(This post originally appeared on the BSU English blog.)
In my final spring semester at Ball State, before the air became toxic from the dogwood trees near the Atrium, I was over college. The sleepless nights and the mountains of reading were something I had been looking forward to leaving behind. My mighty keyboard had vanquished all of the research papers lurking in the shadows, and the hefty textbooks could find new homes.
I had finally made it. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English—not something I had anticipated when I was eighteen years old—and I was ready to take on the world. At that time I worked for Target and was hopeful to find another job with my shiny, new degree that would prove to employers I was worthy enough to work for them. However, throughout all of my searching, I found no such position—I beat myself up for not using the Career Center when it was available to me—and continued my work as a nonthreatening security guard at a Target in Indianapolis. The job was not stimulating and the hours were less than desirable, but I made enough to live on my own comfortably.
At some point, catching “bad guys” became less exhilarating and dealing with management was more of a hassle, always demeaning and an insult to my intelligence. It was around that time I visited my friends at the ol’ alma matter and set up an appointment with Mark Neely to discuss graduate school opportunities. It seemed like it would be the only option to find my way into a better job that I actually enjoyed. I was mostly looking forward to the meeting to catch up with Mark and maybe get an idea of whether or not graduate school would be something to further explore. But by some wizardry Mark convinced me—some six months after I swore I was done with school forever—that graduate school was the next path on my journey. It was then that I started preparing to submit to the MA Creative Writing program at Ball State.
I only had a month or so to submit my information. I only had a week to prepare for the GRE. I needed to revise my creative submission. I was stressed. But the moment the acceptance came in the mail, all of the anxiety was worth it. I was going to grad school and getting out of the hellhole. There is no sweeter feeling than telling your boss that you’ll be leaving on x day in x amount of weeks to go to graduate school. What’s more is I was excited. I was so happy to be able to continue my education. I wanted to go back to school.
So why does all of that matter? What does my personal experience with a crummy job have to do with expectations of graduate school? First and foremost, I like to think that I’m not the exception to the rule. Most people graduate with their Bachelor’s Degree and don’t want to continue their education. Among those, there are people who aren’t going to find their ideal job. What’s important to note is: that’s okay. Going to graduate school should be something you want to do, not something you feel obligated to do. What’s also okay is changing your mind and deciding you do want to go to graduate school after swearing off of school forever.
When it came to expectations, I think nearly everyone anticipates a lot of work. And I hope they expect to do something they love, whether that be writing poetry or researching rhetorical theories or reading Dickens. Those were things I expected, but I also expected to hone my craft, to learn to love writing again, and find my new place in the hierarchy of higher education. I was awarded an assistantship—If I could give any advice, it would be to find a graduate program with funding (Ball State English has a pretty sweet set up *cough cough*)—this meant I would be teaching. What I didn’t expect was to make friends with such talented people that will last well beyond the two years it has taken to get my Master’s Degree. I didn’t expect to find love in reading books like The Price of Salt or Other Electricities or Life on Mars (among countless others)—books I never would have looked at if it weren’t for my classes. I didn’t expect to find my purpose in life—I’ve always wanted to work in the publishing industry, but after my time teaching, I’ve realized that teaching is my calling. Needless to say, grad school exceeded my expectations ten-fold.
Disclaimer: All encouragement for use of and application to Ball State programs is provided shamelessly and genuinely.
As with most things, graduate school is difficult at times and it’s hard to like it in those moments where you have a twenty-page paper due or you have to read a four-hundred-page novel in two days. It’s hard to like it when your students don’t understand a concept you’ve explained meticulously or one of them plagiarizes. But honestly, the good moments outweigh the bad. There were times I wished I didn’t take a certain class or could sleep for a week, but working through the difficult times gave me determination, pride, and, most of all, knowledge. And that’s the main reason graduate school is something to consider: knowledge. Not knowledge of all things—the kind of knowledge that helps you achieve the title of “the pretentious know-it-all in the room”—but knowledge of the important thing(s), the ones most important to you. Undergraduate courses are fascinating and you can learn many concepts and techniques, but taking the extra step to dedicate my education to the study of writing (specifically poetry), which I love, has helped me in more ways than I can count. Not only that, but the experience I have gained by teaching, tutoring, researching, and administrating is valuable no matter where I end up after graduation.
So no, graduate school isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. It takes knowing yourself enough to know when and if you are ready. It takes time. It takes determination. And sometimes it takes every last bit of shear will you can muster. And maybe you’re not sure about whether or not graduate school is for you. My suggestion would be to talk to a professor you trust. Talk to current graduate students. Get involved in your community and see if you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing. But no matter what, if you decide to go to graduate school it will be one of the best decisions you’ve made, for your career, and, most importantly, for yourself. Remember: there will always be hard times to trudge through, but you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take and, even if you struggle, the outcome can be far greater than you ever imagined.