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Making the Most of your Graduate School Experience

January 27, 2018

It is a quarter to 1:00am on a Wednesday night and I am still not asleep; such is the nocturnal nuisance for someone with a restless mind.  Grant writing, E-portfolio, quantitative statistics, and that conference. Cover letter, resume, that proposal, and class.  Recruitment, work, graduation, and--wait, what was that other thing?  Think, Hilary. Think. You are definitely missing something: Grant writing, E-portfolio, quantitative statistics, and that conference.  For the sake of my sanity and to the relief of my partner, I have taken to the couch with my laptop in an attempt to break this vicious cycle of overthinking.

 

Insomnia and I go way back.  Sometimes she is a friendly companion and welcomes me with an exciting new idea: "What if you wrote a novel about a cow on a factory farm but the reader doesn't know the character is a cow until the very end? Isn't that a good idea?! It'd be tragic. Wait, is that a good idea?  LET'S NAME HER BESSIE!!" I don't mind insomnia's enthusiasm that carries my mind away with grandiose ideas, because eventually I slip into sleep in a happy and hopeful state of mind.  Then there are the nights when insomnia turns on me and forces me to confront the less-than pleasant things that I have little business facing at such rude hours.

 

For the past two hours my mind has been speeding through a laundry list of things that I need to get done.  As I run through my tasks, my agitation grows.  What in God's name is that clicking noise and why are my legs so tingly?!  Having a long to-do list isn't new for me.  In fact, I am most productive when I am busy. However, tonight's worry and general insomnia feels different and I want to get to the bottom of it. 

 

Taking stock of my emotions I feel excitement, worry, happiness, ambition, and just a touch of sadness.  These emotions are bundled together and then masked by the guise of task related stress.  Where are these emotions coming from?  It can't just be my to do list.

 

Then it hits me: I only have 15 weeks left of graduate school.  

 

There it is. That's it. These past two years have been my happiest and most fulfilling and with only 15 weeks left, I have to face the troubling fact that I will close this chapter on my life in preparation for a new adventure ahead.  I entered graduate school not really knowing my niche.  Now, not only have I found it but I have discovered my passion and I don't want to leave it behind.  I have accomplished a lot of what I have set out to do in these past two years, but I also feel there is more for me to do.  If only I had another year.  

 

With one semester left, the pressure is on to leave graduate school feeling confident in my work and the legacy I leave behind.  As a research assistant, I hope that I can pass my knowledge and experience on to my successor and see the research project thrive.  Graduate school has taught me so much about myself, with each new experience laying another brink along my path journeying forward.  If I can impart any knowledge onto those who are interested in pursuing graduate school, here is what I have to say:

 

1. Don't take yourself too seriously

I came to graduate school a serious student.  My priority was my education and I embraced each assignment with rigid intention.  Regrettably, this also flowed into my personal relationships.  As many of my peers were out and about on Friday nights, I stayed in.  This wasn't due to a lack of invitation, I just felt too vulnerable to put myself into those social situations.  In fairness, I am introvert by nature and I do require ample prep time before "going out," but early on in my graduate career, I didn't engage in social functions because I didn't want to show a side of me that differed from the serious scholar persona I had built for myself.  I wanted to be taken seriously and going out felt like the antithesis of that.  Looking back, ugh! I was so boring!  You can be a serious scholar and still have a thriving social life.  Failing to let people see your vulnerabilities, sense of humor, and social quirks will not protect you; it will isolate you.  Now in the second semester of my second year, I have learned to harmonize my academic and personal life.  This learning curve wasn't without its challenges.  The first few social functions were painfully uncomfortable but as I practiced letting my metaphorical and literal hair down, I learned to have fun.  I am serious about research yet I hang out with grad school friends for Monday night Bachelor. Being in graduate school is a serious endeavor so be the best scholar you can be, but don't allow a persona prevent you from making meaningful connections.

 

 (Winter Celebration, December 2017) 

 

2. Find a mentor 

I cannot emphasize this point enough.  In the first semester of my first year of graduate school, I remember meeting with Dr. Demetri Morgan for a long conversation about career paths.  Playing with the idea of Law School or continuing graduate school for a PhD, I wanted advice on the next steps I should take.  Like a sponge I absorbed as much information as I could.  In the second semester of my first year, I joined Demetri's research team and later pursued an independent study and internship.  Passionate and deeply committed to our research project, I feel I have found my calling.  I may have found my interest in research independent of my conversations with Demetri, but it may not have been as streamlined.  The mentor/mentee relationship is a professional relationship that can have profound effect on how your navigate your next career step.  Have you ever used WikiHow?  Having a mentor is like a personal WikiHow of your field whom you can talk to when you feel stuck on a problem.  Plus, a good mentor will push you.  (S)/he/They will push you to the very limit of what you think you can accomplish while provide you with the encouragement to embrace any challenge. Which brings me to my next point:  

 

3. Use the time you have to explore what you are capable of accomplishing

There will be few situations in your professional career that grant you the time to try new things and the grace to make mistakes.  Your only real threat in graduate school is receiving a poor grade so take risks. Take lots of risks.  I am in the second semester of my second year of graduate school and I decided to enroll in quantitative statistics.  Masochistic?  Maybe.  But when will I have another opportunity to learn from a scholar in a relatively safe setting to explore if I even like educational quantitative statistics? I'm taking this class because I know it will be a challenge and it will help me to determine if becoming a quantitative researcher is a viable career option.  Consider it this way, if you are in a professional setting and your supervisor decides you need to learn a new skillset, failure isn't an option if you value your job.  While I don't intend on failing statistics, I own my decision to take this course.  Challenge by choice (Morgan, 2017) is the key to growth.  If you choose to take the easy route over the opportunities that you know will challenge you, then you are missing the mark and letting your future self down.

 

4. Know your strengths but maintain your humility 

Do you ever have those thoughts that make you pause and think, "Wow, that was really arrogant. Your mind is kind of an a**hole!"?  Well I do and while we can't always seal up the rabbit hole our judgmental minds like to fall down, we do have the power to redirect our thought-processes.  Remember that everyone in your cohort is learning.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Give people the grace to make errors and do not fool yourself into thinking you are above flaw.  I have made social faux-pas that still make me cringe and I know peers who have done the same.  Adopting an attitude of "it's all good" will save you, especially in a competitive setting like graduate school.  At the same time, it is important you know your strengths and give credit where credit is due.  If you are admitted to graduate school, clearly you're a superstar. Just be cognizant of the wax wings on your back because we all have a pair.  

 

 (Icarus by Henri Matisse, 1944)

 

5. If you have the slightest inkling you like research, GO FOR IT!

There is a certain thrill of conceptualizing something that no one before you has considered.  This is matched only be the thrill of submitting a conference or grant proposal and anxiously awaiting to hear back: "yes, we understand what you are trying to do and we like it." Research is not for everyone, and the diversity of our interests in higher education is a strength of the academy.  However, if research has ever crossed your mind, meet with one of your professors (please see point two) and give it a shot (please see point 3).

 

I am thankful for my graduate school experience and I am going to take every opportunity to make the most of these next fifteen weeks.  I don't believe my academic journey is finished, but my time at Loyola University Chicago is narrowing.  Whether you are thinking about graduate school, you are in the midst of graduate school, or you are just finishing up your program, consider your current position and take the time to reflect on where you want to go and who you want to be in the future.  Find you allies, narrow in on your strengths and interests, and continue to push yourself to your utmost limits.  This is how you realize your full potential and how to make the most of your graduate school experience.

 

Grant writing, E-portfolio, quantitative statistics, and that conference.  Cover letter, resume, that proposal, and class.  Recruitment, work, graduation, and - zzzzzzzzzzzz 

 

 

 

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