How To Address the Challenges of Returning to Graduate School

Learn to Adjust to Going Back to School

You've been working, raising kids, living your life, doing anything other than going to school. But now, to advance your career or fulfill your personal goals, you've decided to go back to graduate school. What challenges will this bring into your life? How will you deal with those challenges? A lot of that will depend on you, your situation, and your individual journey, but here are some tips for dealing with some of what this new experience might bring:

  1. Embrace change. Going back to school, even if you've only taken a year off, will be change of pace. You will have a new schedule, new expenses, new stressors, and new goals to reach. One thing that may help make all this newness easier to handle is to expect it and embrace it. Things are going to be different and trying to ignore that or keep it from happening will do you no good. Instead, think of change in general as your first challenge, and try to view it as an invigorating process, a chance for personal and professional growth.
  2. Set your priorities upfront. You may have a very full load with being a parent, a spouse, an employee and now, a student. Or, you may be a full-time student who doesn't even have an outside job. Whatever your schedule is, it's up to you to be in control of your priorities. So many people are "overscheduled" and "overstressed" not because they have to be, but simply because they refuse to say "no" or because they decide they have to have it all, right away. Having it all can include having an ulcer, a migraine, an unhappy family or a low GPA. Set priorities and do your best to create a schedule that makes the most important things the ones that get done first.

    For example, if you know your kids keep you on the run, and you can only take one class per semester, then just take one class. If your priority is building your business and it takes a lot of time, don't take a course that's going to be time-intensive. If you really want your degree before you turn 35, then tell your boyfriend you won't have as much time for him on Tuesdays and Thursdays because you have class. Which brings up another point...

  3. Communicate your new situation. If you've been out of school a while, chances are you have at least a few other people who have an interest in what you're doing if only because it affects them, too. You may be have a spouse, kids, an employer or employees, parents who are letting you live in their basement, or friends with whom you have standing arrangements. It's important to let them know you will have a new demand on your time. Also you may need more help from the people in your life. For example, maybe your spouse will have to make sure the kids take their baths or your best friend will have to take over running your book club. In either case, let people know what your plans are so there aren't any surprises and so that you will have a support system in place while maintaining your own position as a supportive person to those you care about.
  4. Get to know what you don't know. Have you had that nightmare before where you need to take an exam, but you can't remember the room number? That dream, someone told me once, comes from a subconscious belief you've bitten off more than you can chew. One way to keep that dream out of your head is to realize what your concerns are and then be proactive in putting them to rest.

    Not sure you're up on the subject matter? Go over all the books and prerequisite knowledge you're supposed to have before you begin. Call and ask for more information if you're really afraid you're missing something. Talk to other students already in the program and see what their backgrounds were before they went in. What did they do to prepare?

    Worried about finances? Double-check that your employer is all set to pay your way or, if you're not so lucky, make sure the Financial Aid Office has everything it needs from you so there aren't any mid-semester snafus.

    Concerned about being out of shape as a writer, reader, researcher, or puller of all-night study sessions? Well, then, do some writing, some reading, or some independent research and refresh your memory. Whatever your apprehension, face it head on and be ready to start with confidence.

  5. Use available resources. Whether it's your academic adviser, thesis adviser, career counselor, a classmate, or even a therapist on campus, use the resources the school provides for people in your situation. If things come up, be they personal, professional, or academic in nature, you need not face them alone. People in your outside life may or may not have experience with grad school issues, but people on campus are very aware of them and, in some cases, are paid to help you sort them out.
  6. Take the initiative. One big difference between undergrad education and grad school is the amount of initiative you will be asked to take. If you thought college asked a lot of you, you will find grad school, where a good chunk of your course load is independent work, research, or study, requires a lot more initiative and personal responsibility. This is one area where being older or being on your own for a while might give you an advantage over students who have just left their alma mater. Knowing that you must stay on top of your classes, assignments, course requirements and graduation requirements is key, but it's also important to realize it's up to you to look for and take opportunities to network, have hands-on experiences, publish or otherwise go beyond the syllabus.
  7. Don't lose sight of your goals. There will be plenty of setbacks, tough moments, and chances for escape as you begin your study. When these things occur, let your initial goal be your motivation for staying the course. Are you trying to create a better opportunity for yourself in your current job? Are you trying to gain an entry into a better financial situation for your family? Are you trying to finish something you always vowed you would? When times get rough and you want to leave school, remember what put you there to begin with.

Graduate school will really be what you make of it. If you're returning after an educational hiatus, embrace the new adventure before you, keep your eyes on the prize awaiting you, and be proud of yourself for taking this positive step in your life.


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