Appreciating the gap year-point-five: Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school

It’s the first week of classes at CU Boulder, and as I find myself being bombarded with quasi-first-week assignments and TA responsibilities (and some logistical where-the-hell can I print this problems), I can’t help but feel quite fortunate for my real world working experiences and the time away from lectures, homework, and the non-stop go-go-go attitude of life in academia. And while I’ve been going non-stop since last Wednesday with training and new graduate trips and TAing and finding the damn ATOC classrooms along the outside of Folsom Field (and I apologize for the scatter brain this post probably is), it’s Wednesday post-day. So here is this week’s genius, straight from the jumbled brain of a busy new grad, all about looking back and appreciating the gap year-point-five between undergrad and grad.


Via “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school:
  1. Effective time-management. Most of us spent undergrad refining our procrastination skills, experimenting with the minimum amount of work necessary for the grade you want and learning how to work at all hours of the day, but this undergrad time-management doesn’t build the most successful worker. Out in the “real world” (you know, the one where people garb themselves in business casual and work in fancy or not-so fancy offices in or near large bustling cities), work usually gets done during the workday. There is no room for procrastination, and there is definitely no room for being lazy (you might slide for a little, but the big guys and gals in charge will find you eventually). You don’t get to take three-hour lunch breaks, and you certainly don’t get middle of the day nap-time. Graduate school is more like a job than our undergraduate years ever were: we’re responsible for our own research (a job) and classes (another job) and even teaching when our funding or interests require (yet another job) all of which must be done by specified deadlines, within certain timeframes, with outcomes elevated above the undergraduate norm, and with expectations that we’re ACTUALLY putting in the amount of work we were brought to graduate school to do. Sure, graduate students procrastinate, sometimes put in the minimum work, and yes, even work at all hours of the day; however, if you want to keep some sanity during you graduate years, you probably don’t want to make a habit of any of these things. Work taught me to be diligent with my time-management–it required constant revision of my work week and longer-term project goals, and it really beat the “I’m just a student with all this glorious workday free-time” mentality out of me (thank god).
  2. Meaningful multitasking. I’m not talking about the undergraduate-esque kind of multitasking where you sit in front of the TV watching Friends while blasting out a research paper or hanging out in the library with your friends to study or even working on two class assignments in the same day. I’m talking about the meaningful kind of multitasking that comes with juggling multiple projects, for multiple clients, with multiple due dates and variable products. I did a lot of this during “vacation” into the environmental consulting world, and while I’m no expert, my experiences prepared me well for the multitude of things I’m having to deal with my first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school. On top of being a new graduate student who is taking classes, attending colloquiums, working on research, and trying to have a life outside of the lab, I am a graduate teaching assistant responsible for 40 students in 2 different introductory lab sections for a class where I am the sole teacher. This requires me not only to be responsible for myself and my research (which is a daunting task in itself), but also for students who have a variety of different interest levels in the geology class they are taking. I feel a little bit more confident taking on all these things at once knowing that I was able to juggle projects of all shapes and sizes at the same time as an environmental consulting geologist.
  3. Embracing group work. Group work might have been the most dreaded works of our undergraduate years, and there are probably many (like myself) who avoided group work like the plague (or just did all the work themselves). But in the real world, all work is group work and there is no way around it. You have to learn how to work with all sorts of people (loud, quiet, shy, obnoxious…). There is very little “OMG, we’re friends so let’s work together.” You are thrown into projects with people you don’t always like or even put in charge or put under a person who just rubs you the wrong way, but you are still expected to get things done. If you’re in graduate school, hopefully you’re working with an advisor and/or research group that you hand picked and get along swimmingly with (if not, dear god what are you doing?)–but you don’t get to pick your new graduate department peers and if you’re a TA you certainly do not get to pick your students. Working exposed me to more group work situations (with consequences beyond a letter grade) and formal training than I ever got during my undergraduate years, and it will help me tremendously over the next five(ish) years as a PhD student.
  4. Getting things done in a busy office. In undergrad, I always went to quietest library with the creepiest cages to avoid being distracted by others while studying, but this was never EVER an option in my big-girl jobs. Instead I got something a little crazier: cube farms. Cube farms teach you a lot about being productive in high-activity environments, and my work over the past two years exposed me to cube-farms ranging in size from the insanely large (100 people on a single office floor) and super small (five people sharing a very small office). In both cases, I struggled with distractions and the seemingly never ending socialization hours. I had to find ways to shut off the outside world when I needed (like spotify and ninja concentration), and to tune back in when I was able. Being in a office room full of other new graduate students is definitely the most exciting part of the beginning of this semester because we’re all super excited about our projects and all bonding over our grumbles in regards to surprisingly un-user friendly online textbook programs, but I won’t always have the time to socialize with everyone. Eventually (even though all you guys are great), I’ll have to find ways to tune out the noise and get (for lack of better words) shit done.
  5. Knowing when to ask for help. In undergraduate, many of us were either one of two things: (1) the compulsive question asker or (2) the diffident question avoider. Neither of these scenarios is particularly ideal, but it takes practice to find the happy medium in the middle of the spectrum. I fell more towards to diffident question avoider end of the spectrum as an undergrad, and it really wasn’t until I was set free into the world of work wonders that I learned how important it was to not settle in the peripheries. It doesn’t take long sitting your desk in the middle of a busy office pretending that you understand you know what you’re doing when you absolutely do not have the slightest idea of what you’re supposed to be doing to make you realize that (OMG) questions are actually super, super useful. And on the other end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take long bugging your boss and/or co-workers every five minutes with unimportant or non-vital questions to realize that (OMG) sometimes you should spend some time trying to answer your own questions before rushing for aid. As a graduate student, you have to learn how to let your advisor advice (who would have thought!?). Advisors are there to guide you through the graduate world, but they are certainly not there to hold your hand through the process. In other words, us graduate students need to be curious not obnoxious.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful things real world work taught me, especially in terms of preparation for grad school, but I’m tired. And hangry. And Mike made me dinner (and it’s ready). So… that’s all she wrote.

One thought on “Appreciating the gap year-point-five: Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school

  1. Krishna Con says:

    LOL.. Procrastination, as far I understand, as a part of the procrastinator club, procrastination is not a habit, its a lifestyle. People are too lazy to work for the things for their own good. Laziness and avoidance has become a daily practice for people, despite knowing how harmful it is for them. Over a period of time, it becomes near to impossible for people to overcome procrastination, unless they are bound to avoid it with some responsibility or any unavoidable stuff. I completely agree with you that avoiding this practice is very difficult, the more easily you become a procrastinator, the more difficult it is for you to get out of it. This article is very good, and contains good guidance for people like me to get out of this practice. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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