two black women in graduation clothes

Accidental Academic: How I Got to Grad School

TThe inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had with Ali of As Told By Ali, when I got all excited about her post about wanting to start grad school. You can read her post here.

I speak often about being a grad student because it’s an experience that’s influencing my whole life. My future, because I’m grateful to be in grad school after being underemployed. My finances, because I’m hella broke. My time, because it takes up so much of it. And my identity, because being in grad school is like a job and there are all these social/cultural aspects to it that are shaping who I am. I won’t come out the same as I went in, which sounds tragic, but is actually A-OK with me.

Even though I talk about being a grad student fairly often, I realize I haven’t talked about how I actually got to grad school. I’m hoping that it’ll help someone else, and if it doesn’t…well, at least there’s a post this week.

Cheers!

This is a two-part post. Kelli from Unkajed Thoughts had some questions about what my experience in grad school has been like, so I thought that deserved a post of its own. You can read part two here.

Grad school wasn’t part of my plan

Let me take you back to angsty C., back when she was in high school. High school me fell in love with media arts and wanted to be a graphic designer. But when university application time came around, I lacked the confidence to submit a portfolio and applied to social science programs instead. I got in with the intention of studying psychology, but I hated it and switched to something else because it was the only course I took in university that I liked (I got blessed, because I liked my program right down to when I graduated). Soon after that, I decided that I wanted to go to professional school.

The short version of this story (it’s long, girl) is that I got high grades but wasn’t successful in getting into my chosen professional school, and after a few more failed attempts, I decided to hold off on applying again.

Too bad I didn’t have a backup plan, though. I furiously started trying to put one together, and in the meantime, I got a job and lived out my life as a millennial cliché: an underemployed social science grad. When I told my references that I didn’t get in to professional school (months later, because I was embarrassed), they suggested grad school.

Related: How I Manage Anxiety in Grad School

At this point, I was fed up with the repeated rejection, in the midst of another quarter life crisis, and not enjoying being underemployed, so I figured there was no harm in going. No, it wasn’t obviously related to what I studied in undergrad. No, it wasn’t professional school. No, I didn’t know what I could do with the degree. But when I thought about it, I realized it had several practical things to offer:

  • a master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for many “good” jobs
  • easy access to an amazing network that would otherwise not be readily available to me
  • an opportunity to build marketable skills (provided I sought them out)
  • time to think about what I wanted to do with my life whilst continuing to build identity capital
  • an opportunity to explore fields/careers I’d never considered, like research
  • intellectual stimulation
  • a way out of underemployment
  • a way to get out of my funk and have hope for the future

So I prayed about it, and then applied and accepted when I got that quiet but strong conviction that I believe comes from God.

My journey to grad school wasn’t direct or the fulfillment of some lifelong (or university-long) dream. It surprised me. Everyone’s journey will be different, but there are some general themes in mine that I think people can learn from in their own journeys.

It’s OK if you don’t know what you want right now

Not to say that we shouldn’t figure it out (we should), but what I mean is that I don’t think it’s necessary to be that person who’s gunning for grad school from the first day of undergrad in order to be a grad student. I wasn’t, and to be honest, most of the people I’ve met so far weren’t either. Being a gunner can certainly help you in terms of getting what you need to get in, but if you’re not, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If you’re nearing the end of your education, or already done it, it’s not too late. If you’re considering grad school, see what you need to do and make a plan to get there.

Related: Why Our 20s Are Important: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay, PhD

Get good grades

Good grades keeps your options open. When I say good grades, I mean at least a half grade above the admissions cutoff in your last year, and the year(s) before that, if possible. By a half-grade, I mean aim for at least an A- if the admissions cutoff is a B+. Exceeding the minimum requirements will make it easier for you to get in. Even if you’re not sure about grad school, professional school, or whatever kind of school, try to get good grades. That way, if you decide to change your mind about further schooling, you don’t have to go back and take extra courses. You can just apply.

It’s all well and good to say “get good grades,” but I know this is hard and takes some strategizing. You can read a good post about this here.

Question: would you like me to write about how I got good grades in university? Happy to share if it’s useful.

Related: How I Manage My Time: Organization for the Naturally Disorganized

Talk to your professors

When I first realized that I needed reference letters for professional school, I knew I screwed up. I hadn’t spoken to my professors and now I needed them to say good things about me. Fortunately, my classes were small and I participated in class so they noticed me. But what if that were not the case? In hindsight, if I had just developed a habit of talking to my professors, I wouldn’t have been so panicked. In my last year, I had an honest conversation with a professor about my interest in her field.

My personal belief is that being genuine is a good way to connect with people. Remember that your references will write things about your academic/research abilities, so when you talk to them, I recommend discussing academic topics at least some of the time.

That being said,  I don’t think it’s necessary to run out and speak to every professor you’ve ever had. But when you get the sense that this is someone you can connect to, do so, even if it’s just one person. One person who likes you will talk about you to other people, and they might be interested in meeting you or working with you. That’s how doors get opened.

Network by doing a good job

If you get the opportunity to work with people who can write you reference letters, work hard. Do a spectacular job. This will most likely mean that you will work hours that you aren’t paid for, but a good impression is worth more than money. If you suffer from imposter syndrome like me and wonder how on earth you can do the job without screwing it all up, my advice is to just put your head down and get to work. Results are what matter. Just get things done. If you’re a perfectionist, great! If you can get that under control, your natural tendency to want to do things well will take over and cause you to do an awesome job.

Related: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

Be open to opportunities

Sometimes, opportunities will come up out of the blue. Sometimes they aren’t perfect, and sometimes they don’t seem all that relevant. Consider them carefully before you turn them down. In the same vein, you don’t need to have everything all figured out before you take an opportunity. Pray about it. Sometimes you just need to say yes. And if you have a strong gut feeling either way, trust it.

For example, I was offered a job with great connections. The pay wasn’t huge, it was in a different city, I didn’t drive, and I didn’t know how I would get there. I prayed about it and accepted the job. I eventually found a bus route that went from my city to my job’s city. It wasn’t fast, and it meant getting up early and going home late, but there is a saying that “force make water go up hill.” Don’t worry about the how – God will take care of that.

Be honest with yourself

If I’m honest, I probably never would have gone to grad school (or gone later than I intended) if I hadn’t been offered the opportunity when I was. I would have hemmed and hawed and stewed in self-doubt, all the while waiting for the “right time,” and the “perfect” program and letting my references grow cold.  If this is you, then it might be wise to accept the best of your imperfect opportunities (spoiler: there are no perfect opportunities). You might just need to get started.

On the flip side, if you know in your heart that something is truly not for you, don’t make yourself accept it. Sometimes you need to say no and sometimes you do need to wait for the right thing. I applied to a bunch of different programs (master’s and not) while I was figuring out what to do, and I ended up turning down a program I thought I really wanted. After I prayed about it, it just didn’t feel right.

Just apply

This is self-explanatory. Just do the darn thing already. Fill in that application and press that submit button! What are you waiting for? Even if you decide you don’t want to go, you can decline an offer. But if you don’t apply, you can’t even make that decision. You’re not applying to grad school because you think you’re dumb, no matter how uncertain you might feel right now. So, chin up. You can do this.

Related: On Feeling Intimidated By My Own Dreams

Do you have any questions about grad school  you want me to answer?  Would you like me to write more posts about grad school or university? Do you have any grad school advice you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

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4 comments on “Accidental Academic: How I Got to Grad School

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey with us! 🤓

  2. I love everything about this! Thank you so much for sharing, and you’re so right the least we can do is just to apply even if we don’t accept the offer right now.

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