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Accidental Academic: My Experience In Grad School

IIf you saw the comment thread on my May Goals post, you would know that I’m getting a master’s in higher education. Plot twist: I’m not a teacher.

Here’s what I think about my (almost) year in grad school so far.

This is part two of my post on grad school. Kelli, the talented writer over at 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 one here.

Kelli asked:

I’m interested in hearing about how you plan to incorporate what you’re doing/learning into life after graduation? Like what specifically you’d like to do or what ways you’d like to serve the students you might work with or a potential place of employment. And just your general experience and journey. How did you stumble upon this opportunity? Has it been a positive experience? Those kinds of things 🙂 Can’t wait to read it!

How did you stumble upon this opportunity?

I actually studied social science in undergrad and got pretty good marks because I was dead set on going to professional school. It was a straight-up blessing (thanks, God!) that put me on the path to grad school: some mix of high performance and talking to the right professor. That professor connected me to a colleague who was looking for a research assistant, I got the job, and I did work that my employers were pleased with. I really wanted to get good references for professional school and I’m also a perfectionist. Those two things really drove me in terms of doing good work.

Related: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

I was horribly anxious all throughout my contract–was I doing a good enough job?–but the experience paid off: I got glowing references. I was so excited to apply to professional school that year because it seemed like everything was going right: I had great and hopefully influential references, I applied early, I had research experience, and my grades had gone up. Unfortunately for me, I was still rejected. I kept it to myself for a couple of months because I was embarrassed, and quite frankly, devastated. I busied myself with moving on to other things, and eventually decided to answer the nagging call to reach out to my references. When I told them that I hadn’t been accepted, they suggested I try grad school, convinced of my research potential. I applied without being entirely sure I wanted to do it, or how higher education would relate to what I wanted to do, but I was underemployed and desperately wanted a way out.

When I was accepted into my master’s program, it threw a wrench in my plans. I had applied to a design program as well as a rehabilitation professional school. I was thinking my career would go in either of those directions, or maybe even both. When my current master’s program accepted me, I had been offered admission to the design program and an interview to the rehab professional school. I was watching YouTube videos by rehab professionals and imagining my life as a designer in the ultra-shiny tech world. But after going to various open houses and praying about it, I felt a strong conviction that I should push all of that to the side and go and do the program I’m in now.

In the end, I ended up in this program because I honestly felt like it was what God wanted me to do. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have taken it. It was offered to me by people who thought I would make a great researcher. The catch was that being an academic was never a plan of mine (hence the post title).

Has it been a positive experience?

Overall, I would say yes because of how much I’m learning and growing as a person. I’ve held two jobs, taken a full course load, worked on my thesis, and tried to deal with the unexpected death of a loved one at the same time. It was a lot, and quite frankly, way more than I’d like to do if I had a choice, but it taught me that I’m so much more capable than I thought I was. If someone had told me that I would have been able to handle all that a year ago, I would have laughed at them.

Related: Overly Ambitious: Lessons from Doing Too Much

What’s your general experience been like?

That being said, I generally feel pretty ambivalent about grad school. I’m in a program where most of my classmates are working professionals who are using this program as a means to advance in their careers. Being a fresh-faced student who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life has been confusing and frustrating. When I look around and try see what I can do, the main answer seems to be research, which, again, has never been my plan.

Related: How I Manage Anxiety in Grad School

In that vein, I’ve been encouraged by various people to pursue a PhD, which is both flattering and discouraging at the same time. Flattering because it’s a compliment to my academic & intellectual abilities, as well as the simple fact that it’s nice to be told that I could be successful at something after many years of repeated failure and rejection. The discouragement comes from a place of not being particularly keen on doing a PhD at this point in my life. I have been a student for a very long time. There are some amazing perks that come with being a student, such as a really flexible schedule, but it also means that I am limited in many of the things I want to do simply because I don’t have the money to do them. And I want to go home in the evenings and not have homework to do.

Nobody seems to talk about how terrible the job market is for PhDs in academia and the fact that many PhDs are leaving academia, but that’s something I think about too.

Because I didn’t apply to this program as an educator, there have also been times when course content didn’t line up with my own interests. This isn’t a problem for my thesis, which I chose and generally feel passionate about, but it was a challenge when it came to my courses. Learning nitty-gritty details like how to write a multiple choice test is not on my list of things I have a burning desire to know.

What helped me was that I’m genuinely interested in learning and as a result, I feel happy when I learn new things. I was also motivated because I spent a lot of time trying to get good grades in undergrad, and I didn’t want to mess it up now: good grades leave a lot of doors open. If you’re a student or soon-to-be-student, please remember that!

How will you incorporate what you’re doing & learning into life after graduation?

When I applied to my program, I compiled a list of things I wanted to get out of grad school. They were:

  • acquiring a research “toolbox” that would allow me to do different types of research for different types of problems
  • learning how to use statistics and statistical software
  • learning how to apply for funding
  • building a great network
  • time to think and learn more about what I really wanted to do

I’m on my way to achieving these goals (really lagging in the stats department, though), and the bigger goal in all this is that I want to get a job.

I don’t think that having a master’s degree automatically makes me employable, so I’ve been trying to be mindful of the fact that I will need to have other things I can put on a resume.

I’m still trying to figure out what my next steps are, but I think the biggest things that I will incorporate into my post-grad school life are my research experience and my network.

By the time my program is finished, I will have research experience. I would have done different types of research, and been involved in different dimensions, from research design, to data collection, to analysis, to write-up. I feel like there’s a real project-management component to research, so there’s that too.

I’m still trying to figure out what exactly having a network looks like, but I’m fortunate to know supportive people who are curious about what I do and who can connect me to opportunities (I hope I can do the same for them). I’m convinced that connections make the difference in this hyper-competitive world, and as an aside, that’s one of the strongest arguments I have for post-secondary education, even though having a degree no longer guarantees us a good job.

Because I’m not sure about what job I will do after I graduate, I don’t know how or whether I’ll use the actual content of my program in terms of the day-to-day workings of future employment. What it does help me with, though, is having conversations. Even though I’m not working on things like how to best assess students, I can understand what my colleagues are talking about when they tell me what they’re working on or when I’m watching them present their research.

Maybe I’ve gotten a little less idealistic, but fitting in with the crowd to some degree is important if I want to move forward. Even though I admire (and aspire to) entrepreneurial types who are able to leave the system altogether, I don’t think I will become an entrepreneur overnight. That means I will need to keep learning in environments that I can’t control, at least for a while.

As I start to navigate larger and more complex organizations like academia, all those little social things I didn’t think about in smaller, simpler environments are suddenly becoming more important. Being able to intelligently participate in the conversations taking place around me is important. Sounding like I belong in the crowd matters. I’m not the hugest fan of politics, so I don’t really know how I feel about this, but I do know that I want to be able to keep building relationships. In that sense, I’m grateful that the things I’m learning are allowing me to keep up with my colleagues.

What about you? How did you use what you learned in school in your work? How did you end up at your current job/program?

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13 comments on “Accidental Academic: My Experience In Grad School

  1. Thanks for sharing!! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. 😊 Also, you’re really good at leaving me wanting more. Now I’m curious about your thesis topic if you can even share that. Even if you can’t, could you take it a step further after graduation and turn it into an opportunity? 🤔

    • Thanks for asking! I don’t mean to be mysterious, but I’ll take it! I’m trying to figure how much I’m comfortable with sharing on my blog, so I guess that’s the unintended effect.

      I’m taking a look at what kind of things make higher education difficult for students from underprivileged backgrounds and what kind of things make it easier for them. I guess it’s one of those “macro” kind of topics you mentioned in your May Goals comment. I definitely think I could turn it into an opportunity after I graduate, but I think I’m asking myself if it’s something I want to do. I could see how this might enable me to do more work in university, either in terms of further research, or in terms of program development. But I’m also asking myself whether I really want to stay in academia or if I should pivot and try something else. I have this terrible tendency of not going after what I want, opting to go with what sounds good or what other people want me to do instead.

      Let’s Build Futures had a post on something she called The Pull, and it’s something I’ve been going through. All the childhood interests I thought I put away have been resurfacing, and I’m feeling inclined to follow them this time around. Hoping to write a bit more about my what-do-I-do-next journey, since I’m always so interested in everyone else’s, but it doesn’t feel interesting when I’m going through it – just very confusing!

      • Thank you for sharing! I apologize if I ask about anything you’re not willing to share and you can totally choose not answer certain questions.

        I agree, it can be confusing when we are going thru something. It’s usually not until we can take a step back or make it past something and look back on it that we understand what is actually taking place or how things are working out. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

        And for the resurfacing childhood desires, I’d recommend reading the book The Artist’s Way if you haven’t already. It’s all about nurturing our inner child/artist and doing the things we really want to deep down inside.

        • No need to apologize, it’s so encouraging to know that people want to know more!

          Thanks for the book recommendation – ADDED IMMEDIATELY to my reading list! I feel like I need that book so badly right now!

      • I like that thesis research!

        I’m feeling inclined to follow them this time around! — DO IT!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with us… Kelli asked some great questions! Glad to hear how reflective you are about this time in your life.

    “I’m convinced that connections make the difference in this hyper-competitive world,” —- BRAVO!!!! YOU’VE TAPPED INTO THE SECRET OF SUCCESS!!! lol… I believe this ever so strongly. I’m reading a book about a man who built a billion-dollar business empire… he had the money to make ‘the purchase’, but those selling didn’t care, they wanted to know ‘how credible’ he was, in other words…. who was he ‘connected to’ that could ‘back him up’.

    So, yes… connections make the difference Drifty!

    Sounds like you have a supportive, helpful and inquisitive network… so you’re surely on the right path! Keep it up.

    PS. What’s the difference between professional and grad school? Also, are you British?

    • Hey, Mac! Always look forward to your comments. It’s honestly so good to hear that I’m onto something, because I’m at a stage where all I have are hunches. It’s too early to see the full benefits of them, so it kind of feels like I’m walking in the dark and hoping things turn out ok.

      Professional school leads to a specific job/applied field, like doctor, lawyer, engineer, nurse, etc. It tends to focus more on applied skills while grad school tends to focus more on research.

      Not British – Canadian! I can do a pretty decent British accent, though! Curious to know what made you think that. Was it my spelling?

      • “because I’m at a stage where all I have are hunches.” —- Girl, welcome to life! lol… That’s what will get you through it 🙂

        Thanks for the professional vs grad school explanation.

        Canadian>>!!?!??! Lol… My mind like automatically goes to British, if not American. You said something about “marks” — Americans would say “grades” 🙂

        • I know, people forget about us but we’re there! Good observation, I didn’t think about that at all!

  3. This was a genuinely really interesting read; all I can say is I have so much confidence that whatever you do you’re going to excel in it. You’re clearly crazy hardworking and dedicated – that’s all you need!x

    • I’m always asking myself whether I’m doing enough (the Imposter Syndrome is too real), so thanks for the encouragement, Mia 🙂 It’s much appreciated.

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