Looking Back at Grad School, Three Years On
It has been over three years since I handed in the final draft of my master’s thesis. I would officially graduate a few months later, but I remember the moment I heard a soft thud in the bottom of my professor’s mailbox as the moment I knew my career as a graduate student had finished. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders, to be sure – but I also felt like a part of me was gone forever.
I have always loved to learn, and I have always loved being a student. Going back to university to study for a master’s degree was a decision I made after my second year as an undergrad, as I sat reading for classes while studying abroad with friends in Brussels, Belgium during the summer of 2012. My room in our rented apartment was on the very top floor; there was a window in the ceiling that I’d keep open for fresh air as it got quite stuffy after a while, and occasionally I’d pop my head through to take a deep breath and admire the view. We stayed in a small suburb outside the city centre – I can’t remember its name anymore – but I haven’t forgotten those nights where I felt my love of learning come back to life after having endured four semesters of “general education” classes. These classes were essentially a continuation of high school classes, and I hated them. I knew I wanted to study international relations, and all I wanted to do was read about foreign interventions and constructivist theory and what America’s role in the rest of the world might be as the twenty-first century unfolded. But college, especially the first two years, was nothing like I had imagined. I’d made incredible friends, did my fair share of partying, and learned valuable lessons about myself. It wasn’t until that summer in Brussels that I felt alive in learning again; the combination of spending 9 AM to 5 PM immersed in an academic environment that focused solely on what I was passionate about instead of in a three-hour math class was like breathing fresh air. I knew then that two more years wouldn’t be enough for me, and I resolved then and there that I would pursue a master’s degree in international relations.
After completing an internship in Washington, DC, I set my sights on moving abroad for my degree. I was accepted to University College Dublin for their one-year master’s programme in international relations, and it finally felt like everything was falling into place. Not only did I feel like I was working toward my academic goals in a capacity I had only previously dreamed of, but other things were falling into place too: I became more comfortable in my own skin, I spent my time exactly the way I wanted to, I took better care of myself, I got a handle on my anxiety, and I felt myself growing into the person I had always wanted to become. In the context of being a grad student, I know these things are the exception to the rule. Burnout is a very real, very potent side effect of the rigorous curriculum in graduate school. I had my fair share of exhaustion and imposter syndrome and certainly felt like quitting at one point or another. But for me – my own personal experience – I’ve never felt happier than in moments where I would come across a theory or an article and I could feel that mental light bulb click in my brain. I became addicted to the feeling of academic discovery, and this has carried over into other areas of my life in ways I’d never imagined.
I once dreamed of working at NATO – it seemed to be the ultimate goal for an international relations student. But as it tends to do, life got in the way. I realised early on that my passion for the subject didn’t quite translate into raw ambition, and while I wrestled with this for a bit, eventually I accepted the fact that I probably won’t ever be advising world leaders on their next move, and three years after turning in my thesis, that’s fine by me. The election in 2016 was also a huge turning point for me; I began to feel so burned out around the topics of politics and social justice – and then I felt guilty for being burned out about things that were so important to me – that I had to stop. Burnout had finally come for me, and it wasn’t academic. My mind remained inquisitive, but my mental health was eroding and my sense of existential dread became too much to bear as every day brought a new political crisis. I began filling my time with research and reading into other areas of interest I’d always loved: medieval history, gender studies, Irish history, and so much more. I was still a student, but on my own terms: I didn’t feel paralysed by the idea that I would likely never have an international relations career, and instead I felt like the options were endless.
My career since graduation has not gone to any plan, least of all my own. Three years on, I am now working in a public relations capacity, but everything that came before this – working in IT in the aviation sector, editing childcare documents – all of it was important experience, and I was able to excel outside my comfort zone because of the realisations that my burnout brought to me: your degree field doesn’t necessarily dictate your career path.
My advice to anyone considering a master’s degree is this: your degree might be hyper-specialised, but you are not. Your interests are wide-ranging, and your abilities are too. You are capable of so much more than focusing on one academic area, and to forget that means to draw a box around yourself that you might never realise you can leave. International relations, politics, American history – these areas are what drew me in to academia in the first place, but I never want to lock myself in their cage. My master’s degree allowed me to study what I was most passionate about, but I am and always will be more than my degree.
Lauren Olmeda holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations. She works in public affairs in Dublin, Ireland and is Editor-at-Large of the Attic on Eighth.