I’ll be honest: when I left my full-time gig at the Science Center in order to become a full-time graduate student last year, I was terrified by how this change would alter my own viewpoints and how I am perceived as a professional. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously if a majority of my time (the “full-time” part) was spent studying sector management as opposed to actively working in the sector.
Even as I am halfway into my graduate school experience, I can already look back and say that I had a right to be as terrified as anyone undergoing a big change (especially when thinking that my experience might be like this)– but I’d never take back the change in perspective that I’ve undergone for the time-being. I know full-well that by this time next year, the status will switch back and I will return to the full-time working world (oh, the magic of a professional degree; the point is to go back). But I will always understand the importance of thinking like a graduate student. Here’s why:
1) It forces you to see the big picture. There are things going on in every industry and the way we do business is always evolving. Currently social media, communication, soft skills, and Gen Y’s public service motivation are shaking things up in the nonprofit world, but even after those things run their course, there will be something else. When you are a graduate student you see these things– and what’s more: you see their collective effect on the industry because you spend nearly every day piecing together the puzzle. Thinking like this is extremely valuable because it helps you to mentally tackle many sector problems at once, and scientifically, this kind of thinking helps build up solutions more creatively than tackling one at a time– which is often done in a working environment. Thinking like a graduate student in this sense means always keeping an eye on the bigger picture of the industry as a whole, and it will result in creative solutions and a more complete understanding of where your difficulties lie.
2) Grad students have built-in microscopes or telescopes. That’s like having science tools built into their brains (for a few years), folks! This is directly related to point #1. People often joke that grad students always think what they are doing is important, even though it’s not. What’s really happening here (and the reason we grad students think what we’re uncovering is so important) is that we have a different perspective. As mentioned above, in professional degrees, we zoom out on the sector. Academic degrees tend to zoom in on a part of the sector. Either way, grad students are thinking in a way that is not common in workplace environments (whether it’s with their internal microscopes or a telescopes). Thinking differently spawns innovation. Grad students see something non-graduate students don’t see (and often vice-versa). There’s terrific potential here. When faced with a problem after graduate school, I’ll strap my telescope back on and see if I can think about things differently.
3) It makes you aware of your own strengths and interests. In graduate school, you can pursue your own interests within your degree. Beyond MPA student, I have no role defining my duties in one specific area (I can choose as I go). There is a lot of freedom in these programs to make yourself an expert on whatever strikes your interest. Similarly, in graduate school you must do everything from public presentations, to writing case studies, to leading debates, to drawing graphs to illustrate possible solutions to market failures. You learn quickly where you shine… and also where you stink. The bottom line lesson here, however, is to keep exploring and taking up new challenges in the working world. It may lead you to interesting solutions to problems. And trying new things helps you learn a lot more about yourself and how you handle certain situations– it’s teaching me a lot at any rate!
4) It gives you a feeling of purpose (which helps you live longer and makes you better at your job). I have two years while I’m obtaining my degree to challenge perspectives, share crazy ideas freely, and sink my teeth into the sector. I feel a sense of purpose when exploring skills required to improve the sector. Feeling a sense of purpose does more than reduce your risk of getting Alzheimer’s and help prevent depression. It actually makes you live longer. Studies have shown that purpose motivates us to accomplish things and grad students spend two years (or more) devoted to developing their purpose and career goals so that they can work hard for you (or themselves) after they graduate. What can people who aren’t in graduate school do to develop this mindset? Make time to focus on what you are doing and why.
5) It keeps you humble. Folks tend to feel like they are improving in their careers based on how many people are reporting to them throughout the years– or at least I felt this way a bit before I came to grad school. Now, nobody reports to me. I study with a lot of accomplished people and I take classes from distinguished professors. This is humbling. Also, full-time graduate students often take a financial hit to attend school (even if they are employed by the university or working a part-time job– or in my case, both). I’ve worked in hierarchical environments and I’ve started at the very bottom– but being broke, living on ideas, and being surrounded by thought-leaders is every bit as humbling as it is romantic and drive-inspiring. I will strive to keep this perspective and treat everyone as an accomplished classmate, regardless of their background or experience. Good ideas come from everywhere, and there’s no need to get cocky about my own.