Photo: My new work space for the year. I think I can get used to it.
The time has finally come – my return to the academic world. After taking one year off between degrees, which accidentally turned into four years, I’ve finally gone back to school for a Master’s degree. The final piece in the puzzle that is building a career (nope, don’t want a PhD, for many reasons that I won’t get into here). After spending those four years building my database of skills, knowledge, and contacts I felt the time was finally
right to take a chance at apply to a few schools. It worked out in my favour and I decided to go with the University of Toronto. The highest ranked university in Canada and the highest internationally ranked Canadian school (according to the Times Higher Education University Rankings 2016). I only know that because UToronto likes to constantly remind its students of that fact. In my acceptance package alone it was mentioned 3 times (really). In the acceptance/welcome new students emails that followed it was mentioned. And in our department orientation it was mentioned yet again. But hey, nothing wrong with being proud. I certainly didn’t pick UToronto based on its rankings, let’s get that clear. I chose UToronto because there was a professor whose research focus I was super interested in, whose research was in the geographic area I would like to work in, and who was willing to supervise me. I was also super fortunate to have had a chance to work in the field with my supervisor over two seasons on the sARP (shishalh Archaeological Research Project), which gave me a great chance to see if our interests really did align and if we could work well together (they did, and we can). That’s why I chose UToronto. And that’s how I strongly recommend everyone approach grad school. Who cares about rankings as long as you’re going to get the education you want to get.
So here I am, at the University of Toronto. Right now I’m sitting at my desk in the lab, procrastinating getting this Tuesday started, just like every other grad student out there. I actually had a super productive and successful Monday, so I’m making up for that by procrastinating today. It’s definitely been an interesting start to the grad school life. And the return to school all together. After our first big Masters students class (we all have to take this generic research skills course together), I felt a little bit like a wild woman, coming in from the forests and fields with twigs in my hair, dirt in my nails, blinking at the bright fluorescent lights of the classroom. I’m not the oldest student in my Masters cohort, but I do seem to be the one (out of the archaeology students) with the most field experience. Of the 40+ Masters students starting this year (yes, crazy number!), maybe 4 or 5 of us are archaeology students. Another 4 or 5 are physical anthro/osteology students (that all seem to be focused on going the forensic route). The rest of the students are a combo of socio/cultural, medical, and evolutionary anthro students. I’m not saying that I’m the only one with relevant field experience. Just that I seem to have the most. Which has really given me an advantage in my studies. I’ve been able to jump head-first into my research and get right to it. I know what I want to research and I know how to get the sources I need. Or at least where to start looking. I’ve also got strong knowledge of the geographic area my research focuses on because I’ve been there and worked there for a few years now. I know where the sites are, what each site consists of, and what/where the excavated artifacts are. I’ve also got great contacts back in BC who are willing and excited to help me out when I need it. Most importantly I’m part of a working partnership with the First Nations community whose history and archaeology I’m studying. All of this is starting to pay off. Already, only one week into my program, I’ve made a major research breakthrough on some artifacts I excavated at work last year (spoiler: a unique style of glass beads never before
seen in that region, and quite possibly the much larger region surrounding that) that are a major component of my thesis (I told you I had a successful Monday). I don’t think I would have had such an early success had it not been for my time away from school in the field. A lab colleague of my husband recently voiced his ignorant opinion that he believes people only go back to school after several years away because their careers have failed. That they need to start over with something new. I couldn’t disagree more. People don’t go back to school because they’ve failed, they go back to school to make themselves better. To open every possible door of opportunity for themselves. And taking several years off makes you a better student. You’ve got the experience, the knowledge, and the contacts, as I’ve just illustrated above. You know what works and what doesn’t work out in the real world, and you can apply all of that to your own research to make your research applicable to the real world. This lab colleague was been in school consistently, since kindergarten, with no breaks between degrees (he is currently a MD/PhD student). I think his opinion makes it abundantly clear that he still has a lot of learning left to go which will only happen once he’s graduated and left the comfort of his university.
Rant over, back to UToronto. Better yet, I should probably actually get back to my research. I’ll be at UToronto for the next year and will no doubt have much, much more to talk about. Especially as my research progresses, I’ll post little insights here as to what’s going on. Because it’s really exciting. At least I think it is, but I could be biased. Like I said months ago, life as a student can be pretty exciting. And not so exciting. I’m looking forward to talking about it all!
The morals of this story are to firstly never judge a school by its rankings, if you’re interested in pursing grad school. Always consider your own personal experience – is there research happening in the topics/areas you’re interested in? Is there a professor who would be willing to supervise you (yes, this may take many awkward emails to figure out)? Will the education, knowledge, and skills you’ll be pursuing have benefits to you? And secondly, if you’re like me and you’ve taken some time off before going back, don’t worry about it! All that time off is going to give you some seriously helpful advantages, it’s up to you find them and to make the best of it!