I’m a Graduate Student (Again)

I’m so impressed with the iSchool.

Last Wednesday, I attended a careers orientation for new students, and my mind was blown. Tara Iagulli’s presentation was just so good. The iSchool’s careers center and placement history are very impressive indeed—especially to a Liberal Arts type like myself, who had little to no career guidance as an undergraduate.
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I had originally wanted to become an English professor, having been hooked on research, writing, and literary criticism in high school, when I wrote my first real research paper on Dylan Thomas for AP English. And I loved studying English literature in college (so much that I went straight through to grad school and got a master’s degree!); but I never had that deep drive to devote myself to the field. I think, like many young students, I idealized the academic life with little appreciation for the actual work that quality scholarship necessitates. And I had no clue at all about the career path of a typical humanities PhD: single-minded study of a tiny area of expertise alongside mastery of a massive body of critical theory; the looming threat of publish-or-perish; the importance of faculty mentorship; the politics (egads, the politics); “going on the job market”; post-docs; being willing to move literally anywhere in the country—or the world—irrespective of one’s partner, family, friends, or preference; the MLA; the dire, dire placement rate—even from the very best programs—for tenure-track positions. After my MA, I was bleary-eyed and burned out. Consequently, I floated around, from grad school to retail to temping to admin, only discovering the field of library science at age 26.

Thinking librarianship would be a good career fit, I applied and was accepted to TWU’s distance MLIS program in 2006. I moved to Austin, and got two part time jobs at a special library. Absent the collegiality, socialization, and career counseling of a traditional, residence-based academic program, I found it very hard to stay focused and motivated (okay, my 5:00am-9:00am and 1:00-5:00pm library shifts didn’t help, either). In 2007, I landed a coveted, full time  job at UT, and I dropped out.

I spent the next six years working as an administrative associate in a Liberal Arts department and, later, as a development associate for an academic unit in the College of Natural Sciences. Both of these positions had many positive aspects, including immersion in campus life; interaction with students, staff, faculty, and visitors; event planning; web design, graphic design, and social media; wonderful colleagues; and, of course, great benefits.

But I always found myself dissatisfied. Being in close proximity to students and scholars brought back my old love of research and academe; it also made me increasingly resentful, not just of the newest crop of promising graduate students, but of my own naive, youthful choices. After a fun but stressful year working my ass off in development, I decided it was time to find a profession of my own. I was 33.

After much research and consideration, I came back around to library and information science. I found that the field was much, much broader and more exciting than I’d previously realized. And I decided to do it right this time, by applying to one of the three residence-only MSIS programs in the United States, here at UT. I wasn’t even sure I’d get in, and I wasn’t sure I could afford to attend grad school full time if I did; but in March I received an offer of admission. A few weeks later, I found out I was selected as a graduate intern at the Harry Ransom Center. Things started happening in rapid succession. I accepted the offers; I found out I qualified for tuition remission; I gave notice at my job.

I still can’t really believe it; I have been given so many opportunities, in such a short space of time, after so many years of frustration. After ten years of floating, I’ve found a place to land, and it’s even better than I’d hoped.

Class starts on Wedesnday—day after tomorrow—and I have yet to complete registration (being on multiple waitlists makes me feel a bit like a freshman). I’m itching to get excited about my classes, but I don’t yet know for sure what they are!  My tuition remission hasn’t been processed yet, so I can’t pay back my emergency tuition loan, or buy books, or get a much-needed computer. My internship doesn’t start until after Labor Day. So I’ve just been going to all of the iSchool’s mandatory and voluntary orientation sessions: introductions, mixers, tours, advising appointments, careers talks.
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It’s been amazing. I knew the iSchool was highly ranked, with great interdisciplinary faculty, cutting edge facilities, fascinating course offerings, and a wonderful placement rate. And I knew I wanted to get into the archives field. But I had no idea how many opportunities there are, including for learning tech skills, information theory, and design alongside the more traditional library and archives skill set. The diversity of job titles and institutions is already forcing me to reconsider what my career path might look like. The people I’m meeting—faculty as well as students—are friendly and interesting, and they’re working on fascinating projects across an almost unfathomable array of disciplines.

After the first day of orientation, I was so excited I almost wanted to cry. I can’t believe it took me ten years to find this. But I’m so, so grateful to be here.

Of course, I’ve also noticed a significant crop of new grey hairs that have appeared just in time for orientation week, as if to remind me that I am, after all, ten years older than most of my fellow grad students. Most of the time, it’s easy to forget. Yet I am also grateful for the clarity and motivation I have now, at 34, going back to graduate school—again. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all this ten years ago. I feel both young and old. It’s a good place to be.

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