8 things you can use from grad school — even if you don’t use your degree

Getting a master's prepared me for a 9-to-5 in ways I didn't expect.

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I enrolled in a master’s program in Middle Eastern studies with the intention of eventually getting a PhD in comparative literature. But while I loved grad school, I ultimately decided academia wasn’t right for me. The lack of funding and constant pressure to publish spelled for a frustrating career — and the politics surrounding Arabic literature often got in the way of research.

Working full time comes with its own stresses, though. There’s arguably a whole genre of blogs about millennial burnout — and I expected that I’d be navigating new waters when I jumped career paths. But the high demands of graduate school actually prepared me for life at a 9-to-5 in ways I hadn’t expected.

Here are a few skills I picked up in grad school that I’ve been able to put to use outside the walls of academia:

How to handle large projects

The biggest challenge of grad school was the workload. Each semester I’d have to write at least one 25-page paper that required extensive research and a lot of preparation. Some professors would help us manage this workload by assigning outlines and presentations throughout the semester. But most of the time we were on our own.

I learned quickly that I couldn’t leave my papers until the day before — something I was in the habit of doing in undergrad. I also learned it was much more enjoyable to get started early and give myself smaller goals that were easier to meet. I got a lot more out of my classes and was able to present work that I was proud of, which felt fantastic.

How to read fast — like, really fast

Large research projects require a lot of reading. I’d often find myself facing a stack of 15 or more books that I’d need to get through by the end of the week. That’s when I learned how to read for information, not pleasure. I can now skim through a 200-page book to get the information I need to support an argument or build the foundation of a literature review in an hour or less.

While this kind of reading is admittedly not as fun or thorough as sitting in a bay window and tucking into a book all day, it taught me how to look for overarching patterns in a large body of work. And not to consider myself an expert on a topic after only reading one — or even five — books.

How to quickly and thoroughly research a topic

Speed reading wasn’t the only research skill I picked up in grad school. I also learned how to judge which sources to trust and trace the genealogy of an idea. I got into the habit of questioning my sources— especially when they existed online — and researching authors, editors and publishers of books or websites I was using. Often this revealed biases that informed how I treated that publication and the topic as a whole.

Knowing how to be critical of sources has been essential to my career as a writer and editor. I no longer waste time on unreputable sources, which has made both the writing and fact-checking process that much easier.

How to present my work

I don’t have a fear of public speaking, but I do have a tendency to get sidetracked when I talk. Nearly every semester I had to present a reading or paper at least once. And I had to defend my thesis to graduate.

This might not seem like much, but it gave me extra practice for planning out presentations and staying on topic. That practice also means I don’t need to spend as much time planning out presentations.

How to master another language

Not all graduate programs allow you to take language courses, but mine required it. It was a great excuse to really get a grasp of Arabic and use it in my research and writing. And learning a new language in itself came with a slew of other benefits as well.

It opened up a world of media and literature I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. It also exercised my ability to learn new, unfamiliar skills that can make my job easier.

How to write for different audiences

I went to graduate school at an American university in Beirut. While the curriculum was in English, my professors and peers made up a different audience than I was used to writing for back home. They had different points of reference, which meant different types of information were considered common knowledge.

It took some adjusting to get it right. My first few papers came back with lots of red question marks. And sometimes my professors would completely misinterpret my argument. While I’m not crossing major cultural barriers every day at work, being able to adjust to a variety of audiences makes it easier to communicate with different teams and new colleagues.

How to live on a tight budget

I was living off of a small stipend from my parents and student loans for the three years I was in graduate school, which was far from comfortable. After a few cash-strapped months that culminated with a week of sad ramen dinners, I forced myself to sit down and assess my budget and what was really important to me.

And it wasn’t what I’d expected. I found that it was worth setting aside money for the occasional night out to keep up friendships. I also discovered I spent more money when I was disorganized. Getting work done on time and keeping my space tidy were key to staying on budget — something I still do to stay on top of my personal and work goals.

How to tell when it’s time to move on

Deciding to switch career paths is terrifying, especially if you invested a lot of time and money in one direction. But by the end of grad school, it became clear I wouldn’t be able to have the academic career I’d dreamed of without a lot of adversity. Writing my master’s thesis had been an uphill battle with administrators and professors. And I didn’t have it in me to do it again. And again. And again.

That experience taught me how to assess a project or career and decide whether it’s sustainable in the long run. And to glean whatever lessons I could from the time and effort I invested. This has helped me build stronger relationships and friendships, and also manage my workload at my non-academic job.

In the end …

Graduate school might not have taken me down the career path I’d originally planned for. But it taught me valuable skills I’ve found useful since entering the work force. And employers know this. Having a master’s on my resume opened doors to more interesting jobs that I might not have otherwise qualified for.

If you’re thinking about getting your master’s but aren’t sure how to fund it, you might want to check out our guide to graduate student loans.

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