It can be daunting to go back to school after a long absence. In my case, I worked for eight years on the staff side of a small university before deciding to pursue doctoral study. It was a tough choice; I had worked hard to establish my career. I was comfortable, and it felt good to be respected for my expertise. Am I ready to start over as a newbie? Will everyone be younger than me? Do I even remember how to write? What am I thinking??
In difficult times of transition, I do what any self-respecting geek would do…I take courage from the sage wisdom and guidance offered by one of my favorite movies: The Empire Strikes Back.
Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.
No disrespect intended to the motivated students who take a straight and direct course from bachelor’s degree through Ph.D. – but having work experience may give you some advantages over your younger classmates:
- Control! You have learned control. You’ve learned to sit patiently through meetings and to handle tense situations with tact and diplomacy. Let’s face it – in every job, you sometimes have to work with strong personalities. Academia is no different. Work experience teaches us that we need to put egos aside for the good of the project. These skills come in handy when you’re working on a group assignment, or as part of a research team.
- You finish what you begin. In most workplaces, projects must be completed on time and under budget – there isn’t a great deal of flexibility. This means that you not only know how to meet your own deadlines, but to respect the deadlines of your colleagues.
- Like a Jedi, you have the deepest commitment. Leaving the workplace to return to school – especially after a long absence – isn’t something that’s done lightly. Taking the GRE is enough to strike fear into anyone’s heart, but it can be particularly scary for someone who’s been out of school for more than a few years. You’ve put a great deal of thought into your decision, and are making sacrifices in order to take this next step. This demonstrates a deep and serious commitment to graduate study!
- Like a Jedi, you have the most serious mind.
- You know how to manage stress. Graduate school is stressful, but (at least in my experience) not all that different from a high-responsibility job. You’ve learned to balance multiple priorities – family, friends, fitness – with work. You can bring the self-awareness and stress-management skills you’ve developed in the workplace to your graduate career.
- You’ve written self-evaluations. Being able to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and to write about them, will be an asset when you put together materials like preliminary exams, teaching evaluations, and other components of your graduate portfolio.
You must unlearn what you have learned.
On the other hand, returning to school full-time does require some adjustments. Here are a few things you may need to unlearn:
- Keep your mind on where you are, and what you are doing. Outside of academia, efficiency and speed tend to be highly valued. While efficiency is certainly important, grad school also involves maintaining a sustained focus; your research will likely require that you stay engaged for a slow and careful analysis. So don’t rush it.
- Always in motion is the future. The fluid schedule of school can feel a bit strange when you’re used to a fairly regular work week. Know yourself: if you struggle with self-motivation, do some preparation to set yourself up for success. Set aside a specific amount of time for studying (and assistantship work), prioritize tasks for each week, and keep long-term goals in focus. Think about how strategies from the workplace can be adapted for your graduate school endeavors.
Like Luke, you’ve already learned much – and you can leverage that knowledge to inform your graduate school experience. It’s okay if you’re afraid. And if you’re not…oh, you will be. You will be
Here are some additional resources to help you make the transition:
- Set Priorities First to Successfully Adjust to Graduate School
- How to Go Back to School after Working
Kurtz, G., Brackett, L., Kasdan, L., Kershner, I., Lucas, G., Hamill, M., Ford, H. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (1980). Star Wars: Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back. United States: 20th Century Fox.