Advice to a 40-odder on re-entering school

When I let it be known around the office back in 2006 that I was interested in going back to school, and that I'd targeted UNC's SILS, an acquaintance introduced me to a friend of hers who had just gotten her MSLS degree from there. I think we talked in January or February and I was amazed at the impromptu compactness and pointedness of the excellent advice she gave me. It was a great example of how, when you make your intentions specific and known, life opens its hand and leads you where you want to go. Anyway, here's the advice she gave me, with a few tips and embellishments from me.

  • Read the professor's bios and see what their backgrounds are. Focus on the ones whose interests match yours. One of them could be your advisor after you enter BUT--start talking to your fellow students after you arrive and get their advice on potential advisors as well.
  • Avoid applying for the fall semester. Apply in January instead--the application pool is smaller and there's less competition.
  • One of the things that made me an attractive candidate was not just my work experience, but also that I wouldn't require a scholarship.
  • Information Science is wide open and encompasses a broad field. Even if you don't know exactly where you'll land in SILS, you should be able to find a place in it.
  • Feel free to call the office and ask to set up a visit. The staff is very friendly and they often conduct tours of the building and surrounding area to prospects.
  • The GRE is a formality if the admissions committee thinks you'll contribute to the program. (That didn't make the GRE any more pleasurable!)
  • This was the best advice: she suggested taking some SILS classes, even online classes, as a continuing ed student via the Friday Center. The courses are cheaper than if you're in a degree program, and provide some familiarity with the school and professors (though adjuncts often teach the online courses). I took two classes this way and those hours transferred in very easily after I was accepted.
  • I scheduled my first cont-ed class during a summer session. This allowed me to get familiar with campus and the bus schedules at a more relaxed pace than I could have done during the general crush and chaos of the fall or spring semester. And no long line waiting to get an ID card!
  • Be aware that the Friday Center and the Graduate School are two separate entities. If you fill out the North Carolina residency form for one, you also have to fill one out for the other. An instance of the bureaucracy being set up for the bureaucracy's convenience rather than the student's. (And no, no one tells you this. You either have to find out on your own or read some big dumb blogger passing on his hard-won wisdom.)

Related post: Studying for the GRE

Studying for the GRE

I've stopped updating my previous blog, Oddments of High Unimportance, after Google's Blogger-bots thought I was a spam-blog and prevented me from making posts for about 2 weeks. They finally decided I was for real and basically republished the blog, adding a "9" to the first part of the URL. This has the charming side-effect of breaking links to all of my old articles. Now, Oddments was my first blog and it was a place to just pin to the wall various Web and other ephemera that crossed my path. I messed about with blogging but was never a serious, dedicated blogger. However, I did take the time and trouble to write some longer posts now and then, and it would be a shame to lose them.

So I thought I'd rescue two of those posts, on what I learned from studying for the GRE in the summer of 2006. My commitment to the GRE project surprised even me, I must say; I knew it needed to be done and I took the steps needed to do it.

V:800 Q:640:

Rating my GRE study materials:

From MFA to MSIS

In talking to a friend, he remembered that this graduate school adventure started in early 2005, when I investigated getting an MFA in Creative Writing. The next thing he knew, I was at UNC working my ass off on a MSIS degree. How I got here from there went this way, in short steps and occasional large leaps:

  • I'd been dabbling and playing with creative writing for 20 years, and thought, in early 2005, that I wanted to commit myself to it, go back to school, read a lot, write a lot, and see if I had any talent. I felt it was time. I'd always told myself I'd never go back to school unless it was for something I was interested in; I'd never get a degree just to qualify myself for a job.
  • I talked to the head of NCSU's creative writing department about the program's various requirements and so on. I went so far as to revise some old stories, compile them, and send them to him for review. Never heard back.
  • Background to early 2005: I'd been unemployed for most of 2004, and was only an hourly worker at a tech-writing company. As much as I wanted to go to school and study writing, I realized that I didn't have the money to go back to school and that, after getting the MFA, I'd be back where I was at the start: working technical writing jobs that were increasingly unsatisfying and becoming more uncertain of the career's value as time wore on. Also, my career path had kept me on the traditional side of tech writing, away from XML, DITA, structured authoring, and so on. I was aging out.
  • I felt, consequently (and here's Leap One), that I needed to solidify my career options for at least the next 5-8 years. This meant eschewing an MFA and focusing on a degree that would provide me with a more promising and interesting career. But I didn't know what that would be. However, the wheels of higher education were now in motion, in my mind and imagination if nowhere else.
  • Eventually, in June 2005, I got a job that provided a steady income, dependable benefits (much needed at that time), and a place where I could lick my wounds after a wounding 18 months of illness, layoffs, and deep uncertainty.
  • To satisfy my writing needs, I searched out and joined a writer's group in early 2006, and stayed with them till September 2007, when school demands overtook me. That involvement was enough to get me to revising old stories, write some new ones, think about my creative process, and hone my critiquing skills.
  • A local RTP group on Lifehackery started up and I somehow heard of it, and went to a dinner meeting, where we introduced ourselves around, and talked about our productivity compulsions. One of the fellows was Abe Crystal, who said he was a PhD student at UNC in Information Science. Information wha? What's that? (Cue: Leap Two.)
  • I must have done some research because I fixated on attending UNC, getting a master's in IS, and collecting advice from whoever I could. I received excellent advice from a friend of a co-worker, who had graduated with an LS degree from UNC, and I followed her advice to the letter. (I really should post that advice sometime.) By June of 2006, I was a continuing ed student taking my first class, studying for the GRE, and wrestling with UNC's byzantine and antiquated graduate admissions process.
  • More background: My manager was entering school in the Fall of 2006 to get an MBA, and he urged me to take advantage of our company's tuition reimbursement program. That, and he wanted someone else to go through the pain with him of working full-time while going to school.
  • By the Spring of 2007, I was enrolled in UNC's SILS program. My manager urged me, quite rightly, to take two classes at a time. "You're gonna be old when you graduate, Mike, you need to get in as many classes as you can," he said. Well, setting aside the fact that I'll be old anyway, he was right. I'll probably write another post sometime on why taking two classes at a time is good for me.

Today, in April 2008, I've nearly finished with 24 hours of a 48-hour Master's of Science in Information Science degree. I've not written a short story in a year or so. And I'm barely reading anything that doesn't have eleventy-million citations to its name.  I have another 4 semesters to go.

Best decision I've made in a long long time