While I have always enjoyed learning and can appreciate a broad-based liberal arts education, I admit that I viewed some of my undergraduate classes as boxes to be checked on the way to graduation. Graduate school provided me with the opportunity to truly pursue a passion, gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in a chosen field, and always encouraged me to take things a step further in the pursuit of answers.
If you want to get the most out of your graduate school education, I would offer three primary takeaways:
Writing: I recently participated in a hiring process for police chief position. Part of the assessment were a series of essay questions. A university professor who served on the hiring panel told me that my scores on the written assessment set me apart from the group and asked me in the interview where I learned to write. I replied, “I’m not sure I can pinpoint one place where I learned to write, but I know I had a lot of practice in grad school.” Whether it is a thesis, a publication, or simply frequent papers for coursework, graduate school is the place to hone your craft as a writer. Take the time to learn from feedback. Each red mark is a lesson learned. This skill can translate into almost any profession and will serve you well for the rest of your life.
Critical Thinking: The question “why?” has plagued academics and parents of toddlers for millennia. It is also the basis of greater understanding. The critical thinking skills learned and practiced in graduate school allow for students to dig deeper into a topic of study. These skills can be used to challenge old ideas, unproven assertions, and the status quo. I have made a career of using this question to improve processes, to set priorities, and to change and formulate culture. It is a question that should be asked frequently in business, government, and higher education. It gives direction. It gives purpose. And it effects change.
Relationships: While I have been happily married to a former criminal justice classmate for over 15 years, that is not the type of relationship to which I am referring. In graduate school I found myself surrounded by classmates, colleagues, and mentors who came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences but also shared my interest in criminology, the criminal justice system, and public policy. Being able to examine an issue through the lens of another always expanded my own understanding of it. Many of the relationships have endured both time and space. Some have paid dividends beyond friendship and camaraderie. One of my adjunct instructors recruited me to my first full time job in the field, later recruited me to another agency for a promotion, and has since become one of my mentors. There are other leaders in my field who I have known and worked alongside my entire professional life because we met in a class in graduate school. Take advantage of the lively discussions in class, study groups, and networking events, and remember that each person you meet may one day play a large role in your professional development.
For me, graduate school was a step, albeit a significant one, on a path of learning. Never mistake a terminal degree for a terminal education. People, interests, and industries all change. Whether it’s attending a conference, reading a book, or embracing the opportunity for a new experience at work, learning comes in many forms. If you treat your graduate education as a firm foundation, you will find that you can build a skyscraper atop it. Commit to being a lifelong learner, and never pass up an opportunity to know more or understand something better.
Major T.J. Geary received his Master of Criminal Justice degree from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina in December 2002. He worked as a graduate research assistant on a federally-funded evaluation of the Lexington County Domestic Court and was awarded the Graduate Student of the Year and Outstanding Thesis Award for his department. Upon graduation, he began his full-time law enforcement career with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department before returning to UofSC in 2006 as a sergeant with the UofSC Division of Law Enforcement and Safety. Working his way up through various ranks, he currently serves as the Operations Bureau Commander. A 2012 graduate of the FBI National Academy, Maj. Geary’s advanced coursework there earned him a graduate certificate in Criminal Justice Education from the University of Virginia. He is also a Certified Public Manager (CPM) and a graduate of the Police Executive Research Foundation’s Senior Management Institute for Police. He is an instructor and subject matter expert for VALOR, a national, federally-funded officer safety initiative and serves on the Board of Directors for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu