Grinding Gears: The Journey of a Master’s Degree

Written By: Bastian Solutions

pros and cons of getting a master's degree

There are pros and cons to getting a master’s degree, so be sure you understand all of them before jumping into a program.

I was listening to a “This American Life” Podcast, where they discussed how preschool education had the single greatest effect on how successful children would be later in life. This data was pulled from children growing up in challenging environments, and the disparity between at-risk children and well-off children was staggering.

I immediately morphed this story into how it was relevant to me: one, because I do not have children (I do have adorable nieces and nephews), and secondly, because I am a grad student (MSME – Fall ‘12). And let’s face it: grad students are selfish. I began to think – if preschool is the most important factor on adult success and is involuntary, then how is voluntary grad school going to help this late in life?

These self-defeating thoughts can be a welcome distraction on your 25-hour weekend homework binge.

I am near the point of graduating now, and it is too late to make any changes. I must finish. I will. But as I get closer, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel, I begin to worry that in all my excitement I have mistaken the light to be a train coming right at me.

So I’d like to write a candid article about what I think grad school is, what it is perceived to be, and how you can survive if you would like to get a Master’s Degree in Engineering.

What it is:

  1. Grad school is a lot of work. You work 8 to 5 (or what have you), then grab a frozen dinner and go to campus, or listen to an online lecture. On weekends, when you aren’t working on your projects or endless homework, you are complaining about them.
  2. It is expensive. Thankfully at Bastian, a large portion of this expense is paid for via reimbursement. However, grad school can also be expensive on your hairline. Below is a time-elapsed figure of my forehead over the last three years:
    Receding hairline from getting a Master's in Engineering

    Picture courtesy of:

  3. And finally, it is just difficult. College was the first time I realized that there are a lot, literally thousands, of hard working smart people (HWSP) in your same degree and class. In a master’s program, you take the hardest working of those HWSP and pull them together in one class. Now you compete against them for your grade. If you ask about how the homework went, they act as clueless as you feel; then you find out they got a 95 on the last test.

What it is perceived to be:

A wonderful journey of educational bliss:

  • “Doors will open.”
  • “Better to do it now while you are young.”
  • “No one can take it away from you.”

These things are meant to encourage you when you are struggling and need reassurance, but don’t let these perceptions be the driver of why you get your master’s or even why you keep going. Make sure you research the program, the school, and if you can, talk to as many people who have gone through the same thing.

How to survive:

  1. First, make sure this is absolutely what you want to do. I would recommend simulating how much time it would take by throwing yourself into a hobby or extra work approximately 15-30 hours a week for a month. Do you miss watching TV or wasting a whole day vegging out? You probably won’t have that time to decompress while you’re in the middle of a semester.
  2. Don’t just do the minimum to pass the class. Find some way to make the projects relevant. Use them as an excuse to champion a new process at work, or deep dive into some new software. Get in over your head. When the deadline nears, narrow the scope and finish on time.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, tell everyone that you care about why this is important to you and how much time it will take from spending time with them. If they are not on board, then no matter what gains you have later in life, you will regret the lost time with friends and family.

I wanted to share this story not because I think a master’s degree is a bad idea. I have a controversial opinion that too many do it for the wrong reasons. If you love to go into difficult topics, questionably useless at times, and you don’t mind an existential crisis now and then, a master’s may be for you.

When I finish this fall, I will miss the friends I have made in class. I will even miss the caffeine-fueled study sessions late into a weekend night. I look back at some of my projects, and I am proud of what I have accomplished. My box has more tools now. Some of them are pretty sophisticated – it is a digital pair of calipers when most of the time a tape measure will do.

I take comfort in the fact that if I ever need to build a new tool, I will have the confidence to attempt something too challenging, the humility to ask for help when I get stuck, and the perseverance to find a solution-even if it takes much longer than I ever thought.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments – or your own version of the journey to complete a master’s degree while working full time.

Bastian Solutions is an independent system integrator dedicated to helping our customers increase their productivity through proven automation, information systems, and sound operating procedures.

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