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Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of North Texas. She works for Tarleton State University in Stephenville,Texas, in the College of Graduate Studies, and also as an adjunct faculty instructor for Tarleton’s College of Business Administration.

I finished my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2007. I remember the joy of sitting at commencement thinking about never having homework again! Into the corporate world I went. At 26, I was working six days a week, tired and unimpressed with my career. Never would I have imagined that eight years later I’d be a doctoral student at a Tier One research institution.

Life has a funny way of taking some unexpected turns. Looking back, going to graduate school was never in my plans. Although I wasn’t a first generation college student (my mom was that), I was the second person in my family to achieve a college degree and the first to go to graduate school. I had spent nearly 10 years in the workforce and at 31, started back to school. Like many working people, it took me a while to hit my career stride. I spent my 20s working a few various, unrelated kinds of jobs that left my resume scattered and without a patterned commitment to who I was as a professional. Five years ago, when I first became employed by the university in an administrative assistant type of role, I felt like I was on a plateau without a strong career narrative. The hiring manager actually told me that one of the major reasons I was selected was because I knew how to scan papers. Miffed, I knew that I was capable of more than impressing someone with my ability to press a button on the copy machine.

For many people like me, career challenges and potential rewards of a graduate degree call them back into the classroom. Many employers strongly prefer or even require graduate degrees for promotions or advancement opportunities, especially in certain fields. A candid conversation about advancement with one of my highly-respected mentors gently nudged me towards considering a doctorate - something I hadn’t given much thought to while working on my master’s. Afterwhich, I began to think about the option. I spent time researching many graduate degrees and schools. Not only did I consider the subject matter, but also the cost (what would be my return on investment?) and fit for my life. I found that my career was guiding my educational pursuits which were driving my professional opportunities, but I found all of those pieces fitting together like powerful gears.  

It’s true that attending graduate school as a working adult has presented some challenges, but there have also been great opportunities. My career experiences allow me to see where theory works in practice! That’s where the rubber meets the road. For example, a conversation with myself: Remember that one time the customer reacted really positively to that service call? That’s a great example of this concept. Through my job, I’ve also been able to travel for events like conferences and multi-organizational meetings. I’ve found that these events are the perfect opportunity to build your professional network and even set yourself apart as an expert through presentations and talks. My advice: Take every opportunity to talk in front of an audience! I also actively initiate and seek out collaboration opportunities. It is estimated that 70 percent of jobs are never posted, but instead obtained through networking. Therefore, professional experience may also provide you with the chance to expand your career in directions inside and outside of the professoriate. Who wouldn’t like more career options?

In 2016, I finished my MBA. Sitting at commencement, smarter, older, and wiser, I didn’t promise myself that this was the last time I’d do homework. I didn’t say never again. I simply left the proverbial door open to whatever opportunities came my way. I could have chosen to be finished, but instead I opted to continue my education, in large part because doing so had already positively impacted my life. It’s no lie that working and going to graduate school is challenging. I have to admit that most days, I feel like a juggler, keeping all of these balls in the air. However, I like being challenged, and apparently so do the rest of the 76% of graduate students who work at least 30 hours per week. I don’t look at working while being a student as unfortunate or a burden. I choose to see the opportunities and leverage my broad range of experiences to enhance my education - and vice versa.

Have you been juggling a career and graduate school? What opportunities have you discovered?

[Image by Pixabay user moise_theodor,and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]

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