5 Things I Learned In My Last Semester of Grad School

Now that I’ve FINALLY made it through this semester and I’m equipped with a new job and a master’s degree, it seems like a good time to look back and reflect on what was pretty much the most whirlwind four months of my life. There are many things that I have learned over the past two years, but I feel that this semester held some particularly important personal and professional learning for me. Here are my top 5 lessons:

Lesson #1: Grad school is not supposed to give you answers; it’s supposed to give you questions

I am hoping, at least, that this is true. Because I have a thousand more questions than I did when I started grad school. I do have answers, mind you. There are a great many things I have learned and skills I have acquired; I have the ability to make better decisions, solve more problems, be more helpful to students and to my institution, and I have a more developed understanding of higher education and institutions of higher education. But along the way, with every answer, I have picked up at least a few new questions.

Most significant of these questions is the way in which I have begun to interrogate student development theory this semester. It’s funny to think that little more than a year ago, I was trying to absorb all that I could about the foundations of the field, but I am now at a crossroads where, under the influence of feminist theory, critical race theory, disability theory, and personal experience, I have begun to unravel the ideas of development, identity, and the self. It’s invigorating and terrifying, but I’m glad to be here.

Lesson #2: You have to open yourself  up to change

In January, I decided that my #oneword2012 would be CHANGE. And let me tell you, it’s a good thing I got on board with that concept. Life is so much more rewarding and enriching when  you construct your reality in terms of flexibility and possibilities. Being open to change means always allowing yourself to contemplate what is possible rather than what simply is. Furthermore, this mindset allows you to roll with the punches of life, to see challenges as opportunities, to constantly shift, recreate, and reinvigorate. Am I always 100% in this mindset? Not even close. But it’s a goal, and thinking differently is where it begins.

Lesson #3: Don’t compromise on sleep

So maybe I stole this one from Arianna Huffington. But let me just say that I get at least 8 hours of sleep every night. Non-negotiable except in extenuating circumstances. Hand in hand with this lesson is a sub-lesson: don’t try to do all of your important work when you are exhausted. I used to burn the midnight oil in undergrad all the time. I sometimes do it now out of necessity. As a result, I talked myself into the idea that I’m a “night person”. False! All I really want to do after 10pm is watch “Iron Chef America” and go to bed. I don’t want to write papers, which means that I should do that at times when I’m actually productive, like the morning and afternoon.

A big part of this lesson occurred when I stopped drinking Diet Coke in February. I stopped in the name of Lent but haven’t had any Diet Coke since then. I still drink coffee and iced tea regularly, so I haven’t cut caffeine out of my life, but I’m pretty sure I was using Diet Coke as an artificially-sweetened crutch to prop me up during the most hectic days. So no more Diet Coke at 9pm. I’m just going to go to bed. And I’m going to wake up earlier and be more productive.

Lesson #4: Assume good intent

This is a constant exercise in thoughtfulness. I don’t really think that we are a “benefit of the doubt” society, but think about how incredibly horrible it is to live our lives ready to pin the blame on someone else instead of trying to understand what happened. When problems are everyone’s fault, it’s easier to solve them because no one is exerting energy trying to make anyone else feel like crap. I honestly believe this. Just trying to be nice to people, talking behind each others backs less, and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes makes your life a lot more pleasant and less stressful.

Lesson #5: Plan for the future, but live in the moment

I’m sort of a planner. And by sort of, I mean that I have a plan for everything. I could probably write a Standard Operating Procedures Manual and Continuity of Operations Plan for my life in general (that might give me added peace of mind, in fact). You get the point though. I think that planning for the future is really important and will always feel this way. For example, I made a plan this year to improve my financial management, which I feel was successful and very important.

Sometimes, though, YOU CAN’T PLAN. I mean this in a few ways. Firstly, however extensively I plan for any given thing, there’s a pretty decent chance it’s going to get shot right to hell by factors completely out of my control (perhaps this is why I need a COOP). At any rate, life happens. You have to think on your feet. Secondly, I mean that sometimes factors out of your control are unknowable to you for any given amount of time. This is pretty much how the job search process felt. The ambiguity in my near future was dizzying; it was kind of like looking forward to the summer and seeing some vague blurry shapes that hadn’t materialized yet.

So what can you do? Try to make out those future shapes and forget about the clear picture around you right now? I don’t recommend that approach. I have, in the past, been guilty of not realizing what I’ve got right in front of me and around me because I’m trying so hard to focus on the future. You can miss a whole lot of your life doing this. So have a plan, be ready for the future, set yourself up as well as you can, but please, please take time to enjoy getting there.

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