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Jordan McNeill is a doctoral student in special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @jordanmcneill89.

I started “adulting” at age 21. I had taken a fairly standard route: graduate high school, attend a 4-year university, earn a bachelor’s degree, get a teaching position. I settled into a life with my own apartment, a full-time job, and a monthly paycheck. I taught in the public school system for six years before returning to graduate school full-time at the ripe old age of 27.

Now, you might be laughing, but I quickly realized just how many of my fellow graduate students had transitioned to Master’s or even PhD programs directly after completing a Bachelor’s degree. Of course, this varies quite a bit by program. Education is much more likely to attract students with previous teaching experience. In fact, the NSF reports that only 12% of education doctorates are earned by students age 30 or less, compared to more than half in the hard science fields. Inside the walls of the School of Education, I’m much more likely to encounter others with at least a few years of work experience. But when I attend social and networking events across the whole university, I am often one of the oldest people there.

Regardless of your field, it’s a big decision to transition back to the world of “studenting” after being a working professional. You have to highlight different things when applying to graduate programs and consider the financial implications of leaving a career to pursue an additional degree. But once you’re here, in the weird little world we call graduate school, there are simultaneously some adjustments to be made and some unique ways that having experienced the “real world” can really give you a leg up.

The Hard Parts

Let’s get the tough news out of the way first…

  • You know what it’s like to earn a real paycheck. Considering the fact that many graduate student organizations are fighting for stipends that match minimum wage, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re taking a pay cut to go back to school. When you’re used to earning a steady income, it can require some real lifestyle changes to survive on a graduate student stipend.
  • You’ve become accustomed to some degree of structure. You may have worked a 9-5 office job, been responsible for a classroom of students all day, or otherwise put in your 40-hour work weeks before returning to school. Suddenly, you are responsible for your own deadlines and decisions, and apart from the 10 hours per week you might be in class, you decide how to spend your time. You’ll likely need to master some new time management and organizational strategies to cope with this lack of structure.
  • You’ll probably feel old. But it’s ok. Just chalk it up to life experience.


The Helpful Parts

  • You’ve experienced things, not just read about them. Because of my teaching experience, I knew the real issues firsthand. I saw how policies impacted schools and students and dealt with the nuances and sticky situations that research all too often forgets. In any field, job experience provides this genuine window into the real world that no textbook description can compare to. Professional experience equates to “street smarts,” and you can use this to your advantage in both graduate school and the job market.
  • You have some savings to lean on (hopefully). With the median debt of graduate students climbing to over $57,000, it is impossible to deny the value of entering graduate school with a financial cushion. If you’re smart about your saving and spending habits while working, you shouldn’t need to rely as heavily on costly loans. There was no way that I could live entirely on the stipend provided by my assistantship, but when combined with the savings I built up over six years of employment, I have been able to avoid borrowing.
  • You’ve developed positive work habits and skills. Many of us learned how to be great students in undergrad, but the working world and graduate school require a different set of skills. In my teaching career, I built my collaborative ability with other professionals, developed leadership competencies, and solidified organizational systems that have translated into my academic workload. The pedagogical communication style that I honed as a teacher now allows me to share my research with colleagues outside of my area, a skill that can go unlearned for students who fail to venture out from their narrow field. Recognizing the unique strengths that you cultivated as a professional can be a foundational building block toward graduate school success.
  • You know yourself and your interests. If I’m going to spend years learning “more and more about less and less” to get a doctorate, I want to be sure that I’m invested in my area of expertise. After undergrad, I knew that I cared about teaching students with disabilities, but I hadn’t yet discovered the issues that I was passionate about, the issues that I directly experienced as a teacher and that I am now able to tackle as a graduate student. Having a focus early on helps you select your school, your mentors, your courses, and your research topics without wasting time (and money) figuring it out after you’ve enrolled.

Overall, I believe I’m a much better graduate student because of my years spent “adulting,” and I wouldn’t change my path if I could go back.

How has work experience contributed to your success in graduate school? Have any skills transferred over in a unique way? Tell us below in the comments!

Photo by Glenn Carpenter, Moraine Valley Community College. Shared with photographer’s permission.