Life Skills: Getting To, And Through Grad School

Casey Mahoney ’11 was MiddBlog’s co-lead editor in fall 2010 and spring 2011. He’s currently in his second semester of a year-and-a-half M.A. program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS, official tagline: “A graduate school of Middlebury College“).

MA. MS. MBA. MPA. MPhil. PhD. MD. These are the degrees (and others) that going to graduate school will get you. Why bother? Ultimately, your second degree will be the sine qua non of the resume or CV that will land you an advanced position in your field.

Your Middlebury BA or BS can definitely land you a great first, second, third job – and it could certainly be that it’s the only degree you’ll need for life (no school again? ever?!) – but you might find later on that advancing in your field requires a second degree. Alternately, getting an extra credential right out of undergrad could give you the extra leg up that you need to start your professional career.

Know your goals and make the right decision

You can't just do it for the colorful robes.

The most important part about the calculus of the “to grad school, or not to grad school” question is knowing your goals. Where do you want to be in your career in three, five, and ten years? No doubt it will be challenging to answer this with a complete picture of the exact job you want to have in 2022, but you need to know the direction your headed in order to make the huge investment that graduate school is. Researching career options (use that MiddNet) is just as important as researching the graduate programs that will get you the degrees to get there.

Specialize vs. Generalize

Once you get (back) to school, you’ll likely be faced with a number of options as to how you can specialize even more in your Masters of Science in Nurse Anesthesia degree (MSNA – it’s real). Do I specialize to the max, or take a step back and do something more general? I don’t want to close off all my options… Do both.

We’ve heard that, supposedly, specialization is the key to success: the liberal arts will unlikely provide bread and butter for the majority of us forever (though they are a great place to start). I’d like to argue that both specializing and developing generalist competencies are important in grad school. You’ll find that there are opportunities for both.

Use papers and research projects to create your unique brand of expertise in your niche. At the same time, fill your space for electives with courses and activities that wouldn’t immediately strike one as relevant. Bridging this knowledge to your field will broaden your viewpoints and translate to marketable, professional capabilities – a purpose much more than general knowledge for general knowledge’s sake. Taking “intellectual risks” (“doing stretch-work”) is still worthwhile even after you’ve got your liberal arts degree.

Learn to live as a professional

Time spent at graduate school is a unique opportunity to focus on not only developing an expertise, but also practicing to be a professional. Develop relationships with professors and classmates as both friendships and professional contacts. Devote time outside of class to learn all you can about your field by reading more, networking with people in the field, and attending conferences.

Find a balance

On the same token, spending all your time thinking about classes and careers isn’t practical, or probably healthy either. Just like at Middlebury, you’ll be “working” much more than a 9-to-5 job. Managing your life so that you can relax and take “time off” from “grad school life” – which can easily become an overwhelming 24/7 engagement – is important. If you’re not living on a college campus, having a social life requires a bit more planning and effort, so keeping on top of your schedule (and loans budget!) is key.

Jack Donaghee and Liz Lemon

Find a mentor. Who's the Jack Donaghy in your Liz Lemon life? (See: 30 Rock on NBC.)

Seek valuable mentors

Most graduate programs will be well equipped with advisors who are well-versed in linking the degrees your institution offers with the jobs its students want. Get the most you can out of these advisors, but also keep your eye out for professors and others who seem like they might understand you a little bit more, and who might be willing to take you under their wing, if only informally.

Insert plug here: Casey and Lauren Redfield ’11 will be speaking about the Monterey Institute on March 8 in the RAJ Conference Room at 4:30 p.m. Contact Charlotte Tate  at for details as the date approaches.