Grad School Grief (and Gain)

Feb 23, 2015 |Denise Morris Snyder
Grad School Grief (and Gain)

A few things to consider as you think about whether or not to pursue an advanced degree.

When I started my master's in Old Testament, I was getting a paycheck every two weeks, I had money in savings, and I was renting an apartment on my own.

When I finished grad school, I was getting paid very sporadically, I had student loans, and I was stressed about money. There were many times when I was struggling to translate a Hebrew verb or memorize a list of Ancient Near Eastern archeological finds that I wondered if grad school had been the stupidest choice I'd ever made. Why on earth had I gone into debt to be tortured by uninteresting translations of Deuteronomy?

But when I finished school, I could open a Hebrew Bible and read it, I could teach a university class, and I was prepared to share the beauty and intricacies of God's Word in new ways. I gained depth in my faith and was now prepared for a variety of new job choices.

Looking back, I have a few ideas about what I did well and what I could have done better as I made the big transition from full-time work to heading back to school. So now that I am filled with the wisdom that only graduate students have (or not), I'd like to share a few things to consider as you think about whether or not to pursue an advanced degree.

1. Know what you want to do.

When I graduated from college, I considered going straight to grad school. But I decided to get a bit of experience under my belt first. I worked for six years before I went on to my graduate degree. But by the time I had worked for a few years, I knew that I didn't want to get an advanced degree in journalism like I had first thought. I had a much deeper interest in learning more about the Bible, specifically the Old Testament. I decided to take a couple of classes, just to see if moving on toward my master's would be worth it. I loved the classes, and it became clear that an Old Testament degree was something I wanted to pursue.

As you consider grad school, make sure that you are interested in your major and the time and effort it will take. Grad school isn't for everyone, so make sure it's worth it for you.

2. Seek wise counsel and pray about your decision.

I had multiple conversations with people before I made the decision to pick up my pencils and books again. I met with a couple of people who were students at my graduate school and asked them what their experience was like and how they felt about the program. I met with professors in the program I was interested, and I talked with an admissions counselor and the financial counselor at the school. I asked friends and family if they thought grad school would be a wise option for me, and I thought and prayed about my decision. Reading articles like this one or Alex Chediak's two-part article on "Thinking About Grad School" will help you consider all the realities of going back to class. Graduate school involves a lot of time and money, and seeking the Lord and wisdom from family and friends is definitely worth doing.

3. Make a plan.

I was still working full time when I began taking seminary classes part time (one class a semester). Eventually I realized that if I was going to finish the degree in fewer than 10 years, I would have to start school full time. I decided to quit my job and move from Colorado Springs to Denver where I attended seminary.

If you're considering an advanced degree, it is a good idea to make a plan for your next few years. Map out your degree: what classes you need to take, when to take them, and exactly how long it will take you to finish your degree. Some graduate programs are fairly short; you can be done in a year or so. Other programs can take three years to finish at a full-time pace. Decide on your timeline so that you can make a plan for supporting yourself while you work on your degree.

4. Set a budget.

Grad school is expensive — there's no getting around it. So before you decide to go, think about what money you will need to sustain yourself. What money will you need to live on for the next few years — housing, food, necessities, etc.? Set a budget for your lifestyle. You'll also need to think about how you're going to pay for your shiny new master's degree. Will you pay as you go? Are you willing to take out student loans? The exact amount of money you will need will certainly depend on where you go to grad school and if you have any scholarships. Most schools will require you to pay for the semester right when it starts, so it's wise to make sure you have at least enough cash to get you through the current semester and a plan for how you'll make enough money to get through the following term.

I am a writer, which provided me some flexible ways to make money while going to school. When I began grad school, I had a steady freelance contract to sustain me. I was paying for school as I went and able to pay for all of my expenses. I hoped to be able to sustain this until graduation. I didn't. I quickly realized I wasn't making enough, and a year into school, I had to take out a student loan. I got by for the next couple of years, but I graduated with a decent amount of student loans.

Looking back, I wish I had made a more solid plan when I started school. If I needed to take student loans, I would have been better off knowing the amount I planned to take before I began. I could have created a much more detailed budget for myself so that I would have at least known more of what I was getting into.

5. Accept the change.

The choice to get an advanced degree can be great, but even if it is, you need to be aware of and accept the changes to your life.

First of all, you're going back to school. This means homework, taking notes, attending class — things you may not have done in a long time. No longer do you leave work at 5 p.m. and feel done for the day. Instead you have homework constantly hanging over your head — always something you should be doing, even when you're relaxing. So that's kind of a bummer. But going back to school also means interesting classes, new friends, and advanced skills.

Secondly, if you're used to a full-time career job and the money perks that come with it, some of that is about to disappear once you start grad school. Suddenly my money had to go to tuition instead of new clothes. But this doesn't mean I didn't enjoy my time in grad school. My friends and I spent a lot of time at one another's homes, making meals for each other, playing games, and enjoying cost-effective things around the city. I also enjoyed setting my own schedule and being out of the 8-5 world for a bit.

6. Decide and then enjoy!

If you choose grad school, life is going to look a bit different for the next few years: homework, tuition bills and lots of work. But graduate school can also be a really amazing time. Overall, I am happy that I got my master's. I gained a deeper understanding of the Bible, which has brought me new job opportunities. I made new best friends, and I got to live in an awesome city. I went on amazing trips and learned from wonderful professors. Ultimately, because I was at grad school in Denver, I met my husband, which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been suffering through Hebrew conjugations.

So if grad school is right for you, consider your options, choose a good major, make a budget, and plan out your next few years. Embrace the reality of books, deadlines, money and papers. And enjoy your time as a student again. Learn, live on ramen noodles, and enjoy the journey!

Copyright 2015 Denise Morris Snyder. All rights reserved.

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