Why Grad School?

Why Grad School?

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This past week I had the pleasure of meeting some of the newly admitted students in the next cohort of Nonfiction MFA students at Columbia. One of the questions prospective and admitted students often ask me is why I chose to go to grad school and why I chose Columbia. This week, I’ll describe my journey of how and why I decided to go to grad school.

In 2012 I graduated with a BA in English from the University of Central Florida. For most of my undergrad, I didn’t give much thought to grad studies; I thought it wasn’t for me. Like an increasing number of college students, it took me a little longer than four years to complete my undergraduate degree. I spent so many years in school and now I saw the finish line in sight! So why would I decide to invest more time and money into my education? I was eager to start working, to put my skills to use!

Until the final year of my undergrad experience, I had the mindset of “I’ll get a job after graduation and work full time as an editor or freelance or do both!” I would make ends meet and have my dream and write, write, write.  <— Mind of an idealistic undergraduate

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Two things happened my senior year: I took a workshop with a supportive and influential professor who helped me see my writing in a new light and I began working more seriously at my university’s Writing Center.

Although I had been writing nonfiction for years, it wasn’t until my workshop with Laurie Uttich that I realized how deeply invested I was in this genre. Officially, my concentration was in fiction, and I had been led to believe that my nonfiction writing was just jottings or musings, not essays—something to write though to find my stories, not the real deal in and of themselves.

Laurie helped me develop critical eye to better understand what I was doing in my own writing and helped me see that my work was more than the errata of a distracted fiction writer, but actual essays and nonfiction pieces worthy of time and effort. She encouraged me to send my work out and to seriously look into writers’ residencies and graduate schools. This was October of my senior year. I still wasn’t sure if grad school was the right choice for me or if I even had what it took to make it into a graduate program. There was so much more that I wanted to know about nonfiction that wasn’t being covered in my classes, but it was hard to know where to begin. I spent the next year independently studying nonfiction, thanks to some guidance and suggested reading from Laurie and other nonfiction professors. I fell in love with Virginia Woolf for the second time when I read “The Death of the Moth,” and devoured personal essays, craft essays, and memoirs.

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The other important turning point in my journey towards grad school came about at my job. I had been employed at my university’s writing center since late 2010 and I loved working with students, one-on-one, discussing writing, assisting them in finding new ways to make writing work for them, helping them discover their own practices and improve upon them. Doing research, writing, and reflection on my tutoring work led me to think more deeply about my consultation practices and my philosophies about education. I realized that my own philosophy comes from a belief that education’s greatest ability is to empower learners, and that we never ever stop learning.  Education became a practice of liberation, a political act, and I realized that this wasn’t just a job for me—education (writing education in particular) was something that I cared deeply about and I wanted to make that part of my career. I wanted to continue working with students. I realized that I wanted to teach, not just tutor, but I knew that if I wanted to work at a college or university in an instructional capacity, a master’s degree would be a requisite. (“MA or MFA?” you might ask. We’ll get to that in my next post!)

I visited Chicago in spring 2012 for AWP and began scoping out graduate schools. The admissions deadlines for grad programs had already passed, so I was on the hunt for a full time job to take up after graduation. I was eager to work, and knew that time in the workforce would give me time to really decide what I wanted and where I might want to go to school if I decided to go back at all. I had some big questions of myself, and at the top of my list was whether I would have enough discipline to keep a consistent writing practice after graduation, while working full time, when the deadlines were ones set by myself. I told myself if writing was still enough of a priority and I was still producing work with a full-time day job, grad school would stay on the table.

Following graduation, I began working full time as a technical editor. I loved being able to go into work everyday and actually use my writing and editing skills, but I found myself looking for spare moments where I could write what I wanted to write. At lunch, on breaks, in my car at stoplights on the way to and from work, and sitting at my desk in my room all night after sitting at a desk all day in the office. Deadlines or no deadlines I kept at it. After a few months on the job, I realized how much I missed being in academia—reading deeply, writing and thinking critically, and talking to others about it. Luckily for me, my office was right next to my old university, so on lunch breaks I would often go back to visit old professors to talk writing and get advice on grad school. After months of debating (with a gentle push from some well-meaning professors), it was in one of those lunch break visits that I made up my mind—I was going to apply for grad school.

The next step was to sort through all the information I had gathered that spring at AWP, to have some more serious conversations with my writing mentors, and take the plunge into applications. Stay tuned for my next post as I go into my selection and application process!