Wednesday, September 10, 2003

RedPanda's Guide to Grad School

It seems like almost everyone I know who is already bachelor'ed is half-pondering going to grad school. I hear things like "Yeah, I need to go to grad school..", "Yeah, I'm thinking about grad school..." everywhere I turn, it seems. So, for the benefit of the Grad School Uncertain, I guide to grad school! Chock full of unsolicited advice! Guaranteed to evoke eye rolls and feelings of exasperation! But, if you follow it, you'll thank me later. Or at least, I'd like to think you will.

1. Wait a couple years after finishing college before embarking on a "grad school career"
Put yourself "out there" first. Even if you have to work at a crappy dead-end job, get some real-life "professional experience" before you make the transition. It will, at the very least, give you an appreciation for student life again.

2. Be DAMN SURE about what you want before you start applying to grad schools
I can't emphasize this enough. Really, I can't. Grad school is NOT like undergrad, where you can take a course and say "Oh, I didn't like that so much. I think I'll switch majors." There is no switching of majors. Grad school is like a speeding freight train, and once you're on, you're on. By the time you realize you got on the wrong train, you're halfway through your program and it's just as easy to go ahead as it is to quit. Furthermore, grad school classes are very, very specialized. A class for a particular degree will not translate into anything for a different one.
So, for the love of God, don't embark on a program you kind of like. Be damn sure that it is what you love; what you really want to do; and that you can do it for the rest of your life.

3. THOROUGHLY investigate the job/career prospects of your chosen program. Call up companies if necessary, check out the want ads. Make sure there will be a job for you when you get out. (HINT: the market is saturated with lawyers, writers, IT professionals; many of whom are un- or under-employed. Many of these people have years of experience and are desperate for a job, any job. Who do you think you're kidding if you're pursuing one of these fields? Don't waste your time. You are not special and will be unemployed and in debt when you're finished with school.)

4. THOROUGHLY investigate the schools you are considering. Leave no stone unturned. Talk to current students, professors, alumni. Don't be afraid of looking like a jerk by asking probing questions. And don't just go by the students the school provides you with to talk to---they're only going to give you the contact info. of the most content individuals. Remember, grad schools are cash cows--they just want you to apply and enroll and typically care very little about your individual needs (you can disregard that last sentence to an extent if you're in an understudied field and do scads of new research...). You mean CASH to them, and they can be very unscrupulous in recruiting you.

5. Don't just choose the school that throws the most money at you. Just because they're willing to pay you, or let you come for free, or pay a good chunk of your tuition (depending on your field); does NOT mean that this is the best school, or program, for you. Choose the one that is best, the one that you would choose if they were all free. You'll find a way to pay for it later.

6. When you choose your program, put everything you've got into it. Unless you are already working in your chosen field and grad school is just a vehicle to propel you upwards at a faster rate, do NOT work while attending grad school. Take out thousands of dollars in loans instead. It'll pay off later, trust me. The exception, of course, is the low-paying or not-paying jobs and internships in your "chosen field". Snatch those up like candy--they'll lead to better jobs later. No complaining that you "need to work...". You don't. You can take out loans. If you simply must work, put off grad school. Working is a mistake. Trust me.

7. Network. Be everyone's best friend. Help your professors out. Kiss ass like crazy. When you have speakers in class, be ready to go up, introduce yourself, and ask intelligent questions when they're finished. Follow up with e-mails. They'll remember you. And you'll have scads of contacts.

8. Don't be discouraged when you get out. One of my undergrad professors who taught a grad school prep class I took over Christmas break said something damn memorable: "What sucks about grad school is that, when you get out, all your friends who didn't go to grad school are making a lot more money than you.". It's true. Don't be discouraged. You'll catch up.

Ok, that's all I got for now. A lot of those items could go for undergrad, too. What I can't stress enough: It's going to be hard. It's going to be expensive. You are not special or different from everyone else (as in, you won't be "the one" who defeats the odds and gets a job in a struggling industry...). But it's worth it.

At least, I freaking hope it is.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my monotonous data entry job.

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