Back in Grad School: What I Missed Ten Years Ago

After ten years as an engineer and entrepreneur, I've gone back to graduate school, this time in the humanities.  “And now for something completely different”, as they say.  It does appear that I've learned a few things in the last decade though, as there are aspects of grad school that I’m seeing for the first time now, and really wish I’d been more aware of when I was 23.

The most profound, and perhaps what should be the most obvious, insight is that this is an investment in myself and my future effectiveness.  There’s only one good reason to take a pay cut, shell out tuition dollars, and spend your nights and weekends sitting at a computer: you want this knowledge, skill set, and experience because it will make you more able to have the impact you want to have on the world.  I define power (loosely) as the ability to have influence and cause change in the world.  Thus, grad school is an exercise in increasing one’s personal power.

Increasing your power has a very different motivating feel to it than increasing your earning potential, which is one of the main reasons why I got my MS in engineering.  It’s also a much more effective motivator than the other main reason I did this ten years ago: because I felt like I should.  Now, even though in hindsight I probably got my first graduate degree for the wrong reasons (and didn't enjoy certain parts of the experience, likely as a direct result), I don’t regret having done it.  Did it increase my earning potential?  Only for a couple of years until I quit corporate aerospace to start my own company.  Did it matter that I did something I was “supposed” to do? Of course not.

What did matter - what does matter now that I’m at it again - is the independence, the flexibility, and the enforced focus on quality over quantity.  Independence: maybe it’s not for everybody.  Sitting at home on your own and telling the dog to stop whining (or chewing on your shoe, or digging in the trash, or drinking out of the toilet) for the tenth time in the last fifteen minutes seems to fall under the “independence” category, but it’s probably not your cup of tea either.  On the other hand, having the autonomy to decide to go for a walk because the sun just came out, or to work on the particular project for which you've currently got a good idea, or even to get to define the topic for your next batch of work are all really nice, are all really wonderful things.

And those things all feed directly into this incredibly valuable thing called flexibility.  Of course there are set class times and assignment due dates, but other than that, it’s entirely up to you how you approach the whole thing.  Is today a day to have lunch with a friend (or go to yoga or just sleep in) and then work late to compensate?  Or are you up-and-at-’em first thing and able to knock off early for an afternoon in the hammock?  Another facet of flexibility that I did not appreciate during my MS is flexibility not just of time, but of scope.  I was so caught up in the “should” and “supposed to” mindset the first time through that I didn't realize I got to decide how much effort I put into things.  This time, I am taking advantage.  I'm still confident I'm doing good work, but it’s easier to decide what’s good enough when the purpose of the whole thing is clear: will that extra hour of work have a noticeable impact on how influential and effective I will be in a few years?  If not, see the discussion on independence and go for a walk.

This idea brings us naturally to the quality vs. quantity advantage.  No one is asking you to punch a clock.  No one cares how many hours you studied for that test or spent revising that paper.  The only thing that matters is the end product - and by that, I don’t mean the test or the paper, I mean you.  That end product is also way more than the sum of the coursework: the relationships you build, the random extra experiences that you fit in, the challenge to think differently, even the confidence that comes from successfully navigating another awkward first day of school at a new campus, it all adds up.  Paradoxically, not having as much disposable income also helps focus on quality: what matters more, how many times you go out to eat or how interesting a conversation you have over dinner?  Where is your time really better spent: on shopping for a new electronic gadget or on savoring a still moment?

So to myself, as well as to my fellow grad students out there: remember why you’re doing this.  Remember to both plant and smell the roses.  Remember to take care of yourself.  And remember to savor the independence, flexibility, and quality of this experience: it may not happen again for another ten years (if you’re lucky)!