Why I Chose to Start Grad School

Why I Chose to Start Grad School

Did you know that I am the least educated person in my immediate family? It has become somewhat of a running joke over the years that the Licensed Professional Engineer is the “uneducated” one of the family. My father has his MBA. My mother has a Masters in Leadership. As for my younger brother, he obtained his MBA in Marketing. I only have a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. That’s it. 2020 is the time for me to level up. It is time for me to start grad school.

The Background

While I fully agree that a college degree is not for everyone, it was the proper path for me. I love telling the story of how I ended up as an engineer. You see, as a junior in high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew that I was good at math and enjoyed figuring things out, but that was about it.

Enter Mr. Merrick. He was my 11th grade chemistry teacher. I would describe him as a very odd and peculiar man, but that could have also been 17 year old Amber being judgemental. One day after class, he asked me what I was planning on doing with my life. “I dunno. Run sound for concerts or plays?” He laughed and told me I should be an electrical engineer. That was his background (I am still unsure of how he wound up as a chemistry teacher), and he believed I would excel at it.

So I went skipping off thinking to myself, “I’m going to be an electrical engineer!” I had no idea what that meant, but it did make answering questions about my future much easier. There was a short, sufficient, and scary sounding answer that I could rapidly give the horde of adults constantly questioning me about my future life.

High School Graduation Photo
How’s this for a blast from the past? Here’s a photo from my high school graduation (May 2008).

The Undergrad Schooling Experience

I will not sugar coat it. Undergraduate studies were incredibly difficult for me. Part of this was due to my desire to completely hide my disease. I wanted to blend in and look like a “normal college kid.” Looking back, I laugh at my naivete. What even is a “normal college kid?” There is NOTHING normal about me. My spring break adventures included trips to the ER in between adventures in IKEA. Why did I not embrace my uniqueness more?

I understand that the desire to go back to the past and repeat certain chapters of life with the knowledge you have now is part of the wisdom that comes from “growing older.” But I also do wish I could redo my undergraduate college experience with less of a focus on “Pretend I’m not diseased!” and more of a focus on, “I’m Amber Nicole and I’m awesome.” But that is not the wisdom an 18 year old has. That wisdom comes later.

All things considered, I had an incredibly successfully undergraduate college career. I graduated with an engineering degree in four years, with honors all while keeping my GPA up high enough to maintain my academic scholarship (which was a SIGNIFICANT amount of money). I even studied abroad in South Korea, was an RA for the largest female floor on campus, and briefly managed all technical needs for the student activities group.

College Graduation photo
I am actually concerned when I look back on these photos from my college graduation (May 2012). Although I am “smiling” in this picture, I remember thinking that I was going to collapse. My memories of this day are very fuzzy. But we did not realize how unstable my Addison’s had become until a few months later.

The Working Experience

I have now been working in industry for over seven years. During that time, I settled into my little niche of “Test Engineering.” Through many different roles and projects, I discovered that I absolutely love designing and programming automated test systems. It is not as “shiny” as a title of “Design Engineer,” as you will never see what I work on out in the field. But I love it.

I am constantly figuring out ways to answer the question, “How do we know if this works?” This answer has to be given with confidence and in a timely manner. Although the question remains the same, the solutions vary greatly from project to project. I understand that I am in a very fortunate and rare position in that I can earnestly state I love my job and those I work with. When Mr. Merrick advised me to pursue electrical engineering, I am sure he had no idea that it would turn into a career I could be passionate about.

But here’s the thing: I am not passionate about electrical engineering. Sure, I can do the math, solve the problems, figure it out. But I do not enjoy that. I enjoy the data. What stories can be told from the data? How can this information be used to help people?

"Do what is great." on a flat screen computer monitor
How can what I do help others? I ask myself this question daily.

The Desire for Grad School

In my immediate family, everyone’s path through grad school was different. My brother completed an accelerated undergrad / grad hybrid program that allowed him to obtain his masters at the same age that most people just obtain their undergrad. My mom completed her degree at an age much later than my brother. She walked in her graduation May of 2018. My father’s path would be perhaps the most analogous to mine: obtaining a degree while working full time. And yet, his journey is still distinctively different. He had a job, a wife, and two young children to balance along with the pursuit of his degree.

As for me, grad school was always on my radar. It was always one of those things that, “Some day, I would like to pursue higher education.” There was a moment that I considered a Masters of Fine Arts, but that school rejected me. In hindsight, I am very thankful for that firm “no.” I ended up escaping an abusive marriage shortly after the rejection letter was received.

Why grad school now? Well, my life has stabilized. I have moved beyond “crisis management” and into “routine.” My job is stable. I have supportive management. And I actually found a program and a degree that interests me!

An array of 7 seg LED displays
Numbers. Give me all the numbers.

The Program: Computational Science and Engineering

Yes, I am a Licensed Professional Electrical Engineer with a Bachelors of Science in Engineering, Electrical Concentration. But I was adamantly against pursuing a Masters of Electrical Engineering. Like I mentioned previously, I can do that math. I just do not enjoy it.

When I was poking around potential programs for grad school, I stumbled upon Computational Science and Engineering. Finally something that sounded FUN! In a nutshell, this is using fancy math to solve hard real world problems. It is designed as an interdisciplinary program with the goal to make you better at what you are already doing.

Make me better at analyzing data? Yes please! That is where my passion lies, not with V = iR.

messy circuit board
I can do this. I just do not enjoy it.

The Dream: Data Analysis + Adrenal Insufficiency

While I hid my Addison’s Disease for the entirety of my undergraduate studies, I have zero desire to do that for grad school. I am no longer an insecure, young female. Instead, I am a highly skilled professional engineer who understands that this autoimmune disease is an asset and not a burden. My adrenal insufficiency gives me such a unique perspective on life, and I want to apply that perspective to this new challenge.

I would love it if the proper doors open up so that I could take this degree and do research into our disease, but we shall see if that happens. In the meantime, I do plan on applying as much as possible to my understanding of adrenal insufficiency and complex equations.

Welcome to the new decade. What a perfect time to show the world how I shall remain Clearly Alive by beginning the great adventure that is grad school.

Amber Nicole is Clearly Alive