The Habit of Graduate School

I am two semesters away from my third master’s degree. Earning mastery. Again. A third time. I’m talking about fourteen semesters of school after getting my regular, college undergraduate degree. At this point, graduate school is basically a morning routine. An expensive one.

The Habit of Graduate School
Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash

My Third Graduate Degree, and Middle Life Learning

I am two semesters away from my third master’s degree. Earning mastery. Again. A third time. I’m talking about fourteen semesters of school after getting my regular, college undergraduate degree. At this point, graduate school is basically a morning routine. An expensive one. I need a bumper sticker that says, “My other car is a tuition payment.” With all the financing, I could have had a beach house and a nice Audi. Instead, I have ACH withdrawals. Can’t those be somehow crowd sourced? Wait, is this the Democratic National Committee debate? (It’s OK. Graduate school jokes are supposed to be dense).

Three masters degrees? What can I say. I have three times the lifetime earnings of those with no degrees. No, wait. That’s not true. I was thinking of debt.

Anyway, if I was making so much money, why would I go back to school? Then go back yet again? And again? Maybe it’s a quest to constantly refocus on the thing that will unlock the inner me. So watch out, world. I’m almost ready. More likely this recurring matriculation is a product of unreconciled wanderlust. Or a desire to make up for undergraduate shortcomings. I did fail Shakespeare. And the Humanities. And Piano. And Astronomy. And almost Linguistics.

To be honest, the first two times through, I simply didn’t know what else to do. Graduate school was a safe harbor in which I could ostensibly labor on developing a new skill set while actually shielding myself from being an adult without an answer for, “So what do you do?”

But this time around, this third graduate degree is different. I actively sought it out because I hit a wall. I realized that I needed to learn more if I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more in nonprofits, and in fundraising, and management. I believe in academics and knew that, despite all the TED Talks in the world on YouTube, that the old-time book learning and lecture process still has something to offer. I didn’t go back a third time to hide. I went back to learn.

And I am willing to pay for that. And when I say pay, I mean I am willing to mooch off my wife’s benefits and get that sweet, sweet, significant university employee spousal discount. I guess this getting married thing is working out for me. Honey, I love you. Smooches.

My first two graduate degrees did provide valuable lessons but they were specific to certain fields of work. For example, from my first graduate degree, I learned that you can game the deposits on your beer bottles and occasionally get a not only a free case of Red Dog, but even get money back. Holla! That degree was a liberal perspective on Higher Education, so I also learned that our system of higher ed is in many ways severely broken and irrelevant to the needs of a large share of learners today. But that is super grim and less fun at Thanksgiving than how I scored free beer. Graduate Degree #1: Free Beer stories make better clickbait than the enormity of an education system in crisis. Also, Red Dog beer is terrible but somehow gets cheaper the more you buy it, until one day the vendor is giving you money to take it out of his store.

From my second graduate degree, I learned that libraries are wonderful spaces. I did. I did! But I probably should have already known or at least suspected that before enrolling in a year-long graduate degree program in Library Sciences. What was I doing? Ballin’ is what. Because after graduating, I got a job at a college library on the beaches of North Carolina. Graduate Degree #2: You don’t always have to know what you are doing, just keep moving ahead and sometimes things will work out, if a little differently than you thought. You can take that to the bank.

This third degree is called an MPPM — this is a collection of studies known as Public Policy and Management. I know it looks like a pro-consonants conference promotion but, sorry anti-vowels people, it’s quite pronounceable when written in long-form.

Based on my first year in the program, public policy and management degrees are for people from China. About 30% of all my classmates are from China. This amazes me, and hey, welcome to our small US rust belt town, where we put fries on everything.

And it is for people who work at the university and want a free or reduced-priced graduate degree (unscientifically 24% of my classmates — hat tip to us each, especially those who married in). Some people go to graduate school because they just want to keep on learning.

And it is for people who like the idea of working in municipal government and nonprofits and want to apply modern political concepts and styles of leadership to solve ongoing and emerging regional issues. These folks are no-nonsense and ready to dig in. Affordable housing. Accessible transportation. Sustainable infrastructure. They are ready to chuck the old ways and bring in the new. They want action. And they want it yesterday. They’re as mad as hell but instead of getting up and raging, they are going to infiltrate, use their brains to solve the long-term, complex problems needed resolved to enrich their communities and the improve lives of whole districts. You’ll see them on the ballot rolls in a few years, or heading up their nonprofits, or just generally kicking butt. I would like to be in this group, too, researching ways to bridge disparities in K-12 public education.

I’ve been told that graduate school is a “self-selecting” endeavor. If you can get through the first few gates of enrollment paperwork and figuring out how to pay for tuition and are at peace with some sort of plan to balance family and work, then you’ve been self-selected to attend. By contrast, Ph.D. programs are highly selective and admissions counselors seem to enjoy proclaiming how many candidates were rejected. The biggest difference I see is that most graduate students finance their education. Most Ph.D. students live on a stipend provided by the university. If you’re paying, there’s always room for more. If we’re paying, things just got real exclusive. That’s science right there. Cite me.

Graduate school, in a practical sense, is an endurance event. Can you read 300 pages of theoretical academics in the next five days? Good. Now discuss. Can you do that for 15 weeks in a row? Great. Crank out a research paper. Show insight, don’t just regurgitate! Don’t forget to carve out the time to be attentive during a hundred or so hours of lecture.

There are other pressures, too. Pressure to buy the books your professors wrote — the newly released, full-priced editions. Pressure to write up a publishable white paper with a group of classmates you met just last month. Pressure to figure out the online trickery called CourseWeb. To collaborate to build a mock city government. Create feasible policies to administer it. Now throw that city into crisis. Add an unexpected attack from an undersea Paleocene mega monster. On a Black Friday. OMG. It gets so intense.

It is generally important to have an open mind and listen to new ideas. In graduate school, it is key that you know your own opinions and are able to express them, let them be challenged, and evolve in your thinking. Do you have the context of experience? Have you anything relevant to apply to the readings? Do you have any original ideas about anything at all? Well, if you do, remember that typically, no one wants to hear them, unless they pertain to Stranger Things or Game of Thrones. But if you want to discuss, why then, graduate school awaits, where your spouse can pay the professors to listen to you. Office hours, my friend. They’re trapped.

I remember being scared during my first MPPM class because I was so much older than everyone else, even older than my teachers. When some of my classmates were busy being born, I was graduating from college. Twenty-five years ago. I wanted to fit in and chill to the max with my younger colleagues. Were my jeans skinny enough? Were my pant waists high enough? Did I have a so cool TrapperKeeper? I brought snacks — Dr. Wrinkles’s Prune & Fiber Bars. I heave my thirty-pound laptop onto the desk. It has an “OU812” sticker. Cool, right? Yeah, I’m mobile. Excuse me, I need to plug this in. The auxiliary battery makes a whirring sound. Is that distracting?

When it was time to introduce myself, I wanted to set things straight from the get-go, “Hands off, ladies. This guy is taken.” Thumb point to myself. I glide back into my seat with amazing confidence. I let the prof know that the dog ate my homework ahead of time. I know this game. Ace. Time to crack open a protein supplement shake.

Grad school beards are cool, right? Mine is completely white, but I brought beard oil samples for all the fellas. Let’s hang and oil up. Want to borrow my beard soap? That’s not weird, is it? Too far? What are the kids into these days? That’s cool. Oh, hey, I bought the course books. Let’s jam a study session. Crack open some Red Dogs. No? Wait you all rented the epub? For pennies on the dollar? And what is kombucha, exactly?

I’m trying to fit in. But my headphones have cords. Attached to a gramophone. I’m old, but I limp like a young person. I brought my children to class. Is that a giveaway? I hope my IBS noises are not distracting (disclaimer: if you click that link, I am not responsible for any ads Google serves you later in the day). When I sat down at the school desk, I noticed graffiti that said “Chris Field was here. 1998.” From my first graduate degree. Twenty years ago.

I like graduate school because I get a college ID, which means I can ride public transportation for free. It’s like practice for when I become a senior citizen. Soon. Lectures are three hours long, so I have to get up a lot. My … restroom needs are different than my classmates’. I do the finger guns in the mirror before returning to class. You got this, kid.

The modern graduate students are a new breed. I arrive in the room 15 minutes early and the whole class is already seated, looking at me like, tsk. All the seats in the front row are taken. I sit in the empty row in the back. Nerds. Oh, wait, nerds are cool now. Hey, I wear glasses. Does that count?

The students these days are so nice to each other. When they discuss topics in class, it’s all about, “yes I agree with that and also, when I did the additional suggested readings, I observed the principals our professor mentioned in the last lecture …” Suck up. So polite. No one looks at their cell phones. No one’s cell phones are even on. Such manners. They make eye contact with the professors during the lecture. Nobody mumbles when they are called upon. People are taking lecture notes. No one has laptops open, except for a few of the Chinese students, and I can see they are mostly surfing translation dictionaries. Talk about difficult. Taking graduate school in a foreign language?

Everyone carries one reusable water bottle and one compact umbrella. Were these handed out at orientation? The only thing in my backpack is an extra pair of clean underwear in a hidden compartment. Speaking of backpacks, everyone double straps theirs these days. Some people even affix the stability clips across their chests. Triple strapped? These kids are ready to learn.

The modern student is kind and caring. They are not motivated by income. They want to change the systems and help in a big-picture way. They are present, socially minded, and serious. They’ve listened and observed and decided to disregard so many of the old stereotypes, but to just embrace the best qualities from prior generations. They appear to have chosen to live for more than just work and more than just money, but for some kind of equitably distributed, balanced fulfillment. Observing them as a fellow classmate has been its own informal and valuable education.

Maybe, after all is read and written, at the end of my final term next spring, I will get the chance to make some sort of impact in public education. Or be a better nonprofit manager, a better fundraiser, set a better example somehow. I am honestly not sure what will come after the degree wraps up. OK, I know it won’t be a fourth degree. Whatever it is, I’ll have my formal and my informal education, and I’ll have the graduate’s spirit. The spirit of learning, of enduring, of mastering life.