There was no Good Witch of the North to guide you at the crossroads, and there were no yellow bricks. Still, you held your head high and made your choice: follow the post-graduate road. Now, while your undergrad classmates are working, earning money, and starting families, you’re up until morning clutching an espresso and a research paper.
That’s okay. Everyone’s choices are different and you’ve decided to take the path that’s best for you. And now that you’ve chosen your road, you’ll be spending the next few years on it, so you’ll need to learn to cope with the bumps.
Know what to expect
Before you go, know what you’re dealing with. Review your program requirements and curriculum. Is your program based on research, projects, or courses? All three require time, dedication, and patience.
William Tays, a PhD student at Brock University, suspected his graduate education experience was going to be different from undergrad, but that’s what he wanted. “I assumed I would have more autonomy in my own work, which is a very welcome change to merely taking classes as an undergraduate,” Tays says. “Overall, I was hoping it would be a very different experience from my undergrad career, and that turned out to be exactly the case.”
You won’t necessarily live under a rock, but more focus on schoolwork equals less time for friends and family. Marilyn Rose, dean of Graduate Studies at Brock, says, “Graduate programs expect their students to work hard and spend a great deal of time mastering the discipline they have chosen to study … . Students have to be prepared to have little time left over for idleness or play.”
Jenny Phelps, assistant dean and director of Graduate Enrollment Services at the University of British Columbia, says students will have to deliver better quality work. “The expectations are higher here. Students are expected to be more connected with the faculty since there are less lectures here and course sizes are smaller.” Phelps continues, “The nature of the work at the graduate level is more focused. It’s somewhat more independent, and there’s more responsibility for (students) to choose their career paths. They become managers of their own learning experiences.”
Graduate studies can mean more alone time for you and your work, but with some time management skills, you shouldn’t be alone all the time.
“We know that students can learn how to manage their time and thereby make sufficient time for socializing, exercising, and otherwise taking care of themselves. And we encourage this, we even offer workshops on time management and related skills,” Rose says.
Socializing (or networking) can play an important role in your career, says Phelps. “Research shows the more engaged students are in their programs, the better their outcomes are — the better the connections and the more experience they’ll have.”
Tays got involved by becoming a teaching assistant, joining the school senate, and helping out on several conferences and committees. “My regular grad work takes up a great deal of my time, but I’ve benefited from working outside my microcosm.”
Study or Work overseas
Consider pursuing your degree for a semester abroad. In general, any experience travelling, studying, and/or working overseas — being comfortable working in foreign environments — is always an attractive trait employers look for. Be open to breaking out of that nest!
Many university programs let students pursue course-based master’s and PhD’s in a number of partner institutions around the world. If you have this opportunity, jump on it. If you’re worried about the expense, consider teaching English part-time as you study: this approach lets you travel, exposes you to new cultures, and allows you to meet new people.
Aside from eating some different food, and maybe brushing up on a new language, studying abroad might also give you a different attitude to work and study that you can carry into your future career. Evan Malek, founder of Second Chance Travel, says that while many students want to kick their careers into high gear as soon as they graduate, it’s a good idea to consider slowing down. ”North America is a more driven culture, very competitive. There’s a lot of pressure on young people to get into high gear. But I think graduates can learn more from other cultures and put more emphasis on adventure and exploration.”
Have a game plan for after graduation: receiving your master’s or PhD degree is fine and dandy, but closing your last textbook and finding yourself with zero insight into what you want to do is not going to get you far when it comes to finding that first, real, post-grad gig.
Ben Rogul, from Aon Hewitt, says “When I’m talking to new grads and I ask them what they’re looking for, I’d say nine out of ten times they don’t know.” He says when graduates come to him and list off the skills and qualities they have, that’s great. But, as a recruiter it’s frustrating. The key information he’s looking for is what the new graduate wants to do.
Paul Smith, from CACEE, agrees, “The first job (you get out of school) doesn’t define the rest of your career. That’s why the most important thing for somebody who’s a new grad looking to make their way into the workforce is to know themselves, to take the time to understand what they’re actually looking for, where their interests are, where their strengths lie, and go forward from there. It’s the person who knows what they’re looking for who’s going to be successful.”
Keep your eye on the prize
Grad school may require extra effort up front, but your effort will pay off in the end. “Survey research shows the higher the degree level you have, the higher your earnings are,” Phelps says. “This higher degree will even give you better job opportunities. And this credential really puts you at an advantage over other people who don’t have it.”
Earnings aside, grad school also prepares you for the working world by teaching you discipline, says Demetres Tryphonopoulos, acting associate dean for the School of Graduate Studies at the University of New Brunswick. “Graduate students are not only better prepared for the market place, but they also possess the kind of independence and discipline that employers value.”
The contacts you make can also help you land a job. “There’s no doubt that graduate studies offer many benefits in the area of social contacts that will pay off in the future,” Rose says. “Professors themselves are well-connected and can provide introductions or letters of reference (in fact it‘s part of their jobs to do so) for students who do well in their courses.”
Grad students also learn professionalism, adds Tays. “I think grad school offers a considerable opportunity for personal and professional development. I've learned dedication, engagement, ambition, creativity, critical thinking, ingenuity, and professional citizenship.”
So Yellow Brick Road or no, there’s no tiny wizard making false promises at the end of your grad school journey. Instead, you’ll develop the genuine professionalism, contacts, and knowledge to help you achieve your career goals.