Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to Go Back To Grad School

See, I didn't forget to post on this.

First, I would suggest that anyone contemplating graduate school read OrgTheory's Grad Skool Rulz, no matter which program. And while you're at it, read Tim Burke's Should You Go to Grad School? (my comments here)

Second, I would suggest reading some grad student blogs, because reading about us freaking out over problem sets, data gathering, writing papers, teaching, grading, research assisting, scrabbling for funding--well, that'll be good for you. If you are comfortably ensconced in some nice, well-paying job (even if it is not as "intellectually stimulating")---well, you will really miss that salary, the ability to go out to dinner and not worry about whether it cuts into that month's rent.

Anyway, onto some considerations for those returning to graduate school after a gap spent working, Peace Corps-ing, or "finding yourself":


You will be older than the other students, some of whom may only be 21 or 22, if they indeed graduated from college that May/June and enrolled in grad school/law school that August/September. There will be a generation gap, despite your delusional belief that you are just as cool and relevant. Act your age, not theirs.

Not that 25-35 year olds are eons more mature than 21 year olds, but by now you have been drinking legally for several years, have had to to go to to work mildly/mightily hungover, have other friends/coworkers who of the dinner party/kid play date variety, might have a long-term partner or kid yourself, and perhaps have gotten to the point where you don't need to drink/party all the time, and have settled into some happy Buffy/The Wire habit.

This is not to say that you must act septuagenarian, but if you find yourself having to adjust with difficulty to the partying pace of your cohort/mod/section mates, then resist it. You've proven your commitment to fighting for the rights of all Americans to par-tay, no need to sell the farm. True, getting thrown back into a pool of attractive, young, energetic Millenials will be disconcerting, and it will be tempting to get back into the swing of things--especially if you spent your post college years in some sort of conservative workplace. Whatev. Do you really want to go back to the years of hooking up and friends with benefits? It sounds tempting, but by now you know that reputational effects are long, even if memories are short lived--they are short only on memorizing theory, not retaining gossip.

Also, you know better than to post drunk ass/skanky pictures of yourself on social networking sites, whereas your new Millenial friends have a more elastic conception of privacy, a cavalier attitude towards Googability, and a complete lack of discretion. Be careful, now. They are your friends, but you are not them, and the minute there is some drama (and there will inevitably be some), you will realize with a shock how much difference a few years' in age, experience, and maturity will make. Law school/Grad school is not unlike junior high school (not even high school) in its cliqueishness and gossippy fish bowlishness. You thought office politics was bad? There, at least, norms of collegiality and pecuniary/legal sanctions keep most of the in-fighting down.

They are your future colleagues, and yes, the future leaders of our country--just as you are. But that's like eons away, and for now you're a decade closer to being "grown up" than they are. So keep things cordial and friendly for now, have fun (but don't compromise your grades, work habits, and personality for it), and have a mix of ages in friends. Find some your age, who will not respond with "already?!" when you talk about your desire to have a family or the housing bubble, and find some who are older who can give you advice on managing work/life, and find some who are younger who are super fun to hang out with, mostly drama free, and who know where the best places to eat and drink are.


Yes, school is work. It never stops. You have classes, teaching commitments, research to do for a professor, research to do for yourself, and your nights and weekends are never truly free. If you treat it like a 9-6 job, you can, for the most part, have some evenings free, and most of the weekend too. It's like not mindlessly surfing at work. You couldn't because your cubemates operated as a sort of external mirror conscience. You won't have that in grad school (not even at the library, where everyone surfs, chats, sleeps), so you have to keep up your discipline.

Also, not all of the work is interesting. You may have left the working world to go back to pursue a dream, your intellectual passion, etc. Well, eventually you will get there. But for now you have to do problem sets, language classes, and required foundational courses that can be super boring. It's like your first two years of college again. Like, say if you hated Chaucer but your introductory English lit major courses required you to read all of Chaucer. Welcome to foundations of ____ theory, or intro to statistical methods, or any number of courses that seem designed to crush your will and stamp out your interest in a subject. But they're a part of the process, the professionalization. Not all of your work will interest you. Your time away from school perhaps made you think that this was the case only if you were a hired gun, and that if you actually chose your own work, you'd be interested in it. Not so, as expertise in X demands familiarity and training in Y, and you might hate Y.

Finally, it is amazing how much work is unrewarded in the academy. A lot of this stuff is just to fund other work, or doing work for other people, or doing work for a class that is required but in no way advances your own dissertation or career goals. It sucks. It is not unlike the thankless clerical tasks in the real world. You just have to realize that academia is like any other job. It mostly sucks. But it can have great rewards, because at the end of the day you are working at something in which you have true interest, and maybe one day you'll get a job that pays you to do it. That's a little pessimistic, but you chose to go back to grad school (and so did I).

Work/Life Balance

Academia is one of the more flexible professions, and yet it doesn't seem to be. If you have a partner or family, this will suck for them if you don't treat grad school like a job, so that you have the dinner time free and at least some of the weekend. On evenings that we spend together, I try to wrap up work by 7 pm, make a quick dinner, and actually try to relax and be social with TD. I try to turn off the computer so that I don't mindlessly surf, although I think that can be a romantic date (and he agrees, but we shouldn't get stuck in that). But this is not always feasible every night of the week, and some times, a date is having dinner, and each of us going back to work. Sometimes, we both have to work some part of the weekend. The key to work/life balance is not trying to get everything done by 7 pm every night, but talking to your partner, negotiating with them about the household/family responsibilities, and being open and compromising. If you have a kid, that's going to be harder to ignore than a self-sufficient adult (although neglecting either is a bad idea). Use whatever institutional resources you can to make it easier on you and your family, and make sure your partner knows that you have a job and that you need just as much support. In general though, waking up early (and going to bed at a semi-reasonable hour) will go a long way in improving your productivity during the working hours, as will creating some sort of set schedule for yourself. If you take time out in the afternoon for a Rec class, you'll have to make up for it somewhere--but take that Rec class! Paying attention to the needs of your body with healthy food, exercise, fun time--that all goes a long way in making you feel balanced in work and life, and better able to manage the two.

I have the least to say about this one, because I suck the most at work/life balance, even though that's my area of research. But for now, hope this helps. Go read OrgTheory and Tim Burke for more!