I’ve started taking the idea of going back to grad school seriously. This is when I do a bit of recon and try to work out a strategy. What is the quickest, easiest, cheapest route to a doctorate?
I didn’t do any of this when I went back for my bachelor’s. I was such a blank slate, I didn’t even realize that the numbers after the course name represented what level the class was. I didn’t know what the Dean’s List was. I didn’t know what ‘undergrad’ meant or what ‘grad school’ was. Looking back, it seems like a miracle that I ever managed to get my degree.
The first question to ask about a project like this is, WHY am I doing this? For the heck of it? Or do I have a specific goal that this will help me to reach?
This is an important question because it’s common for people to attach to a plan that does not actually move them toward their ultimate goal. For instance, I want to get Rosetta Stone/ so I can learn a new language. Does that step actually follow?
The most useful question is, How do people who are successful at this get it done?
In this case, there are two questions. One, who actually completes the work and gets the PhD? Two, who gets a PhD and uses it to get a job in their field?
Corollary questions would be: Do I want that type of job? Does that job pay what I think it does? Are there as many openings as I suspect there might be? Or, moving on to hidden goals: Am I doing this to prove something to someone? Am I doing this because it seems like the most obvious next step from what I’m doing now, and I don’t have any other ideas? Am I doing this to delay or avoid something else?
My strategy, when I went back for my bachelor’s, was to get out a calculator and see if I could pay for my loans at my current wage. Even if it never got me a better job, I wanted to do it just to have the experience. That helped me to quit worrying about what I would do after I graduated.
Then I got a better-paying job doing basically the same stuff I did before, and my degree paid for itself in the first year.
The trick with grad school, if the rumors are true, is that you can get it paid for. Arrangements can be made such that you work for free, helping grade papers, teach classes, and do research for someone else. It’s also possible to apply for fellowships and maybe get your employer to pay for all or part of it - depending on where you work, of course.
I told my boss during my performance review that I was thinking about going to grad school to get a PhD in strategic forecasting. He listened carefully. I told him that if I went back, I was willing to stay in my current position for the next, say, five years. I don’t want to overtax my mental bandwidth pushing for promotions while trying to write a dissertation. My boss said there probably wouldn’t be a position for me in his subdivision, but then he listed off other departments that might make a place for me and gave me the names of some people to talk to.
Name it and claim it!
Now there are some additional obvious questions:
Where will I apply?
Can I attend remotely or would I have to relocate?
How do I get in?
What year do I start?
I’m looking at academic year 2022, because that’s what I’ve had in mind. As a COVID survivor, I’ve been pretty tired, and I wasn’t confident I could handle the load yet. I was poking around looking at a particular school that was recommended to me, and it looked like I would have had to apply this summer to go next fall. That’s more than a year’s lead time, which is why I’m planning now.
The other issue is the GRE. My understanding is that this is a big standardized test, the scores of which determine whether you can get accepted to specific schools.
More questions: Can I get in without taking the GRE? If I have to take it, how do I prepare to get the highest score?
Answers: Depends on the school and the program. Yes, there are schools and practice exams and workbooks and tutors, a whole cottage industry.
What’s in the GRE?
...Apparently half of it is... calculus.
Here we have my first stumbling block, because not only have I not been in a math class since 1993, I never got as far as calculus.
This is... well, it isn’t necessarily a Pons Asinorum, but it is an obstacle. A high GRE score is a golden ticket that would definitely make my life easier. I “test well” and I find the idea of a four-hour exam interesting and exciting, rather than intimidating.
On the other hand, I’m strictly average at math. I tried to take a practice GRE a while ago, and I didn’t even know how to approach any of the sample math problems. [Then I did a math placement test and... it looks like I’m going to have to repeat that part of 7th grade].
I have the feeling that this may haunt me for the rest of my life unless I do something about it. The real challenge here isn’t to earn the doctorate. I’m pretty confident I could get a fellowship and some letters of recommendation, get accepted to the school of my choice without taking the GRE, and walk out with the degree debt-free five to seven years later.
PhD = challenge
Learning calculus = risk
In my mind, getting the PhD is like training for the marathon. I knew I would do it, and I did, even though I was quite slow and walked with a limp for months afterward. Learning calculus might be more like my experience of learning to drive, which involved a lot of sobbing in a lot of parking lots. I also failed twice and had to face the same instructor who had already flunked me before I finally passed.
Why do I want to get a PhD? Six months ago, when I was lying in bed contemplating my imminent death from COVID-19, I thought about what was left on my bucket list. What would I do if I got a second chance at life? What did I most regret not having done? One of the two things that immediately came to mind was to go to grad school.
I don’t have to ask myself what I’ll regret at the end of my days, because I already know. I thought I was already there. I’m already 45, and so far all I have done is get a year older every year. The next 5-10 years will pass whether I accept this challenge or not. The worst-case scenario is that I pay $205 to take an exam, and then fail it.
All right then, let’s do this thing!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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