Planning Poor Does Graduate School

In 2008, during my last year of undergrad, my aunt Deena and I were on the phone discussing finding a first job and whether going to graduate school was important. I don’t remember the specifics, but one thing she said that has stuck with me all these years was, “It’s so much harder to go back.” In other words, go to graduate school right after college, because it only gets harder to do so the further you get from that moment.

And while the rest of my friends were indeed going to graduate school right after college (in part because the recession had sucked away any jobs they might have applied to), I just didn’t think this was the best choice for me. I understood that going to graduate school just for the sake of going to graduate school was a poor financial decision. If I were ever going to get a Master’s degree, I wanted it to be for something that would accelerate a career I loved. In other words, I didn’t want to plunge into graduate school and then be forced into a career I had to choose based on the degree I earned. For me, it had to be the other way around.

(And, had I gone to graduate school straight away, I would have been pursuing an MA in English in the hopes of going on to a PhD program. Needless to say, it would have been a disturbing waste of loan money.)

Despite her sage wisdom, and despite the Great Recession, I started my first job 3 days after graduating. The only thing I felt was super pissed at not having one more summer vacation before diving into the adult world and never having one again.

Fast forward 6 years. It’s April 2015, and Kevin is debating a monumental life change. He’s 3 years out of law school, and despite having a stable—albeit time-consuming—job as a lawyer, he’s dissatisfied. Lawyering is not what he thought it would be. He expected a career that offered endless variety and intriguing intellectual challenges. Instead, it had become monotonous.

He began to work on automating some of the repetitive parts of his job and found that he loved the challenge of programming. Around the same time, he had been reading books about math and information theory (nerd!) and found the subject fascinating. But he knew there was no way he could practice law and formally study computer science. His plan: Retire from law, find a part-time job, preferably in his new field of interest, and return to school.

Step one of his plan would be easy (in theory—it’s never easy to say goodbye to great coworkers); steps two and three, not so much.

Dobby helping me study for Accounting.

If one thing has been said about me, it’s that if you’re looking for a job, I’m the person you want to tell. Over the course of my life I’ve signed up for so many job-alert emails that I’m practically a mini work-placement service. So when Kevin told me he wanted a job in tech, my challenge began. I sent him job after job after job, all the while keeping his spirits up because he was losing hope.

“Who wants to hire a lawyer for a part-time IT job?” he would ask. “You never know until you try!” I would tell him.

As it turns out, the University of Florida did. On his first and only interview, Kevin landed a part-time IT job working for one of UF’s many entities. And working at UF, even part-time, would allow him to easily run around campus to attend classes in the middle of the workday. Steps two and three: Check!

It was around this time of change that Kevin helped me realize that my own situation was not ideal. (Either that, or he just didn’t want to be alone in his educational endeavor.) For years, he had been urging me to go back to school for something—anything!—citing that I was too smart to be doing what I was doing. (#humblebrag) While I would have loved to have gone back to school, I never wanted to take out more student loans or stop making money. (And this is what my aunt meant by “it’s hard to go back.” Money is like a drug; it’s hard to stop making that paper once you start.)

But one of the benefits my employer provides is free school: the company will reimburse me for up to six credits per semester of graduate work that I successfully complete with a C or better. What’s more, a friend at work had told me about a business Master’s degree at UF that had an IT focus: the Information Systems and Operations Management (ISOM) program. It was as if all the stars were aligning: this was the perfect program for me, as it would allow me to gain more technical skills while polishing the business skills I had acquired through 6 years of employment.

With a new goal in mind (and probably the first real goal I had set in a very long time, besides “convince Kevin to marry me”), I immediately began my plan of attack. With applications due June 1, I had just under 2 months to study for the GRE, take the GRE and receive an acceptable score, write a cheesy admissions statement, solicit three letters of recommendation, get my boss’s support and approval for going back to school, and plan how I was going to attend school part-time while continuing to work full-time.

Having planned our wedding in just 2 months, I knew this would be a piece of pie compared to that.

And to make a long story short, it all worked out (somehow).

Fall 2015 was our first semester as a husband/wife team of working graduate students. And despite work, despite Kevin getting converted to a full-time position, despite both of us also being on the board of directors for a local non-profit, despite being at work at 7:00 AM and staying until 5:30 PM to make up lost time—we both made straight A’s. (#notsohumblebrag)

I have made so many friends, most of whom are from other countries, through ISOM. Here is a group of us at an international potluck and game night.

I know, you must be wondering: How did our personal lives not fall apart? It’s funny, I had the same reaction. I thought for sure the schedules we now keep would put a huge strain on our relationship, but in fact the opposite has happened. Kevin and I are in the best harmony we’ve ever experienced. We communicate and plan way more than we ever have. If I have to work late for class or can’t make it home at a reasonable hour, he knows to let the dogs out and start dinner without me. Likewise, on days that he has to work late, I know I need to take care of things at home and fend for food myself (i.e., hello, Panera Rapid Pickup!). Neither of us has ever been especially emotionally needy, so seeing each other for only an hour a day doesn’t bother us much. Sure, we may miss each other, especially during exam weeks, but neither of us has the time to break down and cry about it—not that we would.

Plus, it has been so rewarding to go through this together. Our programs of study tend to complement one another, and our classes have led to many an interesting discussion. We don’t get flustered at the other’s schedule because we understand it. And we love to talk about the future: Where will we be when our degrees are printed? What does the future hold? It’s an exciting time in our lives; who knew such excitement could exist after 25?

One of the most comical parts about going back to school as a “non-traditional student” (i.e., a student who goes part-time) at the ripe age of 28 is that nearly all of my classmates are in their early 20s, and because ISOM offers a combined-degree program, some of them are still undergrads. In group-project situations, I tend to be the one with the sage life advice, and everyone I meet gawks when they hear I’m married. On the plus side, I never get tired of hearing that I don’t look my age.

Business graduate school is all about the group project, which means many a long night in Hough Hall working together. But at least I can capture some nice sunsets now and then.

When I first started, I thought it would be difficult to compete against these full-time students who had nothing to do with their time but study. I had promised myself that I would be a better student in graduate school than I had been in undergrad (e.g., not waiting until the night before to write a 10-page paper, reading chapters as they are assigned instead of…well…never), but that still didn’t seem like enough to do well. How could I possibly put in the hours they must be putting in to earn better grades than theirs? (All of business school is graded relative to your classmates’ performance, so to get an A, you have to prove that you’re better than they are.)

But as I got to know my fellow students and their sometimes nonexistent study habits, I realized that my age actually afforded me the hindsight that these younger students had not yet had the chance to acquire: I know the value of my time, and I know how to be disciplined. If I have to spend 40 hours per week at work, you better believe I’m spending the rest of my free time as wisely as possible. So when I’m not at work, I’m at home reading my textbooks and doing practice problems. Plus, I don’t have to worry about who has a crush on me (Kevin does), if I’m eating well (Kevin feeds me healthy things…usually), or if I’m running out of money (never!), all of which I worried about as an undergrad. Instead, my mind is free to learn about encryption, UML diagrams, and, my favorite class so far, finance!

And when my friends complain about their grades or say they don’t have enough time in the day, I casually remind them that I work full-time, am in class 8 hours per week, and am doing just fine.

Speaking of friends, ISOM has been an incredible experience personally. The majority of my classmates are international students. At first, this intimidated me, but I soon learned that my classmates are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I have ever met. I’ve made friends from India, China, Taiwan, and several South American countries, and I know that some of my new friends will be friends for life. Learning is great, but being able to make global connections with such kind people is priceless.

I’m not sure where my or Kevin’s Master’s degrees are going to take us, but I know they will keep us in the technology sector, a field that is always changing, which means there will always be something new to learn and new problems to solve. As people who require intellectually stimulating careers, this is perfect for us.