Carolyn Mines her Grad School Education for your Delectation and Delight

This post actually has a point. I swear.

A few years back, I decided I wanted to get a Master’s and/or/maybe a PhD in English. Unfortunately, I was a Political Science major who entered college with AP English units and college English classes taken when I was in high school, so I only had to take one English class my entire time in college. As far as applying to grad school English programs, my college record was pretty much a zero. After reading the various admission requirements I’d imagine a committee looking at my application and seeing one English class on a transcript that was years old. Sigh.

And she wants an advanced degree in English why? On what basis are we to believe she can do this?

So I had the bright idea of getting a second BA in English from a University that 1) was REALLY close to where I live and 2) offered a 2nd BA program for people just like me. After which I would apply to grad programs.


I applied, got in and signed up for the British Literature survey. I was the oldest person in a class of freshmen. Oh, my, they were so young, these freshmen students, most of whom were there only to satisfy a graduation requirement. The professor, unbeknown to me at the time, happened to be the dean of graduate admissions for the English department. As a returning student, single parent, working full time plus writing (which I NEVER mentioned) who was paying for school on her own dime, I was a highly motivated student. This means I did the reading. Often twice.

Doing the reading turns out to be one of the secrets to getting an A in a class. I wish I’d known that when I was an undergrad the first time. My grades would have been way better. Doing the reading means when you take the written test you pretty much have a built in B without even trying. Put in just a little thought and an A is a piece of cake. Papers are more work, of course, but the reading makes them easier to write, and the motivated student tends to start the paper well in advance of the due date.

When I tutored at the University writing center later on, I was surprised by the number of students who’d come in at 4:00 for help on paper due at 6:00. And they had nothing done yet. And hadn’t done the reading, either.

I was also, as is the case with most writers, very very well read compared to the average student. (In fact, as it turned out, I had already read about 3/4ths of the graduate reading list, but I didn’t know that at the time. I only knew that the prof gave me these really odd smiles when I mentioned some book or other I’d read that seemed relevant to our discussions of British Lit.)

Anyway, it wasn’t long before my prof took me aside — with me thinking, Oh, no! What did I do wrong? to ask me what I was doing in the class. I wasn’t sure what she meant — was I that bad? I thought she was going to ask me to leave the class.

(Experts will no doubt recognize this as another form of writer’s neurosis, that is, a writer’s conviction that everything she she writes is utter crap.)

I explained to her why I was enrolled in the 2nd BA program and that my goal was to apply to grad programs when I actually had the stated prerequisites for admission. She very kindly told me that I was already at graduate student level (Yes, I began to glow!) and that I was really very good and she just looked so proud of me, that I thought, wow. She really means that!

At which point she told me about her position as Dean and advised me to just apply to the grad program despite my lack of objective qualifications. And she agreed when I asked her to write me a letter of recommendation. Heh. I TA’d for her for the second semester of the British Lit Survey.

Well, I suppose it’s no surprise that I was admitted to the Grad program, but conditionally, which meant that in addition to the regular requirements, I was supposed to take a lot of undergrad English classes to make up for my utter lack of undergraduate English courses. I felt a lot like a kid in a candy shop. I signed up for courses that seemed interesting to me. Essentially, I was supposed to do the undergrad work I lacked BEFORE I took the grad level courses. I took all the writing courses allowed, which wasn’t very many, but oh well. However, many of the undergrad courses lacked the challenge I was looking for.

Remember, all this was on my time in a life already pretty full and paid for out of my pocket. Highly motivated student, right? I was there to build up my ability to critically analyze and bring that to bear on my writing. Sometimes being the oldest student and, not infrequently, the only one who’d done the reading, was kind of irritating.

So, I approached one of my professors, who I happened to really like, and asked him if he thought it would be OK for me to sign up for one of his grad level courses. He said yes, and I pretty much never looked back.

This decision turned out well since I was now in classes with people who were equally motivated and passionate about the courses they were in. Like me, they were there to learn. Just about everybody did the reading. Some were older students. Professors took us through difficult material and required thorough reading and analysis. Papers were longer and included more difficult themes.

There was a certain professor who had a reputation for being not just tough but unkind to the point of maliciousness. I knew from casual conversations with various undergrads and even from former (graduated) students, that he seemed to be particularly vicious toward women. At the time, I already had a psycho boss (not kidding about that). Life is too short to spend with a destructive personality. I resolved never to take a class from this professor, and I didn’t, even when it would have been convenient to my schedule. Tough I can handle. Unkind, capricious and even malicious, I won’t tolerate. I have been there. I won’t ever do that again.

I also decided I would just save the boring undergrad stuff for last, which was also a good decision because eventually they waived that requirement for me. Not just because, but because I had proved I wasn’t lacking in the knowledge the requirements were supposed to provide.

I was not, suffice it to say, on the 2 year plan for completing my MA. Time, money and physical needs like sleeping and paying attention to my son, meant that I could only take one course a semester.

And yet, I graduated. I published two more books while I was in school. I learned a tremendous amount about myself, my writing and my abilities. Even though it was time and money out of my life, I don’t regret for a minute getting the degree.

My Points and Conclusions

  • Don’t underestimate what you can do.
  • Fear holds you back from failure and success, and you need to experience both.
  • Subject matter experts WANT to help you — in the appropriate forum. Example: Do not call your professors at home. Drop by office hours. Make an appointment.
  • Be prepared. Good things happen to prepared people.
  • Have a plan for success.
  • Criticism or disagreement is often discourse NOT a personal reflection on you. That discourse can help you work through difficult issues. For writers, this means paying attention to criticism: analyze it. Evaluate it. Be prepared to change your mind if the evidence is against you.
  • Do the reading. Create the foundation for your success. For writers, that means learning about writing. Do it. Study it. Learn it.
  • Hang out with other highly motivated smart people and talk about your passions. For writers, this means hang out with other writers.
  • Take risks. Remember, good things happen to students who’ve done the reading.
  • Believe in yourself. If you’ve done the reading, engaged in some critical discourse, and hung out with other smart people in your area of passion, you know more than you think.
  • Watch out for excuses. Especially when you come up with them before you’ve tried something. (See Planning For Success).
  • Do what you can and don’t stress if it’s taking you longer than someone else.
  • Protect yourself from assholes. Stay far far away from people who actively undermine your confidence.
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12 years ago

I cannot thank you enough for this post – it was just what I needed today! I left school many years ago to pursue other passions but I never found what I was looking for. I realized that my education was the missing link. I am going to be starting school in the fall as a “non-traditional student” majoring in English Literature and Medieval History. My plan is to get my Masters/PhD in one of them and teach at a college level. To know that there are others out there experiencing the same fears, doubts and triumphs is incredibly inspiring. Thanks again – and congratulations on your many successes!

12 years ago

Wow, Thank you from me as well. I am still trying to get my AA. I have plenty of credits, but need a few specific classes. 7 years later and I’m still missing a few specific credits. One problem is I changed my major midstream, and pretty drastically. I went from political science major to art major.

For me I’ve had a few major obstacles, Kids, cancer, and work. It’s limited the time and money I have to give to my college education. I keep taking them though. I need another English class and two more science type classes and I will have it.

It’s inspiring to hear there are others who have finished despite having to take it one class at a time as I’m getting flack from my parents etc (I’m 37 and I still have to hear about it! LOL)

I’m applying for financial aid now, as I’m finished with the cancer and will hopefully be able to do some classes online and get my degrees wrapped up (AA and BA) in arts and English.

12 years ago

Tiffany and Leona: Thanks for your comments.

Tiffany: Yay for deciding to return to school. You WANT to be there and I expect you will do well.

Leona: I’m glad to hear your health is better. It took me 5+ years to finish the MA, pretty much 1 class a semester. But I did it. You’re close and you WILL get there. PS. I was older than you — why you’re practically a Spring Chicken!

Best of luck to you both!

12 years ago

This is a timely post for me, too. I’m glad to hear your grad school had the sense to fast-track you instead of forcing you through a second undergrad program.

I have an ambitious five-year plan that involves grad school, a major career change, a long-distance move, and a more demanding writing schedule, and reading your story was very encouraging to me.

And I’m not young, either. 🙂

Megan Frampton
12 years ago

Geez, Carolyn, you are so dead on. I need to tattoo this post on my leg as a reminder.

And I always did ALL the reading, and was a straight B+ student at college–guess I know why now.

Stephanie J
12 years ago

I needed to read this too! I’ve been considering going back to school to get my MBA but I’ve been dragging my feet for various reasons. I don’t have the obstacles that so many other people deal with so this was a nice kick in the pants. It also never really occurred to me that I don’t have to kill myself with course load each semester.

Thanks for sharing your story! I’m sending the link to a few people. 🙂

12 years ago

Hi Carolyn 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to share here today. I thoroughly enjoyed the post and I cut & pasted your points into my Writing folder. I’m going to print it out & tape it to the wall by my computer so I can read it every day.
Thank you again,
Happy Holidays,

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

Aaaah, so you’re supposed to do the reading for class! Who knew?

One thing I hear over and over at RWA meetings is “I really want to write, but…” I have to send them to the blog today so they can see there are no “but”s! 🙂 Very inspirational.

12 years ago


did you have to take the GMAT to take the graduate classes? Or did you get a pass on that since you were already there?

I’ve been thinking of a Masters, but gah…I freaking hate tests like the SAT, GMAT, etc.


Do not fret. It took me 13 years, 5 schools, and 4 majors before I finished my BS in Business Management. But I’m glad I got it done; though it was very anti-climatic. I thought I’d be running around like a loon, laughing hysterically, and yelling, “I got it! I finally graduated!!!!”. Instead, I just woke up the next morning and went to work.

-Randi Thompson

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Big huge WOOTS to everyone here who is going to school or planning on it!!! I don’t think any education is wasted. Carolyn, thanks for a very inspiring blog!!

In college I was an English major because I liked reading better than studying. I switched to Psychology and got an MA in Psych right away, but turns out that to be a licensed clinician you needed more. So when my kids were small and I was still working at the mental health center, I returned to school to get a Masters in Social Work. I’d done the same work before and after the degree, but I learned so much from it!!

One thing I learned was that I didn’t have to get an A; a B was sufficient. That took a lot of pressure off.

Heather Snow
12 years ago

What I find so inspiring about this is that you published two more books, while being a mother and finishing school!

Having a young one at home, some days it feels like I’ll never have the energy to write again!

Thanks for giving me a kick in the pants (in a good, inspirational way) 🙂

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

What a great post, Carolyn and great inspiration to anyone attempting to step outside of their normal comfort zone.

So many people talk about my music degrees being useless now that I no longer perform or teach. NO education is useless. I have used so much of what I learned in undergrad and grad school in my life and especially in my pursuit of my writing dreams.

If I were to go back to get another Masters it would be in British history or British literature.

The thing about education is that while they can take away just about everything else you own, they can’t take away your education. It is your gift to yourself and if you are lucky your gift to the world. And nothing and nobody can take it away.

12 years ago

I’m glad people found the post helpful!

No, they didn’t require the GRE for admission. (Graduate Record Exam). The GMAT is for business school I think.

I didn’t look at too many MA programs because 1) I was in the 2nd BA program at the time and 2) I needed to be close to home so there was someone who could watch my son on nights when I had class.

The GRE by the way, is extremely amenable to targeted studying. Those prep programs work. I did, years and years ago, take the GRE, and since I am terrible at math, I studied like mad for that section and managed to pull my math score up by 150 points more than I got on my SAT math score.

Don’t let fear stop you from taking the steps you need. If there’s no way to get into the schools you want without the GRE, then study for it. Prepare for your success by identifying your weak areas and targeting them. Then take the test.

But check out the programs you’re interested in and see what the admissions requirements are. Don’t go not looking into grad school because you THINK you might have to take a test.

If you do, you don’t have to spend a lot of money preparing. I bought an el-cheapo Learn Algebra software program and darned if I didn’t learn just enough not to look dim.

Commenter Tiffany is going in as a non-traditional student. There are all kinds of alternate ways to school. Leona battled cancer.

At my nearby University, they recently gradated a woman who was 90 years old.

Good luck to everyone, and thanks for all your inspiring comments.

12 years ago

Your last recommendation is critical. My family didn’t support my college work and threw up roadblocks instead of offering support. I wanted to write, but after spending a family dinner with everyone tearing apart something I’d written in high school (and hidden) telling me how stupid it was to think I could ever write anything worthwhile, I sort of pushed that out of my mind. I did follow some of my dreams. I just had to do what I wanted. I wish I had tried writing again, but time has really gone by much too fast.
You have excellent advise. Thank you for sharing it. You should be very proud of your accomplishments. It is amazing what we can do in our youth when we are driven toward a goal.

12 years ago

I’m in library grad school right now and have found myself overwhelmed by the amount of reading that is required: sometimes 400 pages per week! And to make it worse, it’s *very* dry, academic speak all the way through.

My favorite bit of this is where you say, “you know more than you think.” I’ve began hanging out with my fellow library students and all we ever talk about is libraries. 😀

12 years ago

LibraryPat: I’m sorry to hear about your family experience. Yuk. Sometimes family is the very last place we should turn to for support of our dreams. But now you know and can avoid the unpleasantness by writing and not telling them.

As for youth, yes, it can help, But I was in my 40s when I returned to school. My life experience, many years of reading and writing and high motivation put me head and sholders above the younger students. There were, of course, younger students who excelled.

Writing is something that privileges maturity and experience. Those two things help a lot. You should definitely try writing again. It’s not too late. You’re not too old. But recognize that you are scarred by your experience with your family. This means a supportive environment is especially important for you when you decide to get your work out there for others to read.

Ammanda: Oh, yes, a lot of grad school reading can be really dry and boring… Some of those theoreticians omg. Shudder. Really. 400 pages a week is a heck of a lot, so you have your time challenges cut out for you.

Good luck to everyone!

12 years ago

I’ve received financial aid to finish my AA up this spring! I may finish next quarter as, learning from this post, I’m going to Challenge Eng 102. I’m going to do it so I can take creative writing or literature instead and yet get my minumum requirements in the two quarters without killing myself 😀 (I’ll have to study, but I’ve got a blog and lots of sites I use to help me write to study from.)
I’m well read and all that, and I’ve published, so I’m hoping the Eng head will let me take the test on experience 🙂

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