What I really learned in 2 years of grad school.

Tomorrow, I graduate from grad school with a Master’s in Public Relations. This might seem like a very normal accomplishment for most of you, and it is, for a lot of people. But this honor holds a special place in my life and my family history: I’m the first in my family to graduate from college, and the first to graduate with a Master’s degree. It’s a big deal.

Growing up, my dad was always my education advocate. He instilled in me the importance of education; the idea that no one can take away what you’ve learned, even if they can take away your diploma. He was the one who pushed me to go school on the East Coast, and he was thrilled when I decided, 5 years after graduation, to go to grad school.

As I prepare to close another chapter on my life, and start a new one, I’ve mulled over what I’ve really learned over the last two years. What does this all really mean? What have 6 years of combined higher education really taught me? Some of the answers came over dinner with some of my friends the other night, as we discussed what we think we’ve really learned from grad school. From papers to presentations, to potentially disastrous group projects, here are some of the lessons that that maybe makes us feel more prepared for the future.

  1. Grad school is really just one big group project.
    And so is work. And life. If you can’t learn to play well with others, you won’t do well in almost any grad program or job. I learned more about diplomatic resolution and negotiations from the multitude of group projects than I ever have from a class. This has been one of the most important skills I’ve developed — at work and in life, being able to manage people, their expectations, and deadlines is invaluable.
  2. Welcome to balancing three lives.
    Before I started grad school, I told everyone that nothing in my life would change. [Insert laugh here]. A month in, I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. Most of my group projects met on the weekends. And most of my homework happened on Sunday nights. Add to that my full-time+ job, and those readings wouldn’t do themselves before my next class. Life doesn’t stop in grad school, but learning to balance it is incredibly important. I eventually started setting aside time for “school Jess”, “work Jess”, and “friend Jess”. This helped me plan my days and weeks in a way that made sense and accomplished my goals without feeling overwhelmed or isolated. And sometimes, if I was lucky, I could enjoy some friend time while working on a paper or a strategy…
  3. There is absolutely no substitute for experience.
    I had a solid background in communications before I started my program, but I watched countless new students struggle with key concepts about business politics and strategies because they had never worked before. Having a significant amount of work experience not only set a strong foundation for me to grow from, but also helped me gain more from the program. That said — in moments when I had no background or context to a situation, I found myself pouring over articles and literature for answers only to discover that the answer wasn’t there. So much of what we deal with in life and at work isn’t answered in at textbook or a HBR case study, and that’s when the experiences you’ve had are most valuable. I learned to appreciate those odd projects that my manager threw my way because it gave me new context for situations and solutions.
  4. Fake until you make it is real in your 20s… and your 30s… and your 40s…
    Sometimes you won’t have an answer. And standng in front of a room full of your peers is nervewracking. But the beauty of my program is that I was constantly exposed to uncomfortable situations that helped me develop master skills in BS (question answering), and ways of saying I had no idea without ever actually saying, “I have no idea!”. My Master’s program was a mixed bag of new grads, executives, and everyone in-between. What I quickly realized was that no matter what age you were, no one knew what they were doing (and sometimes that meant our professors, too). One of my favorite lessons of the year was: No one will ever know what you’ve planned to say. Substitute “rather” for “sorry”, and hold a pen instead of flashcards. If you know the story you’re telling, there’s no need to be reminded of your cues. Much like life, if you fake it for long enough, you’ll eventually believe it.
  5. You’re never a master at anything.
    Graduation is a pinnacle moment in life. But looking forward, I can’t help but wonder how I’ll keep all the knowledge I’ve learned in the last two years alive and fresh. The world is changing quickly, and it’s easy to stay abreast of things when you’re surrounded by like-minded people who think about these things all the time. Outside of the bubble of class and theories and papers, some of that knowledge will fade. Grad school was a great reminder that in order to be good at anything, you have to practice, and with things constantly changing, you have to learn to adapt to the situation quickly. My answer: joining associations that offer opportunities to keep networking (see #7) and learning about communications.
  6. We’re all human.
    I’ll never forget the moment when one of my professors told us that he was winging his communications strategy for a client because he didn’t really know how to achieve their lofty goals. The collective, audible gasp was loud. But the sentiment of the statement stuck with me. Sometimes, there is no clear answer, and more importantly, there is no obvious answer. No formula for a perfect communications plan, or a happy client. But staying agile, flexible, and creative goes a long way to both achieving your goals and your client’s goals. The follow-up corollary is that acknowledging where your knwoledge ends, allows others to step in and help. Refer back to number 5 if you think that a Master’s degree changes that.
  7. Ultimately, grad school is really one big, long, networking event.
    At orientation, someone shared this bit of advice: collect every students’ business card from each of my classes. I scoffed a bit, wondering why I would do that. Now I know. Some of the smartest and most talented people I know, I met in class. These are people who work at top agencies, in government, and at every Fortune 500 company. They are also my network and the future of my industry. You will never have a better contact than the woman you wrote a 25-page paper with over the course of three days because your team failed to meet deadlines.

What other advice or lessons would you offer the class of 2016? Share in the comments below.

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