Just a few days ago, I handed in the last bit of paperwork required to complete my grad program in International Development. Upon dropping off this last package – an employer evaluation – into my supervisor’s in-tray, I felt like crying. A year of sleepless nights, endless assignments, group conflicts, and no income was officially coming to a close; now I can finally retake my life.
I have several friends who are thinking of returning to school. Some are doing it because of a desired change in their current career trajectory. Some because the job market is tough, and they feel like a grad degree will make them more competitive. And some because it was something they wanted to do all along and would regret it for the rest of their lives if they didn’t do it now.
These are all valid reasons. And if you’re absolutely sure that grad school is for you, then by all means do it. But to those friends of mine who have expressed doubt, who have come to me and asked, “Do you think I should go back to school?”, then the answer I have for you is: “It depends on how much you hate yourself.” What is your level of emotional pain tolerance? How much misery can you actually handle? These are important questions for the potential grad student to consider.
From my personal experience – and keep in mind this is one person’s anecdotal evidence and NOT an objective account – grad school was hell. If I ever express any desire in the future to return to this place, I need someone to kick me in the face and remind me how awful it was. So why is grad school a generally miserable experience?
You will never see anyone you love.
As you’re planning out your schedule, you will see that you have a heavy class load. You may understand this technically, but the implications of it will not actually kick in until 4 am one night, when you’re editing a 30-page group assignment that’s due in four hours and hating everything around you. Before that realization occurs, you will imagine attending class, having highly intellectual discussions with your classmates and professors, and then meeting your significant other for dinner and your girlfriends out for a drink. This will never happen. You will be lucky if you see your family once a month. You will forget you once had friends. Your new friends will be your classmates and your professors. There will be no one else. NO ONE ELSE.
You will be sad and broke.
If you, like me, decide that the class load is too heavy and you cannot work for the year, you will be broke. You will depend on a combination of government loans, private loans, bank loans, the pity of your friends and family, and academic scholarships to support your sad self. You will also become increasingly innovative in your means of obtaining basic necessities. You will attend special events on campus, even those to which you are morally opposed, because they will often have a fruit and cheese table in the back. You will gladly give up an hour of your time participating in a focus group because they serve pizza and sometimes give you a $25 Tim Hortons gift card. You will shower at the school gym so you can use their shampoo and soap when you’ve run out.
Your standards for an acceptable quality of life will also drastically decrease. Suddenly, a leaky basement apartment with the occasional cockroach doesn’t seem like such a bad place. Old stale bread that has been left on the table after a teachers’ meeting is fair game for dinner. And after missing the last bus home, sleeping in the corner of a study room and using your jacket as a pillow is preferable to paying the taxi fare home.
You will lose the ability to make good decisions.
As your money runs low and your stress runs high, you will make bad decisions. On everything. And in every conceivable way. You have carefully budgeted out your money for the month’s groceries, and this budget does not have any wiggle room for hard liquor. But on one late Friday night, after working on an infuriatingly confusing project design all day long, your classmates will convince you to go binge drinking with them. This will suddenly seem like a great idea, and you will blow a week’s worth of food money on gin and tonics, while still attempting to convince yourself that you’re not an alcoholic.
The week before you have three midterms, you will also decide that this is a great weekend to take a trip to New York City. You convince yourself that you will study on the plane and in the hotel, and that you’ll do all the readings for class before you go.
You will make your body hate you.
In September, you will be an avid gym-goer and you will make crap like pesto rosemary chicken pasta and vegetable coconut curry for lunch. You will determine that you can do it all – you will fill your mind, your body, and your soul with good, healthful things.
About three months into your program, your gym card will be sitting at home on your night table, in between that Operations Management textbook you say you’re going to read and an old bill you forgot to pay. Your lunch will be crap you can steal from meetings and focus groups at your college (see above point: You will be sad and broke). Your dinner will be anything you can microwave in under three minutes or a bowl of instant noodles – and not even the good instant noodles, like the glossy black Shin Ramyun styro-bowls you can pick up from Koreatown. No, even your instant noodles will suck – they will be from Dollarama, come in a plastic bag, and won’t have a single discernible vegetable in them.
You will resent the happiness of others – guiltily but aggressively.
Social media will be the bane of your existence. Facebook is where people post about their happy weekend retreats to places that seem to only be populated by lush vegetation, modelesque couples, and scenery out of National Geographic. Facebook is where people post photos of their feet, bare and carefully positioned on a deck chair in the middle of a sunny beach in Central America. Facebook is also where people update their status with pointless things like, “I’m so bored… nothing to do today.” You will not even have time to write posts so inane, and you will never have time to luxuriate in that feeling called boredom because you’ll be too busy feeling stressed, frustrated, and exhausted.
While you will be very happy for these people of Facebook, as they are your close friends and dear family, you will also begin to hate them – a little bit at first, and guiltily, but soon a quiet uncontrollable hatred will come over you when you see Sally’s pics from her week-long ski trip in Whistler or Jeff’s philosophical exploration of how he found himself while backpacking through Europe, all posted while you stayed home and drafted a fake budget for a fake organization for your Financial Management class.
You will have a strong love-hate relationship with your classmates.
You will come to a group meeting with an idea that you think is great. You cannot wait to see the excitement on the faces of your group as you detail your idea in full for them. Then you do, and you are shut down. You don’t even have one defender – your idea was so bad you’ve been completely vetoed. In the same week, at a different meeting, you will all do the same thing to another classmate whose idea was similarly terrible. You will watch as all the self-confidence this grown man had for himself is completely sucked out of him, and you wonder how long he’ll take to recover.
On a regular basis, through group work, your ego will be completely destroyed. You will start to question why you were admitted into this program in the first place, why all your classmates are better and smarter than you, and you will rethink all of your life choices for the last thirty years.
You will also come to resent walking into the classroom each day and seeing the same 60 faces. Not because there’s anything wrong with these people – in fact, most of them will be lovely people, great classmates, and good friends. But because their faces will remind you that you are still in that academic prison called grad school, and as long as you have to see those 60 faces, you know you’re not free.
So… is grad school for you? Maybe. And please don’t let my hellish experience deter you from living your dream. Just remember: it’s hard. You will suffer. You will be miserable. You will come to hate certain things about your program, your work, and yourself. But they say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So if you’re not dead by the end of it, then congratulations! You will be strong… VERY strong. Herculean. So go out and do it!