Overcoming the Challenges of Returning to a Graduate Program

Get Tips for Going Back to School

Middle aged man in the classroom

As an adult who's made the decision to return to college in pursuit of graduate studies, you can be assured of one thing: your life will certainly change. Going back to school is hard. For adults who have begun a career, married or settled down in a steady relationship, or maybe even had children (or grandchildren) since college graduation, returning to academia can be daunting. Doubts may seem overwhelming at times - will you be able to keep up with the work? How will you handle work and school, if you've decided to attend part-time? How will you manage financially if you go full-time in a graduate program?

Fully exploring each of these issues of going back to school could fill an entire book (or three!) but there are some simple steps you can take now to address your concerns and help you succeed in graduate school:

  1. Start planning early. Spend some time thinking about how your daily routine would change as a returning graduate student. What sort of class schedule can you anticipate? What will that mean to the family schedule? Will you need someone to pinch-hit for you as chauffeur for the kids, for instance? It's easier to find someone like that if you've given yourself plenty of time.
  2. Talk to your family and make sure you have their support. Graduate school is hard work under the least demanding of circumstances, so you can expect greater difficulty when you have family obligations and responsibilities as an employee. Let your children and spouse know what this will mean for them, and be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, "I'm going to need you guys to be quiet in the evenings," be more specific by telling them, "I need quiet time from 7 to 9 PM, three nights a week, and I'll go to the library on the weekends for four hours each day." Be equally specific when delegating house duties like laundry and dishes.
  3. Don't underestimate your study skills. Most adults worry about their ability to handle the heavy coursework when returning to graduate school, but this is largely a groundless fear. You'll quickly get the hang of it again. If you're really concerned, check out your graduate services office for any seminars or brochures they might offer on improving study skills, or check out the web - there are lots of resources available.
  4. Ensure you have adequate financing for graduate school - and then add a little more for a cushion. It's far better to put off graduate school for a year or two than to try to manage it on bare-bones financing. Graduate school will be stressful enough without worrying about who's going to pay the mortgage this month. Don't give yourself any added stress.
  5. See if your employer will help pay the cost. Many companies will assist employees with their plans for seeking graduate degrees, since more highly trained employees can only help their bottom line. If you're staying in your field, or seeking a higher-paying position within the same company, talk to your employer about offering a scholarship or tuition assistance.
  6. Conserve your loan funds. If you take on loans to finance your graduate studies, do everything in your power to use them minimally. Don't start eating lunch at a fancy steak house, for instance, instead of the campus cafeteria. The less you have to pay back, the better.
  7. Seek scholarships, teaching and research assistantships, work study opportunities and any other non-loan funds - and do it early. Competition for these types of non-debt sources of funding can be incredibly steep. Beat all deadlines, and be aggressive (but polite).
    Be prepared for a bit of culture shock. Particularly if it's been several years since your undergraduate education, you may feel a bit like a visitor to King Arthur's court or, perhaps more accurately, a courtier from King Arthur's court visiting modern-day New York City. Don't let generational differences stop you from socializing with your classmates. Most graduate programs take at least a year, and you'll need support from one another when the time comes to study for exams.

  8. Finally, don't feel intimidated or unworthy just because you're a bit older than your classmates. Recognize the great value of your life experience. Realize that you're setting an example for younger people, whether or not they realize it. Your ability to remain flexible and adapt to new circumstances may help them develop a more mature perception of the world.


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