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How To Go Back to School in Something Completely Different

Last summer, I took a more or less calculated risk. I left my wonderful, full-time job (at GOOD, as a matter of fact) and went back to graduate school. This was a change, to say the least. Especially given that I had been in the working world for several years. And was moving from my home in sunny Los Angeles to Edinburgh, Scotland, which is sort of like going to serve in the Night’s Watch. And was going back for computer science after studying philosophy and working as a writer. I changed just about everything at once. Even my cash flow reversed!

Unless there’s no doubt whatsoever that you are doing exactly what you were put on this earth to do (maybe you’re Lionel Messi, or, you know, the Lionel Messi of accounting or whatever) you’ve probably wondered what it would be like to switch gears and go explore that other thing you were always interested in. Well, I did it, and I’m here to report back.

(Oh, and one caveat: The following is most relevant—if it’s relevant at all—for people who are considering off-the-beaten path things in the spirit of exploration. If you’re considering law school or medical school, both of which saddle you with life-altering debt and tie you to a career, the following probably doesn’t apply.)

Dip Your Toes in the Water First

This is pretty common sensical. Grad school can be expensive. And even if you’re funded, you’ll be sacrificing time and the salary you could be making doing something else. So test your interest first. I did some coding on the side to make sure I liked it—and even then I chose a one-year masters degree. (The one-year masters, by the way, is very popular in the U.K. I highly recommend it.)

If you’re considering culinary school, for example, maybe volunteer in a restaurant or bakery or construct some sort of cooking curriculum for yourself first. In other words, find a low-commitment version of the thing you may want to do and do that first.

It’s Actually Probably Not Completely Different

I studied philosophy in college; now I’m doing computer science. What could be more different, right? One’s all about logical reasoning and working with abstractions and uncovering inconsistencies and the other…. Well, the other is fundamentally also about those things. Actually, the differences are sort of superficial. Maybe you have a math background and you want to go study music. Read Gödel, Escher, Bach. Surprise! Music and math are totally related.

Even if you’re going from medieval history to astrophysics, there will be skills that transfer. At the end of the day, there are a few really important general cognitive tools—conceptual analysis, facility with language, mathematical reasoning, creative thinking—and most of them are useful in most contexts (the Messi exception applies here, too).

The Lifestyle Change Is the Big One

I was prepared for a really harsh adjustment to the academic aspect of school. But you know what? The lifestyle change was the curveball. All of a sudden I didn’t have a clear separation between work and free time. Eating out all the time felt a little irresponsible. I was surrounded by nerds instead of hipsters and yuppies (to generalize and stereotype). These are the adjustments that were hardest, not the work itself. This will be especially true if you switch cities, countries, or languages at the same time.

You’ll Be Better Prepared

In college, I was prone to procrastination. I often prioritized fun and then scheduled just enough time to get my work done. After working in a real job for many years, I just no longer have the same impulse to procrastinate. Working all day feels natural. If you’ve adjusted to the 9 to 5, you’ll be shocked at how good you are at getting stuff done in school. If you have classmates who went straight into grad school, you’ll shake your head when you see them pulling all-nighters. You’ll also approach school as an opportunity rather than an obligation. You’ll be more efficient and more motivated.

Know Why You’re Doing It

Yes, so this is all about exploration, but you should still know why you’re going back to school. If you’re following some latent and ill-defined impulse, it can be hard to articulate your rationale. But have some answer. Know you’re doing it because it’s on your bucket list. Or know you’re doing it because you needed a change. Or know you’re doing it simply to explore. You don’t need an answer that makes sense to everybody, just have some answer you can give yourself when you ask yourself “Why the fuck am I doing this again?” Because you’ll probably ask yourself that more than once.

Enjoy the Ride

If you do go back to school to change directions or explore, enjoy the exploration. Yes, you’ll have friends advancing along some clearly defined path towards some clearly defined goal. Maybe you’ll be tossing yourself off some mid-level rung of the corporate ladder you’re clinging to. That can be uncomfortable. But what you’re doing is spending a year or two or three having an entirely new experience, rather than settling for the same old routine. If you enjoy the ride, that can be an excellent way to spend your time—and, really, what’s more precious than time? It’s all we have. So enjoy it.

high dive image via shutterstock

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