The 8 Important Lessons My Second Year of Grad School Taught Me

You know that meme with the old lady in the first scenes of The Titanic, where she's looking out into the distance and says "it's been 84 years"? That's going to be me on graduation day.

My graduate school experience so far has been more stressful than I ever imagined. Two years ago I placed my deposit and moved to the DC area with nothing more than two suitcases full of clothes. Today I am very much the same woman, except I own way more stuff and have a much less positive perspective on grad school. I'm not saying that I regret attending or my choice of school, I'd do it all again in a heartbeat, but I just wish someone would have told me how hard it is to survive in a city like Washington DC while balancing school and work full time.

I don't know who you are, but at the very least you're someone who's been through this before or is thinking about diving into the world of post graduate studies. To help you avoid the same mistakes I did and enjoy every moment of your educational experience, read on to hear all the lessons I learned my second year of graduate school, and what you can do to make the very best of every minute of  it.

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1. Classes aren't hard, balancing them is.

This might be my own personal experience, but classes in graduate school so far have felt a lot less difficult than my undergraduate courses. The workload is very similar and the grading has been more difficult, but because the topic is something I love, it's somehow easier to learn it and produce work that I'm actually proud to present. The hard part comes in when you're trying to balance 4 courses at a time, or worse, four courses and a full time job.

Learning to make both aspects of your life a priority can be stressful, but just know that so many before you have done it, and your biggest ally will be not leaving work from any part of your life until the last minute.

2. You have to be your own advocate.

Being a graduate student is funny in the sense that while you are very much a part of your university, most of the campus programs and resources are targeted towards undergrads because they are the majority. Plus, everyone assumes you've got everything figured out by now in this stage of your education. There's just one problem, grad school comes with its own stressors and obstacles, minus the team of people ready to guide you through it all.

Don't be afraid to stand up for what you want, whether that be a class you desperately need to be offered next semester or an appointment with one of those administrators that is somehow always too busy to do their job.

On multiple occasions I've had complete meltdowns at my university because I finally came to realize that we all pay too much money for our educations to be ignored or told no without explaining our side first. Don't be scared of being a bitch if that's what comes between you and graduating on time, getting the class you need or simply someone picking up the damn phone already.

3. Know what you want, and don't settle for anything less.

Midway through my first year of grad school administrators pulled all first year students in my masters program and informed us that they were creating a new program, under a different title and a slightly different focus. For weeks they pushed everyone to switch into this new program, urging us that this would be the best decision for us. There was one problem though, I hadn't come to this school for that program, I wasn't interested in that program and I had already began the coursework for my masers. So me and about 4 other students in the entire school decided we wouldn't budge.

It has been a struggle since then, mostly when it came to signing up for courses that were now never going to fill up. Don't let intimidating administrators and automated emails scare you into making any decisions you're not sure about. Ask a question a dozen times just to make sure you're comfortable with the answer, and if you need more advice, ask again. Thanks to my stubbornness I will be graduating with the masters I want, still be eligible for my licensure and best of all, can walk the stage knowing I wasn't pressured into making a decision for other people's benefit.

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4. Now is the time to start networking.

Ugh, I know, networking is the adult version of torture. Here's the thing though, it pays off (literally), so maybe it's best to do it while we can still blame our lame networking skills on being young and inexperienced? I'm not saying go to happy hours and pass out business cards, what I mean is now is the time to start talking to your professors about more than just what you might have missed last class.

If any of you have had a professor for more than one course, that's an automatic person you need to switch contact info with and consider asking for recommendations down the line. Trust me, professors know you're nervous and they too were once desperate for mentors too, so stop stressing about it and just strike up a normal conversation with them.

5. Take advantage of school resources while you can.

So far I've spent two years out of college, and in those two years I have never had trouble finding a job. Even though I spent my undergrad volunteering and gaining experience, I also give a lot of credit to the campus resources that prepared me for life after college. If your university has a career center, go to it! Do not graduate without having your resume looked over and a list of resources that your campus continues to provide one you are an alum.

Once you leave a school setting resources like interview prep and resume workshops are things you will have to pay for, so take advantage of them while they're free and easily accessible.

6. Your education isn't a race.

This was the hardest pill for me to swallow. At the end of my first year of graduate school I realized I personally couldn't balance working and attending school full time, at least not if I wanted to move into the actual city. I did what was best for me and changed my school schedule to part time, which allowed me to accept an amazing job offer and be able to afford the apartment I always wanted. One problem though, suddenly I wasn't on track to graduate in two years.

It took a few months but I realized school was no longer a race, I was already making good money and my entire masters degree was very much my choice, so there was no need to put all this extra pressure on myself. Today I'm on track to graduate in three years, which is perfectly fine with me because in that three years I've done so many things that would have never been possible had I stayed on a path that left no time to enjoy my life.

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7. It's okay if you make a mistake.

Remember how I said it will take me three years to graduate instead of two? Part of that is 100% my fault. See, I was so focused on completing the master course requirements that I totally failed to register for any electives, like ever. So in my final year I'm finally getting around to taking the courses my friends took in their first. Don't stress about small stuff like this though, because at the end of the day no employer is going to ask what semester I took what and why it took me three instead of two years to get a masters degree.

8. Pay less attention to what those around you are doing.

Going into my second year of graduate school I had just accepted this amazing job at a law firm in the city. The pay was great and the work environment was exactly what I had been looking for, there was just one tiny issue, all of my friends were working in the mental health field. As a student getting a masters in counseling psychology, it can be hard to explain to people why you chose to work outside the field during your coursework. (It was the money, it was always the money.)

Learning to care less about what others around me were doing and paying more attention to my own necessities helped me let go of the guilt of no longer wanting to work minimum wage in exchange for a job that would just look good on my resume. Work experience and good deeds don't pay my rent, so do what works for you and don't compare your experiences to those of others.

Are you thinking of going to grad school? If so, what's one question no one has been able to answer so far? And if you've been through the process, share a lesson with prospective applicants below!

1 comment

  1. Ugh, networking is the worst! I'm glad you're learning a lot from this experience!