Last week, I finally graduated from York with an honours bachelor’s degree. Moreover, I graduated in the top 3% of my faculty, and received the the highest honour in the Canadian university system, Summa Cum Laude. After five years of hard work, it was nice to go out on a positive note!
Rather than detail my experiences as an undergrad or whatnot, I thought I would provide some quick tips for those who are thinking of going to school. York is not my first school; it is the fifth post-secondary institution I’ve attended (sixth if you count a non-credit course at Ryerson). I was 35 when I began classes, and I’m 40 now. Like many of you, I’ve had an nontraditional educational trajectory, but I’d like to think that my experiences contributed to my success. So here are my tips for going back to school and getting your degree:
1. Start Where You Can
Reviewing courses with the Husband at York.
You don’t have to look at going back to school as a massive project that gets done all at once, just put one foot in front of the other and see where it goes.
Older students often have obligations that younger students don’t have, like work and family, which means you may have to take it slow and there is nothing wrong with that. (In my case, I worked at a law firm while going to university and picked up side work as a research assistant to pay the bills.)
Classes add up. So even if you can only fit one in here or there, eventually you will reach your goal.
2. Have a Big Goal and a Small Goal
I went back to school with two goals. The first was simple: get my degree so that I was more competitive on the job market. The second, larger goal, was to go to graduate school. The big goal helped me set my long-term approach to my studies. But my small, attainable goal ensured I stayed focused when graduate school seemed far away, and reminded me of my basic reason for going back to school.
Relaxing in Gothenburg after ESSWE4.
3. Find Like-minded People
It will help you greatly if you can find people who work in areas that you are interested in. These people may or may not be your professors, and they may or may not be your fellow students. The good news is that even if you find yourself alone on campus, the internet provides a ton of ways to meet others. Contact some folks through academia.edu. Join a professional society. Attend local (or far away!) conferences. These days, there are so many ways to get involved that you don’t have to toil in the darkness.
A typical bus ride home from school.
4. Don’t Compare Yourself To Others
While it’s good to have goals and look to others for how to progress through your academic career, it’s easy to look around you and feel like other people are getting advantages or moving ahead while you are stuck in place. I know I often looked at my fellow classmates who received student funding or lived at home with their parents and got insanely jealous that they didn’t have to spend three hours a day on a jam-packed bus or reduce their course-load when home emergencies cut into their savings, as I had to do on a number of occasions.
Obviously, this sort of attitude can easily lead to bitterness and resentment, which is certainly not productive or healthy. Conquer the green monster by focusing on your game. The only person you should be measuring yourself against is you! It may be difficult to do at times, but the best strategy is to be happy with small victories, focus on your work, and ignore the rest.
5. Try Community College
I am proud to say that my first degree was from a community college! Forget the naysayers and look at the benefits: the courses are cheaper, the schedule is flexible, and often you can transfer your degree to a four-year university without issue. Bonus: Your local community college likely offers the same core curriculum as a big name university for a fraction of the price.
6. Avoid Debt
Sure, the promise of a fancy education sounds great, but the truth is, despite the promises of recruiters, there may not be a similarly fancy job waiting at the end of the rainbow. Rather than pile-up the student debt, be smart. Work your way through school, and pay cash for your classes (and everything else!). You might not be living the life of luxury (I know I’ve eaten my fair share of pasta dinners over the past few years!), but you’ll be happy when you have the financial freedom to chart your own course post-graduation.
7. Do Something You Love
Presenting on John the Baptist at the CSBS. (Photo by Tony Burke)
I’m not going to bullshit you with the old adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow!” Let’s face it, that is not a realistic approach. If it were, I would be getting paid to eat burritos and sing advertisement jingles.
Right now, academia is a bad place to be. Good jobs are disappearing and being replaced with bad ones, and cut backs mean that there is a lot of competition for the few positions that do exist. Why mention this? Because this dim scenario is all the more reason to do something you love! The skills you learn in university are definitely transferable to the private sector, so you might as well spend your time working on things you find interesting, and building your skill set that way, rather than slaving away towards a profession that may or may not exist in ten years.
8. Be Grateful For Your Support Network
Although going to class, studying, and writing research papers is 100% on you, no one works in isolation. I was enormously lucky to have a husband who encouraged my studies. Having his support made everything much, much easier. I was also fortunate to have professors who encouraged my work and provided me with amazing opportunities, friends who offered timely advice, colleagues who helped me grow as an academic, and a boss who gave me the day off if there was a big test that needed studying for. All these people contributed to my success in one way or another, and I am eternally grateful for that.
Going back to school isn’t always easy, but with a little determination it can be done. If you keep your goals realistic and take things one step at a time, you’ll find yourself succeeding in ways you never imagined sooner than you think!