If you haven’t been following along, I’m in Costa Rica for the week! I’ve asked some of my favorite bloggers to step in with guest posts, so while I’m checking out the still-active Arenal volcano, Miriam from Sometimes I “Veg” is kind enough to share her big life decision to go back to school and get a Master’s degree in plastics engineering–too cool!

Miriam posts about the food I wish I was eating, and she has great photography and daily life (and running) adventures to accompany this. Her lentil and kale soup is one of the first thing I’m going to make in my crockpot when I’m back home, and how could you say no to her chocolate mug cake?

(I couldn’t.)

Guest Post from Miriam: My Grad School Decision

I’ve always been funny about big life decisions.  Getting married, buying a house, getting a dog, no biggy.  But grad school was a big decision for me.  Maybe it was because I already had done those other three big things before I even started.

I’ve always loved learning.  I didn’t like doing pointless homework assignments, or taking classes that didn’t interest me, so my grades were not always great, but I loved learning.  As a kid my big ambition was to go to university. When I was deciding on a major I applied to physical therapy, kinesiology, creative writing, biology and several engineering programs.  I decided on Mechanical Engineering because I loved biomechanics and the idea of developing products that could help people regain mobility.

Fast forward, the real world is nothing like what guidance counselors would have you think it is.  I was bored in my job, there was nothing mentally stimulating about it.  I needed a career reset.  I also wanted to continue my studies, but with a husband and a mortgage wanted an income.  Grad school in the United States, even at a state school, is expensive for my tastes.

There were so many factors.  Would graduate studies make me too much of a specialist?  How much would I gain from taking classes?  I had been out of school for 3 or 4 years, would I still be able to learn?  Would the kids who had gone straight from undergraduate to graduate studies kill me on the grading curve?

I knew that getting a Masters degree wasn’t an automatic salary increase.  Financial incentives should not be the only reason you decide to embark on this journey.  In engineering at least, the real money is in management.  Creators don’t get as much financial incentive as you would think.  Getting a Masters degree should be about doing something you are passionate about.

And unlike other types of degrees, engineering specialization doesn’t always require a separate degree.  I several friends who majored in “the arts” who pretty much couldn’t get a foot in the door without a Masters degree in human resource management, public relations or a paralegal certificate.  If you can get into the right company, one can become a plastics engineer by gaining tons of experience. But like I said, my job role wouldn’t have helped me side step into something more interesting.

I felt like I was stagnating in my job.  I wasn’t learning anything new, I wasn’t really developing skills and I didn’t have anything exciting to market myself with.  I couldn’t justify the expense, so I dragged my feet.

Then my mom stepped in.  She offered to pay for my tuition (She had always wanted to be university educated herself but health issues prevented it).  Weeks later I was signed up for a graduate certificate in Plastics Engineering Fundamentals.

The fundamentals certificate was basic and broad.  It was really exciting to learn more about all the plastic products around me.  I absolutely loved it, the courses of the certificate were all online and didn’t require a commute to school.  Doing it part time was time consuming, but I found that I was managing my time better.  No longer was I playing games on facebook, I was spending my spare time improving my skill sets and learning exciting technology.

When I finished the certificate I transferred into the graduate program.  I was shocked at how impressed my professors had been with me.  I had been working full time, I didn’t feel like I had been handing in my best work.  The in person graduate program was an eye opener.  My professional experience gave me a much better perspective.  I had experienced what professors where talking about and more importantly, I wanted to be there.  I wanted to be learning.

My professors appreciated the effort I was putting in.  When I looked for a new job, my professors gave me job recommendations and references.

Graduate school thought me other interesting things.  I learned how to research.  How to innovate.  I gained confidence in my abilities.  And I learned that having a Masters degree does not mean you are smarter than the rest of the population.

Graduate school is about what you take out of it.  Professors tend to be somewhat relaxed in their grading, and many of your classmates will be there hoping to breeze through.  I strongly believe that people who work for a few years before going back to graduate school get a lot more out of it.  A Master’s degree should not be Bachelor’s 2.0.

My recommendations for those considering graduate school:

  1. Come up with a financial plan you can live with.  If you won’t make better money from getting your degree, going into debt isn’t worth it.
  2. Find what you are passionate about.  Find a career path that lets you use it.  Do a degree in that career path.  Have backup plans for careers with that degree. Take classes you care about that will help with those career paths.
  3. Pick a good school that you can afford.  Really look into the school’s reputation.  Recruiters have told me that my school is the Harvard for my major.
  4. Consider online classes.  Many of the really reputable universities have continuing education classes that can be taken online.  My program would be considered a hybrid program because some of my classes must be taken in person.  But taking the online classes I can has saved me some time.
  5. INTERACT, interact, interact.  Learn from the class, learn from classmates, attend seminars by visiting professors, ask additional questions from your professors, as about their research.  I’ve picked my professors brains so many times for questions unrelated to school.  If you are still the wilting wallflower, you aren’t going to get the full benefits of grad school.

Bonus tip: If you are on the wall and want to be convinced to do grad school.  Find an awesome professor who believes in you.  It’s what has me on the fence about doing a PhD.

After 3 years of Part-Time grad school, I plan on graduating from this Masters in Spring.  I can’t say that I have loved all of it.  Some classes had me wishing I had not signed up for grad school.  I have also had to sacrifice personal interactions (aka parties), leisure time, sleep and other hobbies (there have been times when my blog is blank for months).  But in the end I’m glad I did it.  I think I’ve learned so much about my chosen field, and time management.  I’ve met some incredible professors and fellow students.

I don’t really want it to end.  Thus, I am seriously considering my next big step… Masters 2.0 as part of a PhD program.

Thanks Miriam! I can’t wait to hear what the next big decision for your future is going to be–and great advice for those thinking about starting the grad school journey!