What I Didn’t Know About Grad School

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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.

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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?

Images via Rick Bhatia

Rebecca is a born and raised Tennessee girl and Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) grad. She studied eighteenth-century literature while earning her Master of Arts in English, and now she is happy to be enjoying the creativity that writing allows and the encouragement that words can bring. Rebecca has a lot of energy and loves to spend it reading, music[ing], camping, running, baking, dancing and, most of all, being with her family.

8 COMMENTS
  • protect javascript code August 24, 2017

    Finding your niche is crucial!

  • Cynthia August 3, 2017

    Dear Rebecca,

    I am a sixty year old grandmother who is pursuing her second master’s degree. I told my friends that my enrolling in the MFA program in creative writing was “just for fun”– “because I’ve always wanted to”. Both comments were true, but another reason is that, in spite of enjoying a long, intellectually challenging career, I missed the camaraderie of other students. Some of my classmates are forty years younger than me, and their youth and energy have been infectious! My goal is to be a life-long learner. Your point that putting forth effort can open doors in the future is so true. Sometimes those doors are into your own soul and psyche!

    • Sandy October 10, 2017

      Go Cynthia! I commend you for taking that leap and moving onward to a second Master’s. I aspire to be someone who values learning and it’s many (worthy) challenges for as long as possible. So reading this bit from you is inspiring.

  • Caitlin August 2, 2017

    Rebecca! I go to Lipscomb & I’m currently pursuing a Master’s there, too! Mine is in Mental Health Counseling – not quite the same subject matter – but I found everything you said about finding your niche & being prepared for rigorous study so very applicable to my life right now. I just made it through my second semester & it has taken this long to adjust to grad school demands, but you’re also correct when you say it’s worth it if you’re studying an area that you love. Grad school is difficult & this past semester nearly ate me alive, but I’m still so glad I chose this path. Such a relatable post for me & many others, it seems – thank you!

    P.S. Go Bisons.. ?

  • Emily August 2, 2017

    I also earned an M.A. in English, and it was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life. It’s true that there’s more competition in grad school – and this was a large discouragement to me. Towards my second semester, though, as I was preparing and researching for my Thesis, I learned that it was most rewarding to be competitive with myself. I could look back at my papers and short fiction pieces and know for certain that my writing and analytical skills were steadily improving, and this was all that mattered. I don’t think I truly learned how to write until grad school, and that has been the most rewarding aspect of all the hard work. I recommend it to anyone!

  • Ashley August 1, 2017

    I relate so much to this article. Your point about the curveball was especially true for me- there were many changes to my program, loopholes to jump through, and ineffective communication from the university throughout my time there that made it a continual challenge. It was of benefit to me, though, because I had to make peace with flexibility.

  • Kayla August 1, 2017

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for writing this! I am currently working on my grad degree in English Literature and all of this is completely true. Studying literature takes more time and effort than many people expect. Plus, since there is such an abundance of literature, it takes many years to be well-read. But overall, it’s quite rewarding and worth it to study the subject.

  • I went to grad school for journalism – my bachelor’s degree is in Architecture – and what I’ve found from the experience is that it’s so important when it comes to networking. You’re not just meeting fresh-grads from high school who have had no experience like in a bachelor’s program, you’re meeting professionals already in the industry. You definitely get to know people from a lot more walks of life that you can connect with and learn from!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

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