5 Stages of Grad School

by Melanie

It’s hard work capturing all of one’s graduate school experience in one post.

The papers.

The group work.

The interviews.

The reflecting.

The fulfillment.

The crying.

Oh, the crying.

So, in an attempt to be brief, here’s the most exaggerated, ridiculous, and succinct way I could think of to convey my graduate school experience, Kübler-Ross style, with visual aides.

Semester 1: Bargaining

“I’m in grad school! I will do anything and everything it takes to succeed!”

The moment I was accepted to the GCSW, I thought it would take everything I had: all of my time, my attention, my energy, and my money would be set aside for this last chapter of school. Every last sliver of sanity was labeled, “GCSW.”

Obviously, this was a plan with many gaps.

I’ve learned that just because one part of life may be placed as a high priority, it doesn’t mean achieving this one goal should replace other important parts of life in the process.

Semester 2: Denial

“Yes! I absolutely have time for that. Sign me up!”

People talk a lot about time management—and for good reason.

Don’t let over-commitment/activity overload happen to you.

Learn to say no; if the people asking are considering everyone’s best interest, they will understand.

Semester 3: Depression

“The world is a dark, polluted place. And so is my soul.”

Just kidding. Kind of.

Environmentalist Paul Hawken said in his commencement address to the University of Portland in 2009:

“We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet.”

And don’t get me started on the self-reflection. There’s so much personal work, introspection, self-diagnosis, etc. that goes into surviving the program, it gets blurry figuring out which part is harder: writing the paper, or sitting and thinking about your childhood for half an hour.


Funny thing is: I’ve been paid to do the former, but you couldn’t pay me to do the latter.

Sure, it’s hard to unpack the issues the world faces, let alone all our own problems, but, just like arriving to campus early to find a parking spot, it’s absolutely necessary to look in the mirror before trying to help others. It’s the only way to do good work.

Semester 4: Disillusionment

“The SYSTEM is BROKEN! Corruption everywhere! Who are these people!?”

I once avoided politics like the plague, plugging my ears at every mention of it. I used to let the evening news bore me. I wasn’t ready to consider the theory that if I wasn’t a part of the solution, I was a part of the problem.

Learning about social injustices, locally and globally, is enough to make you want to start a “War On <Insert Hot Button Topic>”  (or perhaps your own colony on a deserted island), but without acknowledging the adversity our society faces, empathy is impossible.

I think the key was learning to channel that anger into action. Spreading awareness about the issues I feel are important is not only good for the causes I support, but it also helps me feel like I contribute to the situation rather than promote it. It’s small, but sometimes, it’s the best we can do with what we’ve been given, especially when our hearts bleed for so many causes. And don’t forget; it’s an election year.

Semester 5: Acceptance

“I can only do what I can do. I am enough.

And, with a little more sleep, I can be even better.”

After everything I’ve learned, I feel like these past two years have made me a better, more responsible, friend, partner, sister, daughter, student, pet-owner, consumer—you get the idea.

I believe that I make better choices, about both the things I choose to do and say every day, and not a moment goes by without considering how I could be more empathetic, more helpful, and more appreciative.

After accepting that the best I can do is all I can do, I’m now kinder to myself and know when to treat myself to some time away from school or work (and even Facebook) and get a little more sleep.

Good, wholesome REM sleep, not just a 10 minute nap.

Self-care, ya’ll.

Here are a few great things I’ve heard along the way:

1. “There is always time to be kind.”

– Meryl Cohen, my field supervisor at Planned Parenthood

This phrase has truly stuck with me as a great motto in all my relationships, professional ones and beyond. Regardless of the class-to-class rush, the people who have greeted me with kindness in the elevators of the GCSW are now some of my most beloved classmates; some ended up being my professors. First impressions count, and it takes less than a second to choose your words kindly.

In December 2011, my father experienced his second heart attack that resulted in a quadruple bypass heart surgery. Being surrounded by a panicked family, it was a serendipitous relief that in the room next door to me was a familiar face from the GCSW. Her warm hug gave me the strength I needed to keep calm. The moral of the story: you never know who might change your life, and it doesn’t hurt to be nice!

2. “Never, never do for others what they can do for themselves.”

– from Bob Fleming’s Empowerment Class and IAF’s Iron Rule

A tough rule to learn, but if volunteering and being a case manager has taught me anything… it’s that social work isn’t even about giving people fish or teaching them to fish (like that old Chinese Proverb); it’s helping empower people to think about their lives in such a way that it moves them to determine for themselves what is best, what role the “fish” will have in their lives.

3. “The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer.”

– Paul Hawken

Enough said.

Tremendous love and thanks to:

Rhonda Patrick and Gerald Eckert, for inspiring me to feel like I am capable of accomplishing anything;

Dr. Pritzker and Dr. Cache Steinberg, for giving me the chance to work with you as a GA and discover a whole other side of graduate school; 

Alice and Sandy, for keeping our building fresh and for brightening the hallways with their smiles and laughter;

Amber Mollhagen, Jamie Parker, Tyler Asman, Martina Faulkner, Christopher Brown and Vicky Argueta, for allowing me the fun privilege to represent our college – GO COOGS!;

Too many to name, but to all the wonderful people of Cohort 3 and the many friends I’ve made at the GCSW—thanks for all the memories and for teaching me so much;

And to all the faculty and staff of the GCSW: Thank you for all your hard work, time, and dedication! It will not go to waste!

I am so proud to be graduating with my GCSW best friend, Ashleigh Scinta – I am so proud to know you. You’re an incredible student, but an even more extraordinary friend. Thank you for helping me live up to my potential!

Much gratitude goes to my family for their unconditional love and support these past two years;

And speaking of unconditional love, a big thanks goes to my amazing partner, Kendall, who inspires me to help make the world a more beautiful place every day;

And finally, thanks to our new rescue dog, Pepé, for finally sleeping past 3 a.m., stepping on all my things, enjoying things like wearing t-shirts and sitting during car rides, and for the cuddles of encouragement – you’re our baby-angel-dog!


After graduation, Melanie will be a contract writer for Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Melanie would like to gain more experience working in the nonprofit sector in program management and/or advocacy, and she aspires to develop a social enterprise dedicated to providing employment and resources for homeless young adults in the near future.


1 Comment

  1. To Melanie: Thank you for your wonderful story: The 5 Stages of Grad School! This Saturday morning, I found myself struggling to begin the massive homework assignments and I’m only in my 2nd year, 4th week of the MSW program! For some reason, work, school and life are daunting as of late and crying is more frequent. As an older non-trad student, I often feel like I have “bit off more than I can chew”, so to speak. You really help compartmentalize things so prioritizing can help with organizing. The self-care part is the hardest…with time already nill! Thanks again Melanie and I hope you are having a blessed career!

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