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Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.

During my senior year of college, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not I should head off to grad school. It was tempting to know that I had the opportunity to knock out all of my education at once and then never have to return to the classroom as a student again. The problem was that I had no idea what type of program I wanted pursue, or what exactly I was going to do with that degree. I had many interests, but I lacked direction.

When I talked with my professors about it, I consistently received what I consider is one of my life’s most pivotal pieces of advice: don’t go to grad school until you have a reason to do it. With this advice in mind, I decided to head out into the work world, follow my interests, and wait until the time was right to come back to school.

Although I did leave the classroom as a student, I immediately returned to it as a teacher. I spent the next four years teaching at the upper elementary and middle school levels. These experiences completely changed my career path. I discovered that I have a passion for working toward equity in education, particularly in rural communities. By the end of my fourth year in the classroom, I knew that the time was right for me to head off to grad school, because I finally found the “reason” to do so.

Now that I’m here, I realize how glad I am that I waited to come back to school. I’ve also spent some time reflecting on the transition back, and have a few thoughts for anyone going through this process:  

1. Acknowledge the Challenge
It’s important to acknowledge that coming back to school is hard. For many of us, the experience is quite different from the work environments where we’ve spent the last few years. A university is its own microcosm. Courses are challenging, as is learning a ton of new material, concepts, and programs. Assignments and
deadlines pile up quickly, and even those with excellent time management struggle to keep up.

I took an exam for the first time in four years a few weeks ago and quickly realized how out of practice I was. But that’s okay. It takes time to get back into the groove of being a student. Have patience with yourself as you make that transition.

2. Recognize Your Own Strengths
If you’ve been out in the work world for the last few years, I can guarantee that you’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that will help you easily transition into grad school. As a teacher, I gained many skills that were directly transferable to the grad school experience. I’m much more
organized and prone to plan than I was as an undergrad. From the experience of working normal school hours, I tend to complete work during the day and hold a healthy sleep schedule. I also procrastinate less (though there’s always room for improvement).

Your strengths will be different from others in your program and may even be quite unique. Take a moment and reflect on what your strengths are, and figure out how to best use them towards your success.

3. Connect What You’re Learning to What You Care About
All courses have something to offer you with respect to making connections to your work experience. If you figure out those connections early, you will find that you are much more motivated to engage with the material. You will often be able to reflect on your experiences through a new lens, and figure out ways of building upon them throughout your program.

A big part of the reason I came back to school was to build capacity in a number of “hard” skills. I’m taking a course on Stata, and learning the program is a challenge, to say the least. At first, I thought that writing lines of code was tedious. However, my work experience has helped drive my interest because of Stata’s importance in research. Now that I know how to code, I can utilize Stata in doing education research.

4. Put Passion into Action
Passion around a certain issue can serve as a major driving force in your work. Grad school is the time to not only develop that passion but also utilize it. It’s important to seek out opportunities to pursue your passion outside of the classroom and apply what you are learning in the process.

I care a lot about students who live in rural communities and want to solve some of the challenges they face. One of the things that I was most excited about in coming back to grad school was the opportunity to engage in research around education policy. This was not something I previously had the chance to do and knew that I wanted it to be a core component of my experience. I sought out opportunities to do so, and am now working with a research center on a project in rural education.

[Image taken and submitted by the author.]