I worked in financial services for two years, and then decided I wanted to do a PhD in literature.
For me, going back to school involved a monumental career change as well as a significant lifestyle change. Even if your graduate degree will further you along the career path you’ve been on for years, being in school full-time will be a major change from your previous daily life. Here are some tips on how to prepare for your upcoming transition back to school.
Maybe you are taking loans to pay for school, maybe you are using up your savings, or maybe you are lucky enough to have funding; regardless of how you’re paying for school, though, you will have a lot less disposable cash. I went from making six figures a year on Wall Street to pulling in a little over $11,000 as my teaching stipend (before taxes and registration fees). Your change may not be this drastic, but talk to any graduate student and you’ll learn that your budget will have to be tightened. Get a head start by looking into free budgeting tools like Mint.com, and take advice from straight-talking savers like Ramit Sethi.
You will, of course, be extraordinarily busy and stressed with your new workload, so your social life may not take first precedence, but the good news is that it will exist, though in a very different form from what you’re used to now. If you’re entering a more structured program like business, law, or medical school, expect to have a camaraderie with your cohort, and—especially if you’re going to business school—a college-like social life. The social lives available to those in PhD and master’s programs vary widely by school and program. For example, without a sequence of required classes that we all had to take, the students in my literature program took a while to get to know one another. That said, my friends in neuroscience quickly formed a close-knit circle (into which I invited myself). Bottom line: everyone is in the same boat, so put yourself out there! Go to department parties, graduate student events, and other awkward institutional mixers; you’ll find your tribe soon enough. And, get to know your classmates, even if you’d prefer a different cohort: these people will become your colleagues in your field, and ultimately may be evaluating grant applications, tenure proposals, and job applications for people like you in the future. So, it's important that they know who you are and like you!
In grad school, you’ll be thinking, reading, writing, and studying more often and more intensely than you probably do now. It will be hard. And tiring. Your grad school friends will be similarly fried, so keep some of your old friends around for a nice mental break. It will take some time to adjust to your new workload and also to learning in a classroom once more. You’ll get there, though; just focus on smart study techniques once you’ve determined your learning style.
Graduate school can be rough. Many programs are designed to break you of former thought patterns, while others try to weed out the “weaklings” by giving everyone hell. You will be putting your mind on the line every time you speak, write, or publish. The constant scrutiny, doubt, competition, and pressure can be a lot to deal with, and some students slide into depression or develop severe insecurities. Keep yourself afloat by maintaining perspective, cultivating relationships with mentors, commiserating with peers, and drawing on the support of family and friends. All schools have organizations and offices that are set up explicitly for emotional support through rough patches, and we advise you to learn about them before you actually need them.
While these potential changes may seem scary, we are not trying to dissuade you from going back to school!
Au contraire, mon frère; we want to see you succeed.
What was your experience transitioning from the work force to graduate school? Do you have any suggestions that Sheila didn't mention? Please share!