.what I learned in the first year of grad school

Before I began graduate school, I knew that in order to justify thousands (and thousands and thousands…) of dollars towards an advanced degree, I had to have a plan. So, I set some goals and decided to hit the road running towards them. This is a post I started at the beginning of my master’s program and was originally titled what I learned in the first five weeks of grad school. I could lie and say that I waited to publish this until I had a year of graduate school under my belt, but the truth is that I got busy, forgot, and then stumbled on this in my drafts.

I’m happy it worked out this way. My first semester was a breeze and my second semester was a tornado, but these two experiences balanced my first year allowing me to now tell a complete story.

PERSPECTIVE. Understanding how concepts can be applied to the real world is an advantage. For me, that meant working for four years and returning to an enriching environment with endless opportunities to better myself. Now, when people ask about my interests, I use it as an opportunity to discuss my intermediate and long-term professional goals. When pouring over the course catalog, “This looks cool!” wasn’t good enough; classes have to contribute to the skills I want to develop in the course of my program. Having perspective means understanding how the program, the education, and your skills fit into the bigger scheme of things.

NETWORKING > HOMEWORK. Graduate school is about expanding your professional network and establishing yourself in the industry you want to pursue after graduation. Sure, grades, projects, and exams are a thing, but being able to connect to the professional world and pick experts’ brains about the things you’re studying adds another layer of perspective. Atlanta has a unique vibe, with a budding start up environment. This means there are lots of creatives (designers, user experience professionals, developers) looking to establish and maintain a community. You know what happens when you start going meet ups, talks, exhibits, and lectures? You see familiar faces, you run into people that want to introduce you to more people, and they ask your opinion about their ideas. You start to feel like a part of a real professional community. Of course, when you get home there’s reading to be done, but overlapping your social life and professional interests is a great time saver and a good way to stay sane in the mix.

MAKE EVERYTHING COUNT. TWICE. Speaking of time-savers, leverage the things you produce in graduate school for other purposes. Team project? Make it good enough to add to your portfolio. Writing critiques? Publish it on a blog. Attending a guest lecture? Tweet about the key points to connect to the social community. If anything you’re doing can be re-purposed, do it!

PROTECT YOUR SANITY! You’ve got to protect and fight for the things that matter to you, in general life but especially in grad school. There’s never a convenient time to do the things you love so you’ve got to make time for them. Once a month I blocked off a full Saturday to bake to my heart’s content. My boyfriend travels for work during the week, so it was important that I reserved weekends to hang out with him. Some people in my program started bi-weekly dinners to get together, eat good food, and get away from school for a bit. The possibilities and combinations are endless, but the bottom line is that sanity is important. I found that leveraging networking opportunities for sanity purposes was a great way to make everything count twice. I can’t tell you how many General Assembly events I attended because I needed a (free) beer while talking to young professionals to get my creative juices flowing.

Sure, grad school can suck you up and take over your life but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Make everything count, keep your eyes on the prize, and take care of yourself – it will all work out just fine. If you’re in graduate school or considering it, best of luck! I’d love to hear other perspectives and lessons learned.

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