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Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Black and white drawing of a mother and her baby, and a book floating in the air and shining.

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

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