How not to apply for grad school (a story from personal experience)
Grad school can be a lot like a relationship – if the chemistry isn’t there, things just aren’t going to work out. Just because you both enjoy long walks on the beach and the listening to show-tunes, doesn’t mean you are right for each other. Likewise, it can be difficult to determine which grad school is right for you. A school that sounds great on paper, might not be a good fit for your individual needs and personality.
Reflecting on the school I chose for my masters degree, I think it would have been better if we had agreed to see other people. My grad school is a great school filled with great people and fantastic programs, it just wasn’t the right environment for me. I hate to fall back on cliches, but “it’s not you, it’s me.”
To make a long story short, I spent most of my MA being miserable. While I met fantastic people, made life-long friends, and met a girl so wonderful she defies words, I never really enjoyed my academic grad school experience. Since grad school is a huge investment of time, money, energy, and emotion, it’s a decision I now realize that I made too lightly.
After a lot of reflecting on my experience, I’ve come up with five tips for how not to apply for grad school. These are tips I’ll be definitely keep in mind the next time I’m looking into new schools.
1. Faster isn’t always better - For my MA I decided to attend a school in the UK. A major factor in this decision was time. Most history masters in North America are two years, whereas similar degrees in the UK are one year. Even though a MA in the UK costs more in tuition than in my home country of Canada, the shorter length makes UK MAs seem like a cost-effective solution.
Cheaper? Faster? What’s to lose?
While a one-year MA is a great fit for some people, I would have benefited from more time. I failed to recognize the learning curve that accompanies a new university. It takes a significant amount of time to get comfortable with the school, its libraries, its resources, and its professors. But the end of my one-year MA I was finally getting to the point where I was comfortable with my surroundings. A second year in the same surroundings would have been hugely beneficial to my academic growth.
2. Location matters - While it may feel like it some days, you don’t actually live the entirety of your life inside your university. Once and a while you’ll have to venture out into town. When choosing my university I gave no thought or consideration to the town in which my university is situated. I made the mistake of thinking that since I was going there to study, the university was all that mattered.
As it turned out, I never really warmed to the city. It was a tourist haven, making the city perpetually clogged with photo-snapping tourists and causing most of the shops and restaurants in it to overprice and under-deliver.
Furthermore, growing up in the Pacific Northwest I underestimated just how important proximity to nature is to my overall sense of well-being. Being located in Northern England, the majority of the nearby nature was restricted to flat farmers’ fields, without a forest or ocean in site.
Given the tremendous stress of grad school is highly important to enjoy your non-school surroundings. Not even the most studious of individuals cannot spend all their time in school.
3. Schools change - Looking back this seems rather obvious, but schools change year to year. For some reason I failed to realize this when selecting my grad school. When researching my grad program I was impressed by its course offerings from the previous year.
“Wow,” I thought, “I can’t wait to take all of these specific courses.”
I failed to realize that courses and instructors change from year to year. Unless you are certain that a specific course or instructor will be around when you start your program, you shouldn’t base such an important decision on it. As it turned out, many of the courses I really wanted to take weren’t offered the following year and one of the instructors I wanted to work with when on sabbatical that year.
Many of these questions can be answered by a simple email to program’s departmental office. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because important decisions shouldn’t be based on assumptions.
4. Look for help - Help exists everywhere, you just have to look for it. Have questions about the program? Email the departmental office. Want more personal advice? Find people on twitter who have attended that school and ask their opinions. Not sure if you’ll like the town? Visit tourism sites and blogs.
There are some many fantastic grad school advice blogs out there (The Thesis Whisperer, Grad Hacker, and Gradness Madness come to mind) that great advice is easy to come by. I realize now that I shouldn’t have been afraid to seek advice in making my decision.
In short, I didn’t do my homework and I suffered because of it. Applying for grad school is exciting and it’s tempting to jump in with both feet, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A little caution goes a long way.
5. Don’t jump off a bridge just because everyone else is doing it - I’d be lying if I said peer pressure didn’t factor into my decision to go to grad school. While my friends didn’t tell me that “all the cool kids were going to grad school,” the fact that seemingly everyone I knew was applying made me feel like I should apply too. In retrospect, I should have put more thought into the choices I was making, questioning what I wanted to get out of grad school.
In the end I decided to pick the same grad school that one of my good friends was going to. It was the right school for her, but it wasn’t the right school for me. Each person has specific individual needs and what may be good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.
Do I regret going to my grad school? Not for a single minute. Aside from the relationships I made there, that experience has shaped the person I am today and has taught me just how important it is to think about decisions thoroughly before making them.
And while I largely skipped over it in this post, I did grow academically there as well. But a plant will grow in many different kinds of soil, the key to choosing the right grad school is finding the right kind of soil to nurture you, allowing you to grow from a seedling to a tree. Choosing the wrong school for your needs can stunt your growth – why be a bush when you can be a tree?