. I kind of “happenstanced” my way into grad school, so my story nonetheless includes a “graduate degree” chapter. There are a few lessons I learned during that experience that I thought might be fun to include here. I’ve done something like this before, but the tone was incredibly satirical (“how to succeed in grad school,” parts one and two). So, my goal for today’s post is to a bit more educational. Here are three things I learned about grad school while I was there.

You’re On Your Own

Remember how, back in high school, everything was all laid out nice and clearly? Then, how once you got to university, you quickly realized that the ever-so-ginger hand holding of the secondary education system had been replaced by the comparatively  neglectful shove of the post-secondary system? Well, that shove only gets more neglectful and more abrupt once you hit the graduate level. That’s not to say there are no supports – graduate level supervisors are probably the most influential sources of support (or stress, for that matter) you can have as a post-secondary student. But at this level of study, you’re considered a professional learner who can and must work independently and identify your own priorities.

Your Job is to Create Knowledge, Not Consume it

Graduate level programs are fundamentally research-based. For many, this means that you will be contributing to a body of research literature in the form of a thesis or a dissertation. That may sound dry or tedious to some (and, let’s be honest, even the most exciting and interesting research project will include hair-pullingly monotonous tasks at some point), but think about what this means for a moment: by doing this research, you are creating new knowledge; you are becoming an expert in something. Even in programs that don’t involve this explicit a level of participation in research, the degree to which you are expected to integrate and analyze existing findings into new interpretations or implications is significant.

Adapt or Die

About a week before the deadline to confirm my thesis supervisor, the faculty member I had been working with (and who had previously given a green light to my proposed research project) effectively gave me an ultimatum: change your thesis topic, or find a new supervisor*. Needless to say, I was more than a little thrown back by this news. I had been working with my current supervisor-to-be for months – a week was nowhere near enough time to find another faculty member who would even be willing to read my proposal, let alone decide to supervise my research. So, I had to change the focus of my research, and quickly. I won’t even talk about the struggles I and countless peers had with recruiting research participants. Let’s just leave it at this: if you’re not willing and able to adapt, to be flexible, to change course midstream, then you’re not likely to make it very far at the graduate school level. But then, that’s what science – and life – is all about, isn’t it?

My story had a happy ending, even if it took me twice as long as I originally intended to finish everything up. I graduated successfully, have been working and volunteering in meaningful and fulfilling roles, and even got to present my thesis at a local research conference.

Are you thinking of applying to graduate school? There are lots of great reasons to go, as this post illustrates. Still, it’s important to do your own research, and make your decision about applying to grad school about a positive, not a negative reason. What I mean by that is, a decision to pursue further education is best based on what you stand to gain from it, as opposed to what you might be avoiding by doing it. While going back to school is usually a better option than going into unemployment, it can also be a very expensive delaying tactic if you’re not careful. As with any other decision, think about what your intentions are, and act as best you can in accordance with them.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Insider blog.