You've received the acceptance letter, and you’ve given your boss notice that in a few months you’ll be leaving – for graduate school. What are the differences between full-time employment and full-time studenthood? What should you anticipate as you make the transition? And how do you deal with that whole pesky lack-of-a-paycheck thing?
Here, three people who made the switch offer their tips and advice about going back to graduate school.
Jen Bobrow LaCroix was a case manager for a domestic violence agency. Then she went to Smith College for Master of Social Work, and now she’s a psychotherapist at a non-profit outpatient clinic.
Marissa Reddy is a former Peet’s trainer and manager and current MA English lit student.
Daniel Sutelman used to be in IT and is a current MSW candidate at Boston College.
What are the primary lifestyle differences between full-time work and full-time graduate school?
Across the board, our interviewees felt grad school was more of a challenge, particularly in the area of time management. “Being in grad school full-time is harder psychologically because you are never finished--there is always more reading and writing to do than is ever possible to complete,” LaCroix explains. “And because there are no "work hours" you feel like you should be working all the time, and it is more difficult to structure when work time is and when play time is.”
Reddy echoes LaCroix’s sentiments. “As a professional I dreamed about getting to make my own schedule...and it's much harder than I thought it would be. As a student, you're never done, you never go home and switch from 'work' to 'play' mode. There is always more studying/reading/writing you COULD be doing.” Sutelman agrees. “Grad school takes more time than working full time. It feels like a bigger commitment. You can’t leave work and be done with it like a 9-5 job, so it’s always looming in the back of your mind.”
Another sticking point? Money. “I haven't had to count my pennies so carefully in awhile, and my lifestyle has changed because of that. In many ways it's great--I cook for myself more, sew/repair/recycle more clothes, pay much closer attention to how/what I'm consuming--but it's also tough to be less financially independent than I used to be. Coupled with being at an age when a lot of my friends have established careers and I feel like I should too...well, it's tough to be a poor student again,” says Reddy.
Sutelman notes, “At school you pay money to work. That is difficult for me to accept and navigate through. In particular, unpaid internships. I’m bringing my training and skills to a population that needs services and performing them for no fee and also paying for the credits that I earn from that internship. It feels backwards to me.”
What did you do to mark the transition between ending work and beginning school?
While LaCroix and Sutelman reported they didn’t do anything in particular, Reddy took a month off between work and school, which she calls “a great idea. During that time I visited friends, packed and moved, generally explored things around the city I'd been wanting to see, and finished lots of crafty projects that had been on my to-do list forever.
It was important to me to close one chapter in my life fully before moving on to the next, and this break allowed me to do that.” Moral of the story: take time off if you can, and enjoy yourself.
How can a future student expect to feel as he or she makes the transition?
Scared, exhilarated, relieved, apprehensive, stressed. This major life transition can bring up a tornado of emotions. “I was terrified of failing. It was a hard transition to make - leaving a lucrative career where I was established and experienced to start over, get into debt and be in a field I had no experience in,” says Sutelman. He concedes, though that “it was also exciting and fulfilling to be making this change.”
LaCroix’s sentiments were similar: “Emotionally, I felt nervous but also excited to be moving forward and getting closer to qualified for the work I wanted to do.” Reddy, who had a month to digest her transition, explains “I'd been working long hours in a pretty stressful environment, and the down time allowed me to rest and fully prepare to become a student. I started classes feeling really ready and excited.”
Key advice for future students preparing to leave work for grad school…
Our interviewees offered diverse advice. Sutelman, speaking to the frequent practice of taking the grad school plunge out of confusion, cautions prospective students to “make sure you know what the degree will do for you. I think that some people get degrees just to have them.”
LaCroix suggests you “anticipate feeling like you are regressing at first. It's hard to go from working and being financially independent to being in school, unable to earn very much, and even needing help from others to pay the bills.” And Reddy again refers to the importance of creating a supportive transition. “Time off in between, if possible, is really helpful in beginning to make the switch,” she says.