For starters: DON’T go to grad school and work full time.
But if you do, I think I have some advice.
I have been somehow — literally against all feats of god and men and Stannis Baratheon alike — taking six credits of LIS coursework a semester since fall 2011 at UW-Madison where I also work. I have one semester left before graduating in fall 2013.
Here’s what I know so far: taking six credits while working full time is just full-blown dumb. Dumbest dumb thing ever.
Granted… it is possible.
But “possible” doesn’t mean fun or easy or enjoyable or even smart. And I try to adhere to those basic principles, especially being “easy” because you only live once, folks.
Taking six credits is like saying, “I’ve never run before in my life… but today I’m just going to bust out and run six consecutive miles.”
- Possible? Definitely.
- Smart? Probably not.
- Easy? Unlikely.
And before you even accuse me, let’s just get one thing straight — I have a real person job. Said job is stressful because I work in public higher education and SPOILER ALERT a lot of things are changing in this area. Namely, sweeping institutional changes that are toppling the status quo and re-tooling our most basic structures, procedures and priorities amid major leadership transitions.
No bigs. (Still — we do find time to have fun…)
Now, for context’s sake I am a middle-class, well-educated person who has the luxury — and it really is one — to subject myself to several years and many thousands of dollars in tuition bills to develop skills and experience that will advance my career.
This is all my design. I brought it on myself. And now I reserve the right to complain as well as tell others how to deal with this self-inflicted injury.
How to Do Grad School When You Work Full Time
1) Set realistic expectations about what exactly you’re capable of doing and how well you’re going to do it.
Be really honest with yourself. I read every syllabus and go, “Now, am I really going to do that?”
For example: on paper, you will not be the smartest person in the class. You just don’t have time.
In reality, your experience and skills likely means that you have the applicable real-world know-how that makes you the smartest person in the class — those kiddos who go right from undergrad to grad or who haven’t had real person jobs just can’t compete at our level.
But don’t blow your load — it’s not worth being “that asshole” in the discussion boards who crushes the optimism of all those kids who are in school full-time and have hours to ponder what it means to “think” about the topic at hand.
Just hold your head high. Walk away.
Here’s few other areas where you can set realistic expectations about graduate schol and work life balance:
- Your weekends no longer belong to you, your family or friends. It’s just you and the computer. Accept this.
- You will learn to hate and love your computer. Everything you do will be online. You’ll read online. You’ll comment online. You’ll read more online. You’ll watch lectures online. You’ll chat online. Your soul will die online. Accept this.
- Stop doing most of the readings. You don’t have time. Just skim the ones you’re interested in. Skip all the others. Yes, you officially suck at graduate school.
- You have to give up most weekday drinking. But not ALWAYS. Rebel when appropriate.
- You must prepare for work-related mini-meltdowns. Just when you’re reaching the peak of your work-related stres, you’ll remember that you have to go home and do homework FOR HOURS AND HOURS. Break down and cry. Accept this.
- If you were a good student in college for your undergraduate degree, you’ll realize that being an “OK” student who “just gets the bare minimum done” is just fine now. Accept this.
The most important takeaway from this section — remember, graduate school is a game. The game is called do the homework. Pay the tuition bills. Accept this all and move on.
2) Prioritize your life in order to deal with everything listed above.
I make lists. Lots and lots of lists.
What needs to be done right now? What can wait? And what reeeeally can be skipped? You will skip a lot. A lot and a lot.
Sometimes you will feel bad about skipping things. Oftentimes though, you won’t really remember to feel bad until you’re in a meeting at 2pm and realize, “Hm, I think I had 85 pages to read last night?” It will come out of nowhere.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Find the topics you’re interested in. Enroll in those classes. Pick the lectures that you really care about. Do THAT reading. Skip everything else. Remember, you’re only an “OK” student. Prioritize where you can do well being “OK.”
3) Learn how to de-stress for real.
I’ve chosen to direct all of my stress — related to graduate school OR NOT (hashtag unfair) — to focus on our online student learning and assessment portal, Learn@UW. It’s powered by Desire2Learn.
I yell at them on Twitter because I’ve literally become a terrible person. A TERRIBLE PERSON. (Read: I did not set realistic expectations)
The staff members who work on L@UW should have a gold medal in dealing with my BITCH ALERT LEVEL 8. I’m terrible. They win. I lose.
What I’m really trying to say here is find a way to de-stress. You have to really de-stress. Stick to whatever works for you.
For example, I work out. I never used to work out. But now I do. It helps. I ran a half-marathon in May. I did Tough Mudder last year. I’m apparently crazy. But it works. (And you can read about that whole giant transformation over at my b-side Megan in Madison)
Find a way to deal with your stress.
4) Make friends.
Friends are helpful and frenemies are inevitable.
Friends will help you when you get sucked into the inevitable UNENDING group projects. Do you like group projects? I bet you’ll LOVE graduate school.
Friends are also important for stress release when you’re banging your head against the desk after countless hours pouring over shared Google documents and swearing for 20 minutes straight when your MacBook Pro fails to load your Adobe Connect lecture for the week. (STOP. USING. FLASH. EVERYONE.)
Frenemies are inevitable because no one knows how to say what they mean. And you will judge them.
If you’re in a program that has online classes, you will soon learn just how terrible well-educated Americans are at articulating their positions in a respectful or even convincing manner at online discussion boards. Now, graduate school discussion section is not like YouTube comments, but it isn’t exactly meaningful engagement. The written word could use more love, dear friends. Someone help us.
5 ) Put a finer point on de-stressing: commit to do the things you love.
Have a hobby? Stick to it.
Commit yourself to some things that you will continue doing, goddammit.
For example, I read every night before bed. Since graduate school, I’ve knocked down four Game of Thrones books.
I also have a garden because this is America. It’s my serenity now. I demand time from my schedule to deal with it. It makes me happy.
So, that’s what I know. This is what I’ve learned since 2011.
Thinking about graduate school is a big decision, enrolling in graduate school is even bigger — MAKE the right choice before jumping into it. Save your sanity, save your soul and make sure it’s a good fit for your pocketbook.