I was 33 when I left my job, moved 2,000 miles, and started graduate school full time. I wrote this article to talk a little bit about the ways school is similar but also very different as a 30-something.
A caveat: My experience is, I am sure, heavily influenced by a few things: 1. My school is small, under 500 students, and exclusively graduate level, 2. My classes take place 100% in a physical classroom rather than online, and 3. I’ve had the opportunity to go to school full time and work just a few flexible hours each week. This setup, especially the first two, have for me been essential to learning well as an individual studying a relational field (counseling psychology)
Many of my friends in graduate school are their mid twenties and although I often envy their participation in this process at a young age, their experience and struggles often make me thankful for a decade of experience in the work place to discover, explore, and develop my skill set. I didn’t know that I had learned so much about myself and my skills when I was working, but graduate school helped me recognize.
One of the best pieces of advice I received during orientation to my school was “Write the paper you need to write, not the paper you think your instructor wants.” This piece of advice invited the freedom to think critically about what I wanted to learn, and what I needed to explore, and how to creatively intersect that with assignments, instead of the alternative: pedantically fulfilling generic requirements.
If you’ve considered returning to graduate school in your 30’s you’ve probably considered the drawbacks: temporary loss of income when you’ve likely established a lifestyle based on previous income, fear around not being able to academically perform to the level you could previous or that you fear will be expected in graduate school, time concerns around family and relationships, and worry about how you’ll make time for reading and writing papers when your attentions are split between school, family, and possibly a part time job, etc. Those are legitimate concerns you’ll work out if you decide to take a path that leads to grads school, but here’s my list of the outstanding, unexpected things I’ve gained from my return to graduate school in my 30’s:
Why Returning to Grad School After 30 Rocks:
1. You know how to ask for what you need
by 30, you’ve been in the workforce for years. You’ve navigated bosses, probably worked in good teams and not-so-good teams, and handled sticky human resources situations. You know your strengths and you’ve probably learned a lot about boundaries, how to take advantage of resources, and how to recognize when you need help. In the graduate school classroom, this translates to taking ownership of your own education. In grad school in your 30’s, you care less about whether you might ask silly questions in class, and ask because you need to know. You know the cost of education, so you’re motivated to take advantage of free resources, like librarian’s professional research skills or professor’s office hours, which statistically boost academic success.
2. You know how to tell the difference between real world skills and bulls**t.
Younger students my aggressively strive for high scores, with little ability to filter the information for usefulness or relevance. When entering graduate school, especially in a new field, an older student will struggle to know what will and will not be useful in practice or necessary to know for licensing exams, but even the awareness that “not all data is equal” is an asset. As you progress in your field of study you’ll develop an ability to combine previous workforce experience with the educational content and make wise decisions regarding how to best integrate the data in order for you to achieve long term success, not simply short term academic success.
3. You know what you need to learn and how you learn best.
By 30, if you’ve been paying attention, you bring the equivalent of a master’s degree in YOU. Because you know you, you have a better idea of what you don’t know. Weak skills you may have heart reflected in work reviews with your superiors in previous jobs become data you can use to tailor your own coursework. Unlike a younger student, you have a better idea of what your weaknesses look like outside of the classroom, and can use the classroom to improve. For example, knowing you struggle with giving presentations, you can choose to fulfill flexible assignments with a presentation, allowing yourself practice and feedback. In a school invested well in your growth and learning, taking the risk to do the harder assignment will be a safe thing, unlike trial and error experiences in the workplace.
4. Your professors are invested
I’m confident this is more true at graduate schools than other schools, and smaller schools more so than large ones, but generally, in grad school your professors are invested. Teachers in previous educational experiences may have been burnt out or calloused by low student engagement, but graduate school professors tend to teach in an environment with smaller classes and more engaged students. In graduate school, professors tend towards seeing you as a person who brings unique perspectives and voice to classes, and you’re more likely to find conversation and engagement rather than instruction and dictation. For students straight from undergrad it can be a difficult adjustment from being merely instructed to being engaged and invited into conversation as a part of instruction, but as a 30-something, you may find yourself surprised at the ways graduate school can feel more collaborative than you remember undergraduate courses. (In my opinion: If your grad school experience doesn’t welcome your voice in the classroom, particularly in a humanities field, that’s a red flag of a less than excellent learning environment.)
5. You have a larger vision, meaning you can co-develop skills
I actually think this is the best part about grad school as a 30-something. There is something about having experienced a decade in the workforce that has made it possible for me to have a larger sense of purpose and co-purpose. For example: I’m in graduate school for the purpose of a masters degree, however my vision does not end there. I recognize this as an environment invested in my growth, and a place where it’s good and appropriate to try new things and experiment and sometimes fail. So getting a masters isn’t my only goal. I also work hard to identify where I want to grow and live into those spaces. For me, that’s
1. Becoming more skilled and confident as a spoken word poet. (I’ve told a few professors about this during office hours, and twice subsequently had assignments modified so that a few of my points from the term come from poetry based assignments.)
2. Improve Doodle-Notes skills to a marketable level. (If practice makes perfect, I have several hours each week in courses to improve my skills while enhancing memory retention.) Check out my doodle notes here.
3. Increase my ability to communicate succinctly via writing. (Possibly the most marketable skill ever, writing well is always a worth-while goal to co-develop while in graduate school. For me, this means seeking out peer reviews, re-editing papers based on instructor feedback after they are graded, and submitting work to school lit magazines or blogs)
These 5 things have made graduate school as a 34 year old an adventure full of growth and surprises. What was your biggest surprise when you started graduate school? I’d love to hear your comments and add them to my list with a credit to you.