Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
The start of 2017 means another semester is in the books for us GradHackers. We made it! But the break in action is fleeting; after catching our breath over a winter hiatus, we’ll resume our studies at full throttle, racing toward our goals and graduations. Other GradHackers have observed that graduate school is like a marathon, and we runners are trying to get it over with as quickly as possible despite the impossibly long route. For me, however, the start of 2017 is simply confirmation that my race is over: this past semester was my first without school in...uh...ever?
Don’t get me wrong: life after grad school, especially that immediate post-Pomp and Circumstance honeymoon, is liberating and exhilarating in a no-way-would-I-go-back-what-the-hell-was-I-thinking kind of way. But, removed one semester, there are a few aspects of grad school life that I wish I had savored just a little bit more while otherwise preoccupied with the seemingly endless list of articles to read and poster presentations to give. To that end, my advice to current graduate students is to take a step back from the grad grind and appreciate the little things that make graduate school special; you’ll miss them someday.
For example, relish the flexibility in your schedule. Lest our readership do a collective spit take and incredulously comment on how out-of-touch I am as to imply graduate students aren’t busy, please observe I am referring only to the flexibility of free time, not the amount of it. Graduate school takes a lot of work, but that work involves long-term deadlines, the ability to set (with some limits) your own course schedules and office hours, and the liberty to arrive at a research and writing pace that suits you. A graduate student has the freedom to make time-management decisions that are far less common outside academia. If I want to skip working on my thesis today in order to have a picnic in the park with my sweetie, I can decide to do that and put twice as many writing hours in tomorrow. To make that same decision in my current environment, I have to determine how much leave I’ve accrued, ensure that I’m up-to-date on projects due at the end of the day rather than the end of the semester, and still be available to cut my picnic short if my boss goes home sick or someone files for an emergency injunction. The flexibility of a grad student’s schedule is easy to lose sight of among the piles of work, but it’s a nice feature provided you have basic time-management skills.
My second small joy to savor is everyone’s favorite pair of words: free stuff! Graduate school (and the low salaries and limited opportunities for advancement therein) is a terrible get-rich-quick scheme. However, there are non-monetary perks to being a graduate student such as free and reduced-price tickets to athletic and cultural events, access to campus fitness centers, borrowing privileges from institutional libraries and their database subscriptions, etc. Options at your institution may vary, but even the stingiest schools give benefits to their students not available to the general public. This may sound like small potatoes, especially if you’re anticipating a big payday after graduation, but once you’ve had to fork over full price for that yoga class or concert ticket instead of scanning your student ID card you’ll be kicking yourself for not taking greater advantage of your grad student status when you had the opportunity.
The final aspect of graduate school you should savor while you have the chance is the fact that, however long your particular marathon is, it has a definite end. Graduate school, though a long and arduous marathon, is a closed course with a finish line clearly demarcated by mortarboards and new letters after your name. This is difficult to recreate in your life after graduate school, particularly if your graduation coincides with the end of a vigorous job search and you’re simply grateful to have somewhere to punch a clock. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time job I love which allows me to use the skills and knowledge I developed as a grad student, but I don’t have a very clear idea of whether I’ll be working there for three more months or 30 more years. There is no required curriculum, no recommended number of credits per semester, no year-by-year TA contracts, and no benchmarks like comprehensive exams or dissertation proposals. Graduate school might seem like an interminable slog while you’re there, but the terminus actually couldn’t be clearer.
Recent grads: what do you miss most about graduate school? Current students: what will you be sad to lose upon graduating? Let us know in the comments!
[Image provided by Flickr user Jeff Turner and used under a Creative Commons license]