Professors Give Advice on What to Do After Graduating
Westminster’s commencement ceremony involves graduating students walking through the Columns of the old Westminster Hall. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.
BY TOBIAS GIBSON AND IRENE UNGER
With Commencement fewer than five weeks away, Drs. Tobias Gibson and Irene Unger share their post-graduation experiences and give advice on the topic. Gibson is a tenured associate professor of political science, and Unger is an associate professor of biology and environmental science.
Gibson: Make a choice, and push yourself with purpose.
In 1999, I graduated from Indiana University with a double major in history and political science. For several years prior to graduation, I thought I would be heading to law school. However, I did so well on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) that I decided to go to graduate school. Upon seeking advice from several professors and graduate students, I concluded that working toward a doctorate in political science was a more pragmatic decision for me than pursuing a history degree, though it meant turning my back on my first love.
After spending the summer reading, sleeping and watching movies, I entered the doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, with but a three-month break between my undergraduate and graduate programs. For several reasons, I believe this was the right choice for me. I took several years off as an undergraduate, and I had finally built up the necessary momentum to excel academically. I feared that an extended break would derail my long-term goals.
My advice for those entering graduate (or professional) school right out of college is the same:
- Make a choice. Decide on a program of study. If you decide to attend graduate school, you can go to law school later—or, in some cases, at the same time. I still maintain that I will get at least a Master of Arts in history as well as a law degree.
- Commit to the best program you get into and can afford.
- Rest before you go on to the next step. Graduate school, law school and medical school are marathons. With sprints. However, “rest” does not mean be lazy. See how I put reading first in the list of my summer activities?
- Do not let yourself settle for mediocrity. You need to be willing and prepared to do your best, consistently and constantly.
- Understand that you will not be the same person after completing your degree. And you do not want to be. Part of graduate school and professional school is the process of socializing into your chosen profession. If you want to be a political scientist, you must learn how to speak, write and research like a political scientist. If you want to be a lawyer, you will need to mold your mind to think like a lawyer.
- Internalize why you want to earn an additional degree. This will help you keep your eyes on the end goal, and not get caught up in the suck of the moment.
Unger: Keep an open mind, but go to grad school only if you are ready.
What to do after graduation? If you are a junior or senior struggling with this question, my advice is to be gentle with yourself. It is okay not to know. If you are open to the journey, you will reach your destination eventually.
As a senior in high school, I envisioned that I would become a high school biology teacher, and I planned my undergraduate educational experiences around that goal. I declared a biology major at the earliest possible moment, and spent my early years taking courses that would provide the breadth I thought I would need. For example, I took both physiology and plant physiology. I soon learned, however, that I found plants much more interesting than animals and disciplines like ecology and evolution much more interesting than physiology and biochemistry.
Thus, I began to focus my studies during my junior and senior years more toward plant ecology. Meanwhile, in preparation for a teaching career, I enrolled in courses that were required prerequisites for the Masters of Arts in education program at my university. This program consisted of two sessions of summer school plus a full year of student teaching. My plan was to enroll in the first summer session immediately after graduation. However, events in my personal life derailed this plan, and I spent that summer and subsequent months working at a large-scale production greenhouse instead.
When I finally did return to school, I returned to biology instead of education and eventually earned a research-based Master of Science in biology. With a master’s degree, I could teach on the community college level, and I soon found myself in the Missouri Ozarks teaching at a branch campus of Missouri State University. Here, I taught introductory biology courses for biology majors and non-majors. I did this for nine years before moving to Columbia and entering a doctoral program in forestry. Upon completing this degree – nine years ago, I joined the faculty at Westminster.
Thus, my path has not been direct even though I always knew I wanted to teach biology. The “gap years” were very important points along my journey. It is okay to not go to graduate school right away. In fact, I would caution against graduate school until you are relatively sure about what you wish to study. Do not go to graduate school just because you do not have a job and you need something to do. In all likelihood, if you do, you will just make yourself and the people around you miserable.
Instead, go when you have discovered where your passions lie. And, believe it or not, you can change majors! One of the women I went to graduate school with completed a history major as an undergraduate and went on to earn a master’s degree in forestry. Of course, she had to take extra classes to make up for what she missed as an undergraduate, but with determination and hard work, she was successful.
The gap between my master’s degree and doctorate degree was very important. A doctorate closes just as many doors as it opens, and I needed to be sure that I was well suited for a career in academia. When I finally returned to graduate school, I had a clear goal in mind that really helped me get through the tough times when all I wanted to do was quit.
I am, perhaps, one of the lucky ones who had an idea from an early age about what I wanted to do with my life. Nevertheless, my goals did change over time, and I encourage you to be open to deviations in your plans. These deviations might just take you to opportunities you could have never imagined.