When I decided to apply for my master’s degree this winter, nearly six years after finishing my bachelor’s, I couldn’t shake my regret. I fixated on all the time I’d wasted, the lost earning potential, the humiliation of interning at 30. Why had I waited this long, I kept asking myself. Why couldn’t I have made a move when I first began thinking about it four or five years ago? It worsened as I wrote my application essays, visited campuses packed with young faces, and filled out my FAFSA forms. This was so easy, I thought. So why hadn’t I done it sooner?
It wasn’t until I was deciding between two programs that it dawned on me: The application process seemed so simple because, for once, I knew what I was doing.
Six years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to look for in a graduate program—and even if I had, I wouldn’t have followed my intuition. I would have beelined for the cheapest option, rather than the best value. I would have searched for schools that offered the most hand-holding when it came to finding internships and building a course load, because that’s what I needed at the time. And once I actually started the program? Who knows whether I would’ve lasted. But now, I know myself. I know what I want, what I need, and what it will take to get me there. I’d been thinking of those six long years as wasted time, but in reality? They were an asset.
I still wish I were a little younger, with fewer responsibilities and more energy, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. It’s what helped me write an application essay full of details, rather than generalized goals, and pick the program that offered a path I knew I wanted to take, rather than the best guess. It’s what got me here today, prepared to start a master’s in social work.
1.I know my way around a credit card statement. Let’s face it: School is expensive, and student loans are no joke. I knew that when I graduated, but I hadn’t really grasped it. Now, after years of paying rent, health insurance premiums, and a 401(k), I have an almost molecular understanding of money and the power it holds. It hasn’t stopped me from making the most expensive commitment of my life, but it has helped me to turn down unnecessary loans and ask better questions about earning potential (the meager savings I’ve built up over the last six years hasn’t hurt, either). You may never feel entirely comfortable when it comes to money, but recognizing the impact of your decision—and then figuring out how to make it work, rather than turning a blind eye—is a sign you’re ready to make it.
2. I’ve turned down a job offer. Fresh out of college, I applied for any writing job that paid. Print, digital, corporation, startup—it didn’t matter, as long as it came with a paycheck. I narrowed my scope a bit when I looked for my next move, but ended up taking something a little out of my path, since I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity. While I was at that second job, though, another gig came up. It was flashy, higher-paying, clearly a step up. So I applied, interviewed, made it into the final round, and then, just as all the arrows were pointed in the new job’s direction, turned it down. I didn’t want it.
I wasn’t done learning in my current position. And since I was finally starting to look at master’s programs, I knew it just wasn’t the right time. Making that call was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but it helped me see what I wanted. It also came in handy on my grad school journey: When it came time to pick between the safer grad school and the one I knew I wanted, I could make the tough decision and know it would work out. Even if you’ve never backed out of an offer or quit a position, chances are you’ve had to make a tough call once or twice. Standing firm and learning from the experience might indicate that you’re ready to commit to a graduate degree.
3. I’ve mentored junior staff. When I began my career, I took advice from anyone who offered it. So when I was tasked with hiring and managing an intern after a few years, I was surprised to find that I had some advice of my own to share. I wasn’t quite sure what I was good at yet, but I could see where my intern shined and what she should do with those talents. I helped her build out her skill set and meet the right people, and then, once she graduated from college, find the right job to take. Now, as I planning what classes I’ll take next fall, I’m realizing that I can see my own path more clearly, too. Helping younger employees to plot their own careers just might be a sign that you’re better able to rewrite your own.
4. Networking is second nature. In college, networking seemed like a modern torture device. Who wants to stand around a banquet hall, drinking cheap wine and making small talk? Six years later, that still sounds miserable. But I’ve also realized that so-called networking events are just a spotlight-stealer from the real deal. True networking, I’ve learned, just means opening up to colleagues and those you admire about your career goals and helping them to do the same. It’s recommending someone for a job or spending five minutes breaking down your career path to an intern. Sound familiar? Then you’re probably better at networking than you think.
Building relationships has led to job offers, salary bumps, and plenty of wise minds I consulted as I considered applying for my master’s. Now that I’m a networking pro, I can’t wait to bring those same skills back to school. I’ve always wished I’d formed—and maintained—stronger connections with my professors and students outside my friend group. Now I can.
As the start of the program approaches, I'm excited to discover what else I've learned over the years. I'm also looking forward to developing new skills, skills that will help me on my next, post-masters path in ways I never saw coming. Maybe I'll figure out how to nail an informational interview for once, or kick my procrastination habit. Whatever I learn, I'm sure it will be something I wouldn’t have been prepared for had I rushed into things. Now, I’m finally ready.
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