Ten years ago this fall I started the masters program in speech pathology at Northwestern University. I was just coming off of a year of undergraduate prerequisites in speech therapy from Northern Illinois University. I love being a speech path and working with children with communication disorders. I like to think that I made a difference, but I know that my students have changed my life at least as much as I have changed theirs. When I look back specifically at graduate school, I realize that there were some things that I might have done differently if I knew what I know now. Hindsight is always 20/20, but here goes:
1) Taking on too much debt
Although I could have gone to graduate school at Northern Illinois University, I chose Northwestern University instead. Northwestern was ranked higher at number two in the country, but primarily my husband worked in Evanston and convenience came with its perks. We could go down to one car and I could take the bus to campus. We had virtually no commute.
But Northwestern University cost way more. In fact, Northwestern’s tuition cost three times more than Northern Illinois’s tuition for the identical degree. Yes, I have an amazing top shelf masters degree that gets me a lot of positive comments during interviews, but eight years into the profession, I’m only half-way through paying off my masters. If I had gone to Northern Illinois I would have paid off my degree several years ago.
I was one of the lucky ones because I was married I only had to borrow tuition: my husband took care of our mortgage and food! I have friends that have much more to pay off than I do. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to have the debt hanging over your head. I realize that there are loan forgiveness programs (I had a Perkins loan that was forgiven because I worked in a low income, high needs area) including income-based repayment, but the debt feels heavy and it does take a long time to pay off. Having debt limits your ability to purchase a home or a car and it affects your decisions when to have children (child care can be more expensive than grad school!).
One reason to choose a masters program like Northwestern is if you are planning to leave the state. At the time I enrolled I thought maybe we would move and that a masters from Northwestern University would have more name recognition in other states (one really good reason to go to a program ranked high nationally). I loved how many masters students at Northwestern were from out-of-state. I met so many interesting people. But I haven’t left the state and have since put down roots in Illinois. A masters from NIU would have been sufficient.
2) Minimal investigation of job options
Although there continues to be a shortage of speech pathologists and an even more acute shortage of bilingual SLPs, it’s important to really see where the vacancies are. When I was considering speech pathology as a career, I went on two informational interviews. One was in a private clinic and the other was in out patient pediatric rehab. I really enjoyed what I saw and learned a lot about those settings. But even when applying to grad school, I didn’t even know that speech paths worked in school settings.
I wish I had visited a school and shadowed a school-based speech path for a day. I never did that, but weirdly I’ve spent eight years as a school-based professional and no time at all in a private clinic or pediatric rehab. I think knowing about the school-based options up front would have been beneficial in helping me focus on the final goal as I went through the program. Instead, I muddled through not being fully informed.
3) Going on a vacation over breaks
I took a big trip between my first year in graduate school and my second one. I went to Australia to visit family I have there and I was there for three weeks. So, I can’t say it’s a regret because it was a fantastic trip. Actually, I just want to advise anyone in graduate school to take trips over any of the breaks you have.
For one, it’s healthy to go somewhere different to clear your head. I felt like I regained motivation and focus after significant relaxation. Going as far away as Australia is not necessary to feel better about life, but taking a break somewhere that’s not your apartment is really valuable to mental health.
Additionally, when you start working a “real” job, it may be awhile until you get the chance to travel again. I might have taken an amazing trip to Australia in 2005, but I haven’t been back since — even though I have a strong desire to return. Life takes over when you start working.
4) Thorough consideration of my first job and of the quality Clinical Fellowship Year (CFY) experiences.
In my last months of graduate school, I interviewed for several jobs, but I ended up choosing a position with Chicago Public Schools. It turned out to be a fabulous learning experience for me and a perfect fit in many ways.
Northwestern University was intense and exhausting and I chose a CFY that was going to cover the requirements, but I knew there wouldn’t be any extra supervision that someone might get in a different, more intense and collaborative setting. Admittedly, I needed a break and I thought that getting a lighter supervisor would be nice.
Looking back I think that I should have considered that the CFY is set up so that the new grad gets support and training during the first year. It’s not about someone being critical and judging a new grad harshly. In fact, my CF supervisor was amazing. I can’t say enough about how much I learned from her and I still considering her a friend. However, I wish I’d had more time with her when I was learning the ropes.
Have I missed anything? What else would you have done differently?