Four Things I Learned From Graduate School

by Jennifer Sigler | September 27, 2017 | Workhappy Blog

Graduate School: A tool for professional advancement and personal growth.

Almost eight years ago, I graduated college and made the decision to enter directly into a graduate program. Come May, I will officially be done — with both a PhD and MFA in hand.

It has been a very long — very expensive — road, but a path I am largely pleased I took.

I recently wrote a piece on higher education; it paints a rather bleak picture of the cost of attending a university (and I didn’t even touch on the additional burdens of an advanced degree). This follow-up is a public reflection on what that the investment has returned to me.

Spoiler alert: None of my most valuable learned lessons came from the pages of a book.

This is in no way a comprehensive list. Or an endorsement for every student to attend graduate school. As a person who is carrying a significant burden of student debt (not just from grad school), I will be one of the first to say that a graduate degree of any kind is a serious commitment.

In fact, I would think long and hard before enrolling if you don’t think you can do it without significant student loans or it doesn’t immediately impact your professional path.

These are, of course, lessons many people can learn — and do learn — through other paths that don’t include graduate school.

Without further ado, here is my “return on investment.”

  1. How to create — and follow — opportunities

It’s great to have dreams — to have a passion for something. But it’s more useful to channel that passion into opportunity. While it is naïve to think this type of privilege doesn’t exist, most of us don’t have opportunities handed to us and have to work hard to make things happen.

Creating opportunities means keeping your focus on the journey; where a goal is the end result — opportunities are what will get you there. The most successful people I know constantly assess and reassess their needs, and instead of feeling disheartened by what they lack they let it drive their creativity.

I have learned that creating opportunities is all about resourcefulness and seeing the potential in every interaction, every project and every experience.

This is followed by:

  1. It is a “great idea” if you follow through with it.


There are a lot of people with a lot of really great ideas. People who find and maintain success are those who tested their ideas and who weren’t afraid to fail. We all know the person who says, “I could do that” when looking at a piece of art, or a book or a piece of interesting furniture.

But the reality is, they didn’t.

Ideas are made great when they can be shared with others. You must have the resolve and persistence to begin, to fail, to learn and to begin again. Follow-through is hard, and no one else is as invested in your success as you are. At the end of the day, no one is going to make me finish my dissertation. I have to believe in my work enough to push forward.

Great ideas at the end of the day are also more often than not a collaborative effort. If you are committed to your idea, you will have people who influence you, contribute their own knowledge and challenge your thinking along the way.

  1. How to Pay Attention

This may seem like an odd impression, but consider this: We live in a world of multi-tasking. There are so many tasks and people demanding a piece of our time that we end up managing multiple things at once — making it more difficult to focus.

Additionally, in college you learn to memorize and regurgitate to the point that you forget how to take something in, and store it. Graduate school helped me not just understand, but practice the concept that knowing a lot about a few areas is greater than knowing a little about a lot.

  1. The Importance of Leveling Up

It does you no good to be the big fish in a small pond — and this has nothing to do with the type of career or industry you wish to pursue. You can be a solopreneur with no desire to expand your business and benefit from pushing yourself to improve your craft.

Attending graduate school put the importance of networking right in my face. It is essential to reach out to people you admire and form new connections. This can feel awkward and time-consuming, but I’ve learned that you become better by surrounding yourself with “the best” — the best motivators, the best work ethics and the best innovators.

Focus less on what a person could do for you and whether or not they are in your specific field, and more on how they approach success, create opportunities and advance their skills.

For me, graduate school has become a tool for not just professional advancement, but personal growth. Yes, I’ve learned many technical and theoretical skills that will be very useful in my profession, but what has advanced my career more and made a greater impression on how I approach my life are these more ethereal lessons.

Jennifer Sigler is a Senior Writer with The UpWrite Group. Send a message to to see how she can help enhance your corporate or personal brand.

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