So you want to go to grad school after taking a few years off…

Katie Clifford, 2nd year Global Health student 

Disclaimer: This post is in no way an insult to those who didn’t take a break between undergrad and grad school, but let’s face it, it’s a bit of a different ball game.

It’s 2006, and it’s the summer between my junior and senior year of undergrad.  Everyone is constantly asking me what my plans are for after I receive my Bachelor’s Degree.  In an attempt to come up with an answer, I decide to tell people that I am going to join the Peace Corps

It’s now 2007, May, and I’ve just graduated.  As I am sitting on my mother’s couch watching TV, my mom as asks me if I am actually planning on signing up for the Peace Corps.  A year ago this seemed like a wonderful idea, and now I suppose it’s time to sign up.  I go through the application process quickly because it was before the economic downfall, and let’s face it; I’m a 22 year old with no ties who will go anywhere.  This is gold for Peace Corps.  I receive my invitation quickly and leave for The Gambia, West Africa in February 2008.  I’ve now got something to do while I figure out what to do with my future. Two years should be plenty of time, right?

Fast forward to four-and-one-half years later, and it’s the summer of 2012.  People normally do not stay in the Peace Corps for four plus years, but the economy was bad and I was completely clueless about what I wanted to do, so I decided that The Gambia was a better place to figure things out.  I knew a lot of people that went home and were unemployed for quite some time, and I wasn’t ready to go to grad school. After three years, I decided to stay for another year, and during that time I decided to get a MPH and got into RSPH.

Growing up in Southwest Florida, I had been to Atlanta quite a bit, but this would be my first time living in Atlanta.  When I first arrived, I desperately wanted to make friends.  In undergrad and Peace Corps it was easy; everyone need friends and people easily connected and became ‘best friends’ almost instantly.  I was sure that being ‘older’ would make it a lot more difficult this time around.  Everyone my age that I knew in Atlanta (at the time I was 27) had jobs, so the first few days were a bit lonely.  In an attempt to make friends I went to a couple of mixers and met a lot of nice 22 year olds, but I really wanted to meet people my own age.

Once orientation began, I started to meet people my own age.  And a lot of them were actually Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.  On top of being an ‘older student’ I was also readjusting to life in the US having only been home at the time for two months.  Making friends has always been important to me, and soon I found myself with a support system of peers that were going through the same things as me.

I was also really worried about starting classes again.  I was an average student in undergrad, but honestly I was not looking forward to sitting in class and doing homework again.  I knew that I’d have to get a job or jobs to get by, and I love sleep (and need it) and was not interested in pulling all nighters.  My first semester honestly wasn’t too bad because I only took 13 credits and I did not have a job most of the semester.  This gave me a chance to get used to school again and also a chance to adjust to grocery stores, driving, and living the “grown-up” American lifestyle.

During my time at RSPH, I’ve found that are major challenges and advantages to starting grad school after taking a few years off.

Challenges:

1) You need a lot more sleep than you did a few years ago.  Busy weeks can lead to a late night of homework, and this can potentially mess you up for the rest of the week.

2) The older you are, the less likely you are to get money from your parents.  Let’s face it you’ve already lived in the real world.  Calling your parents and asking for extra money to have a social life is probably not a realistic option.

3) You may get restless in class.  Because a lot of the courses are tailored to younger students, you may potentially have to sit in a class that goes over things you already have experience doing.

4) It’s horrible to say, but you may find that you judge your younger classmates.  Most often, you’ve experienced a lot more, and as bad as it sounds, you’ll probably get annoyed with things that they say a few times.  And some of your pop culture references may go over some heads entirely.

5) You run the risk of being a know-it-all.  You’re ready to speak up in class because you have experience, but your classmates may not appreciate hearing what you have to say on every topic in class.

Advantages:

1) You have real world experience.  You have a much different perspective then a lot of your classmates. You know what it’s like to work in the real world and you have a lot of experience doing things that you’re learning in class.

2) You have a lot of perspective.  Your classmates may not always appreciate hearing your stories, but at the end of the day you’ve had these experiences and they are valuable.

3) You may not worry about grades as much.  Going to school is your job for the time being, and in your previous work experience you’ve learned that if you work hard and put in the time, then you’ll see positive results.

4) You know for sure that you want to be in grad school.  This isn’t a pit stop for you, or a solution to uncertainty about what to do next.  You saw the world, got experience, and you know that this is what you want to do.

5) Your resume will thank you.  Because you waited a few years between undergrad and grad school, you have work experience.  This will come in handy when it comes time to find a job after graduation.  You now have a Master’s Degree that complements the knowledge and skills that you already developed in your chosen field.

I know that a lot of people worry about starting grad school after taking time off.  As someone who made the same decision, I can tell you without a doubt that it was the best decision that I’ve ever made.  I’ve greatly enjoyed my time at RSPH, and I was extremely involved in student activities.  I feel like older students often get labeled as students that do not get involved, but from what I have experienced at RSPH this is not the case.

Do not forget to make time to work with your younger classmates because they have a lot to share as well, and they may know a lot more about technology than you do.  And if you’re like me, you may need these students to tutor you in the things that you have forgotten during your time off, such as statistics.

So you want to go to grad school after taking a few years off… don’t worry you’ll be fine.

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