The Letter Writing Project: Grad School - A 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'?

Dear Prospective Graduate Student,

After "officially" completing my first semester at JHU SAIS in Bologna, Italy, I figured it might be helpful to share some of my insights with you, especially since quite a number of your counterparts have already approached me in that regard. So, what are the bolts and nuts of opting for graduate school? Well, I don't have all the answers, and I'm certain responses differ with each person but here are some of the main things I have to say.

1. Know Your Status
By your status I'm not talking "HIV/AIDS". I'm talking know your legal status in the country you'll be studying in and the corresponding do's and don'ts. Knowing your status should also make it easier to figure out what financial options you have, whether you qualify for certain scholarships, if you can undertake an internship or do some work while studying, all of that. The ideal case would be to know your status before you apply to a given program, but even if it's down the line, make sure you know your status. Information is power.

2a. Make Sure It's A Worthy Investment
I cannot stress how important this is. Some people think going to graduate school is just the logical next step, or in the case of the ongoing crisis, it's the best possible alternative to unemployment. Both might be valid, but more than anything, pursuing a graduate school = an investment. In yourself, your future, your country, and essentially whatever career path you opt for. Unlike undergrad where you can ride the wave of 'freedom' or not having a clear idea of what you wanna study until the very end, graduate school requires some degree of certainty about your career path. Not only because it is more expensive and financial aid is harder to come by, but also because it is more specialized. If you have no interest in the program you're hoping to pursue, then honey, you're just setting yourself up for a hell of a time. Literally. So, figure out what you're passionate about, weigh the costs, determine the level of commitment and decide if it's a worthy investment before going in hook, line and sinker.

2b. Money, money, money!
Still with regard to "investments", it is highly, HIGHLY important that you have an income stream available for pursuing your graduate degree. Sure, you might consider yourself to be a top-notch candidate who will have no problems securing a scholarship - and you probably are - but both competition and funding streams are tight in the current economy. Don't underestimate the financial commitment. Even if you have some savings or do secure a scholarship for your entire program, there are still living costs to consider and those can be a pain if you don't have additional financing to take care of it. Add the fact that you'd probably be adapting to a new culture or experience, and it can make studying difficult if not impossible. You might also want to participate in some leisure activities and inadequate finances will be a roadblock. All this ties back to knowing your status. Do your research very early on and communicate directly with the financial office of the graduate schools you're interested in, banks or other student loan institutions. In your correspondence, state your question clearly- eg. I'm a Ghanaian citizen studying with an American institution in Italy. What are my financing option? - so as to get accurate information in a timely manner. Also, draw up a calendar of scholarships you qualify for and make sure to meet those deadlines! It's okay to be hopeful about potential income streams, but as much as possible, when it comes to money, be cut and dry, and as realistic as possible. It will save you a ton down the line.

3. Go Out & Mingle (Network)
Remember how I said grad school programs tend to be more specialized? Well, that also means that you're probably gonna find a ton of people with similar interests, experiences or passions. These are people who you will most likely encounter later on in your chosen career, and they are an invaluable resource. Many graduate students tend to have some prior work or field experience and this usually brings an interesting dimension to learning. Go out and mingle with your classmates and get to know them. In the same vein, you will be bringing something to do the table. At an event? Take a moment to interact with other attendees including your professors. Ever heard that some of the most important business deals are made in a casual setting over coffee or a drink? Same thing applies here. You will be surprised just how much you learn in a non-classroom setting and most of the people you interact with will eventually become valuable friends and networks. Sure, you probably have hundreds of pages of readings to do, but your social life is part of your graduate experience. Let your hair down and have some fun!

4. Make Time for Some Down Time
Don't confuse "down time" with mingling. By down time, I mean getting some rest. Or just taking a few minutes a day where you do nothing, and yes, that includes Facebook and Twitter. Read a non-school required book or listen to music. If your graduate program is as demanding as mine currently is,  the tendency to stay on "Go!" will be very high. Make some time to take care of yourself and your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual health. All of it. Beyond getting enough sleep, ensure that you check in with yourself once in a while to make sure you are okay.

5. Read (& Learn)
Do your readings - whether in print or electronic format. Regardless of the impossible number of pages you might have every single week, try to do them as they give you a chance to learn something new. Even if you don't read the entire 200 pages, learn how to do skim-throughs ie. read the introduction and those of sub sections, as well as the conclusion. If you have more time, you can read at a more leisurely pace, but if not, a fast read is better than nothing. Apart from class assigned readings, try to follow current events in your field through the news. And beyond that, if you have a chance, make room for leisure reading as well.

6. Have a Plan, A Backup, & Some Flexibility
If you read my blog about being a student again, you'll understand what I mean by having a plan, a backup and some flexibility. While graduate school is more structured than undergrad and requires a certain level of commitment, you will probably encounter new things that interest you. Have enough flexibility to accommodate those new interests as well. If things don't go exactly as planned, try to adopt an open-mind. Also, stay open to the possibility that you might have to revise your learning techniques especially if you've been out of school for a while. Give yourself enough time to complete projects. Regardless of how much control we humans like to claim, we really don't have that much of a handle on how things turn out. Open yourself to the novelty.

7. Ask Yourself "Why?"
There will be those days when situations make you ask yourself "Why am I doing this again?" In those moments, ask yourself why you were motivated enough to go through the entire graduate application process. Therein lies your constant reminder. As I said already, if your motivations are misplaced in the first place - eg. you really hate the field you're pursuing - then your why in response won't be enough to see you through. Sometimes it also helps to take a break from graduate school. And I don't mean taking the entire year off. Instead, talk to some family or friends or someone not connected with graduate school, about anything but graduate school, in order to get a breather.

8. Self-Discipline
Discipline. This is both the input and the output. You need to be disciplined enough to do your readings, assignments, and attend class since nobody else is really checking that you are (within reasonable measure that is. If you don't show up in class for the entire semester, I'm willing to bet the registrar might contact you about that one.) In the process, you will learn more discipline. Time will be one thing you find to be very scarce, and self-discipline will help you prioritize and figure out how to manage your time. In my experience, self-discipline seems to be the common thread through all my classes and experiences in grad school so far. I'm beginning to think that's all its about lol.

9. Explore
While you will probably have very little time on your hands to do much else, take some time to explore your new community whether its in a foreign country or not. Get to understand the nuances of the culture, and if you can, learn a couple of new words or slang. No place is ever the same and you just might find some interesting surprises.

10. Embrace Your Student-hood
Above everything, embrace and enjoy your student hood. Remember how you kept saying, I wish I were in school and learning again? Yeah. Well you are, so embrace it. The highs (great grades, the euphoria of finally getting something, friends, parties, etc), the lows (too much work, deadlines, fatigue, debt), and everything in between. Besides, you now have the exclusive right to complain about too many readings, soo paper many deadlines, too little time, and if the question of money ever comes up, all you have to say is "I'm a student. Everyone knows students are broke half the time." Just kidding, LOL. But seriously, enjoy the moment.

Alora, thats it! I hope you found this post useful, and if you feel like graduate school is a 'yes, yes' for you and wanna apply, check out this blog on how to write a personal statement that's befitting of all you are. Also feel free to contact me with any further questions. Until then, ciao!

Photo Source: Photo 2, Photo 3, Photo 4

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