Graduate school isn’t for finding yourself. (Until it is.)
Last night, I delivered my final presentation in my final class on my final day of graduate school. My idea of a celebration will be to hunker down today and intensify my search for a job, and try not to dwell so much on how I could complete a master’s degree with feeling like a master of so little.
What I’ve found in talking to others who’ve been to grad school is that nearly everybody feels the same way. It doesn’t matter how prestigious the school, or what they studied. And perhaps this should be comforting, but I can’t shake the thought that I made a mistake.
When I applied to grad school, I had no idea what I was doing. I lied, and I told myself and everybody else that I had a plan. But it was a half-hearted lie. Grad school was a fallback, a way to bide time until I could figure shit out. It was two years spent wandering from class to class, paid for with easy student loan money that’ll keep me in debt until who knows when. For that, I’m angry at myself, and bitter this “graduation” isn’t a moment of celebration I want it to be.
And yet … I have figured shit out, haven’t I? Through my studies, I gained experience with and knowledge of things I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Today I’m happier, more mindful, more self-aware, more focused … it’s all a work in progress, sure, but in the end I discovered new passions and a career path I’m excited to pursue. It isn’t what I envisioned, but in some ways it’s better. What’s that worth?
Graduate school is a terrible way to find yourself, until it isn’t. Would a different path have still led me here, one that didn’t cost so much time and money? Perhaps in the not-so-distant future these two years will seem like a blip and the money well invested, but on this day after my last class, I feel a bit sick at how high a price I paid for a decision that was clearly misguided.
The kicker is that I know people who went to grad school knowing exactly what they were doing … until they didn’t. And they had to find themselves again, which they did. What’s that worth?
All I can say is I know what I wish for myself. I wish someone had stopped me two years ago and really questioned what I was doing, and I wish I had listened and allowed myself to admit I didn’t know. And I wish I knew that was OK, and I wish I had decided the best thing to do wasn’t to commit but to explore, to work my way through that exploration, to save up as much as I could, to collect as many experiences as I could. And I wish that in this alternate universe I would’ve come to understand the nature of not just finding yourself but creating yourself, and finally I could say that maybe what I wanted to do would change but I knew what I wanted to create. Only then do I wish I applied to graduate school, with the wherewithal to take full advantage of what ought to be an immense privilege and educational opportunity.
But you know what? It is what it is. Graduate school wasn’t perfect, and neither am I. What I need to do is give myself credit and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Wishing I had done things differently won’t help me now. So instead, if I’m going to wish for anything it’s for the wisdom that comes with experience and the care to use that wisdom well.
And while I’m at it, I might as well wish for a winning lottery ticket because I wasn’t kidding about those student loans.
 Though as my girlfriend rightly points out, my decision to pack a U-Haul and move to Pittsburgh wasn’t entirely a fallback. I also did it to be with her, and that’s one choice I don’t regret for a nanosecond.