The Reality of Grad School

The Reality of Grad School

Hello Prospective Foresters,

It’s exam period here, so I thought I would use my perspective as a beleaguered first year masters student to offer you (what I hope is) some cogent advice on your grad school plans.  At exactly this time last year (literally to the day) I was in the exact same position that you probably currently find yourself in.  I was working a full time and on weekends and evenings I was crafting application essays, trying to pull myself out my workload far enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  When I was about halfway through the application process, I called home to vent about my essays.  During this conversation my mom pointed out that what I was working on was not 1 set of essays, but the opportunity to spend two whole years buried under projects and papers.  Was I sure that was what I wanted?

She was right.  I was focused on the stress of the moment and the rose colored “big picture” to my goals, but totally failing to consider the workload that I was signing up for.  For the sake of clarity, let me tell you about my current “to do” list.  In the next week, I have two final exams, a final paper, a lab write up and a final project (not to mention this blog) due, in addition to the 2 final presentations I have already done.  I took 4 classes this semester, which is pretty standard, so it’s safe to say that my current experience is the norm.  On top of that, I also have two phone calls with prospective internships for which I should probably be rested, prepared and articulate.  Needless to say, it’s a busy week.  This week it’s easy to question why I left my amazing (paying) job for this.

You, too, will face this crisis of confidence if you chose to go to grad school.  I promise you.  At 2 AM, with no end in sight, you will wonder what you were thinking and why no one stopped you or at least warned you about this.  So consider yourself warned.  The question, then, is what are you going to do about it?

The answer is that you need to have a response to these questions now, before you even hit “send” on your application.  Why are you going to grad school?  What are you going to get out of it?  Be honest with yourself.  Are you applying because it’s “the next step” or a “necessary evil”?  Because if that’s the case, those late night questions are going to be hard to answer.  Why have you chosen this school?  Is it because of the name and the reputation and the clout, because those motivations are hard to sustain through 10 hour study sessions.  Or is it because you know that this institution will allow you to investigate the field that you are most passionate about, to build networks and opportunities that would have otherwise been closed to you, or expose you to thoughts and possibilities beyond what you could have formulated alone.

I am here because I am deeply committed to the field of agriculture and the belief that although it is flawed, there is great potential for its sustainability.  I am convinced that I am capable of being a positive agent of change, but I realized that to be that force, I needed to build my skill sets and develop my ability to think critically and creatively.  I recognized that to do this, I would need to immerse myself in an environment that fostered those traits and exposed me to the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary problem solving.  For those reasons, I know that I am in the right place, finals and all.  That certainty is more deeply held than exam-induced stress and strong enough to sustain me through the next two years of research papers.

Do your research.  Talk to professors and students.  Read the course list.  Understand where your interests fit with the academic community.  Don’t choose your grad school out of blind faith or vaguely formulated ideas of the future.  Make sure that this is the best place possible to help you achieve your goals.  There will always be an element of uncertainty and eventually you will likely second guess your choice.  But if you arm yourself with information and rational decision making, you, like me, will thrive here.