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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

The 4 Hardest Things About Going Back to School (and How to Deal)

While I’ve definitely been loving business school, some things about the transition from being a professional to being a student have been harder to adjust to than I expected. From managing a different kind of workload to living without that bi-weekly paycheck, there are plenty of ways that being in grad school is wildly different than being a full-time worker (or even an undergrad student).

Now that I’ve got (almost) a semester under my belt, I’ve had a chance to work through some of the things that have been the trickiest about going back to school. Read on for the top four challenges I faced, and the strategies that have helped me manage them.


1. Not Getting Paid

Despite the fact that it’s been four months, I’m still adjusting to not getting a salary deposited in my bank account every two weeks. I took out loans, so I do get my disbursement for living expenses at the beginning of each semester—but that amount has to get me through six months. Not having a regular stream of money is definitely the least fun part of being a full-time student.


What You Can Do About It

Thankfully, there are a number of ways to get by without a steady paycheck that don’t involve living off of ramen. The first is to create a solid budget and stick with it so that you always know where you stand when it comes to money. While you may be used to monthly budgeting, it’s helpful to think about your budget in terms of the whole semester, and then divide up each category’s allocation to get a sense of how much you can spend each month.

If you have circumstances like supporting a family that really make it important for you to have a regular income, you have options. Some people choose to stay on part-time with their former job so that they can keep working without any additional training and maintain a smaller (but steady) income. While this is definitely doable, to do it successfully you will need to be really good at managing your time. You can also explore part-time grad schools—many schools have programs that let you complete grad school at night while working full-time.


2. Working Nights and Weekends

At b-school, unlike at my previous job, I do the majority of my work during nights and weekends. I’m usually busy with classes and meetings or speaker events during the day, so by the time 5 PM rolls around, it’s likely that I still have a few hours of homework left to do. I try to get ahead by doing work for the upcoming week on Sundays, but Sunday has traditionally been my “life maintenance” day, so it’s definitely been hard to stay on top of schoolwork and my personal life while still getting a break in every now and then.


What You Can Do About It

The most helpful thing I’ve done so far has been to designate Friday night through Sunday morning as sacred “no-work” time. That way I know that I have at least 24 hours off a week to relax or hang out with friends without feeling guilty about school or recruiting things I should be doing. In order to fit everything in, I’ve had to get really efficient with personal to-dos by doing things like always buying birthday presents on Amazon instead of taking the time to shop for something super special. I’ve also had to cut back on who I keep in touch with and how frequently I talk to old friends.

I’ve tried to get better at bringing my homework with me when I’m on campus so that I can make use of every half hour break I have during the day and reduce my weekend workload. Finally, I’ve just had to really adjust my personal expectations about how I spend my weeknights: Instead of watching TV and going out to drinks with friends, I’m much more likely to spend Tuesday nights working on homework and job research. It’s been kind of a tough pill to swallow, but I know that it’s temporary and is just a part of the b-school lifestyle.


3. Getting a Final Grade

I’ve actually been surprised by how stressed I’m feeling about final grades. In business school, unlike programs such as law school, grades often don’t matter—at Harvard we don’t even get official letter grades or a GPA, just a number that corresponds to our relative percentile ranking in each class. So why should I be so concerned about whether I get a 1, 2, or 3 (our grading scale) in a particular class?

My hunch is that my stress has something to with the fact that I’m going to be receiving a final, unchangeable judgement on my performance in a certain class. At work, we had performance reviews, but I always felt like I always had the opportunity to improve myself afterward, whereas at school everything is set in stone at the end of the semester.


What You Can Do About It

It’s helpful to get a sense of how important your grades will be to your success after school. Will you graduate from your program with a final GPA? Are students ranked? Will certain job opportunities only be available to students in the top percentage of the class? If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” then you’re probably in a program where grades matter less than they did in undergrad, so you can stress less about them.

If you’re someone like me who’s a little (OK, a lot) type A and will worry about grades no matter what, try this little trick: Make a list of the top three things you’re hoping to get out of grad school. This can help you understand where your efforts (and stress) will be most valuable. For example, academic honors isn’t on my list, but exploring different industries is—meaning I can still feel good about my work if my grades aren’t perfect but I attended plenty of industry events.


4. Finding a New Job

Once grad school is over, many of us will be back on the job market for the first time in a while—potentially since you found your first job. While many of us went back to grad school for the promise of better job prospects, finding a job can still be extremely stressful. In addition to the typical ups and downs that come along with the process, in grad school I’ve found myself with a new problem: How do I narrow down all of the job opportunities that are available and focus on what I really want to do?


What You Can Do About It

First of all, make sure to take full advantage of the resources your school offers. Most grad schools have a good career services office that manages a job posting board, hosts companies to give presentations, and reviews resumes.

If your main problem is narrowing down the opportunities in front of you, take the time up front to really think about what careers and sectors you’re interested in and what you’re looking for in a job (informational interviews with alumni work wonders!). This process will take a little while, but it will pay off when you’re able to conduct a rational and efficient job search instead of spreading yourself really thin. I’d also recommend being as organized as possible, so that nothing slips through the cracks. For example, I created a networking tracker in Excel that lets me keep track of every person I’ve talked to, what company each contact is from, notes on our conversation, and whether or not I’ve followed up. I know this will come in handy when it comes time to find my post-grad gig.


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