Four Things that Surprised Me as a Middle-Aged Graduate Student

My ever-growing stack of college textbooks.

About a year and a half ago, I decided to return to grad school for my master’s degree. This wasn’t something that had been a long time coming; I impulsively searched for English Literature programs online, found one that sounded promising, and before I knew it, I was on a Zoom session with the chair of the department. A few weeks after that, I found myself sitting in front of my computer listening to a professor talk through a John Donne poem. I was 42 years old.

I went back for a host of reasons, but that’s a story for another day. My point here is that during my 1.5-year tenure as a student, I’ve learned a LOT of things that have absolutely nothing to do with course material. If you’re thinking about becoming a “non-traditional” student, here are four surprising things I’ve encountered. Read on, so you’ll be more prepared than I was.

  1. The width of the age gap between my classmates and I. As someone in my early 40s, I’m still hanging on to the idea that I’m fairly “young” and haven’t lost touch with what’s up-to-date in the world. I mean, I have an Instagram account — that means I’m not too far gone, right?

    Well, not quite. While some of my classmates also don’t fall into the age ranges of a typical grad student, most of them do — and they’re one, maybe two, generations younger than me. They’ve grown up in the digital world, while I slowly adopted it as a twentysomething during my undergraduate studies. They don’t have kids. They are adept at social-media apps that I’ve barely heard of, let alone use. Compared to them, I felt like a senior citizen at a nightclub.

    That’s not to say, however, that the exposure to this new generation of adults has been unpleasant. Last semester, I downloaded Discord for the first time so I could join the English grad student chat that someone set up. It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone with regards to popular culture and technology, and I’ve broadened my horizons. Always a good thing.
  2. Imposter syndrome is real. The first time I turned in a piece of writing for a grad-level course, I was stricken with fear. I was convinced that it was terrible and expected to receive an e-mail from my prof asking why, exactly, I thought this would be suitable for submission. In a recent course on graphic novels, I stayed quiet during most class discussions — my classmates had so many brilliant things to say, and I felt like any observations I had would pale in comparison.

    Of course, none of those things happened, or turned out to be true. I got an A in that first course (and every other course I’ve taken since then). In a recent video chat I had with my graphic-novel professor, he asked me why I hadn’t spoken up more during class. As it turns out, he felt that my final paper was one of the best in the class. “You really do have the chops for this,” he said. “You just need to believe in yourself.”

    All I can say is: I’m trying.
  3. The huge impact that technology has had on higher education. I distinctly remember working on papers as an undergrad in the mid- to late-90s. I’d type them on the bulky desktop computer in my apartment, then transfer them to a Zip disk and go over to the computer lab, where I’d hop on to one of the candy-colored iMacs and print. The paper would then be handed in during class or (if I waited until the last minute) slid under the professor’s office door. It was a process. If I spilled coffee on it or it got crumpled in my bag, I’d have to do the whole thing over again.

    Now? I go to Canvas, click the Upload button, and send it directly from my paper-thin MacBook to the professor’s work queue. No papers, no office visits. While this wasn’t as big a shock to me as the other items on my list (I’ve stayed pretty up-to-date on education technology as a high-school teacher), I still kind of ball up my fists in jealousy sometimes at how easy it’s become.
  4. The amount of planning that is necessary to complete my task list. Balancing a hectic full-time job with 6 hours of grad courses (and a family!) requires an amount of forethought and organization that borders on the ridiculous. When my professors assign reading for the week, I have to start on it right away, because waiting even two days makes it exponentially more likely that something — my son’s sports practice, an unexpected after-school tutoring session — will get in my way, resulting in me being unprepared for class. Papers? I start writing them weeks in advance, knowing that I can only spare enough time to write about one paragraph per day. Grocery-store trips have to either happen on the weekend, or get squeezed in during my planning period, the perishable items stashed in my classroom fridge until the end of the school day.
    It’s an exhausting way to live, but a must if I want to keep panic and dread to a minimum.

    If you’ve gone back to grad school at a later age — what surprised you the most? Leave a comment below to share.



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