“Back to School” – Grad School After a Few Years Off

By: Abby Gates – 2nd Year – Environmental Health

One of the first things you’ll notice when coming to Rollins is that everyone has a very different path as to how they came to Emory. This interdisciplinary approach and diversity is one of the things that eventually pulled me into public health.

That being said, students are often lumped into one of two crowds – either you’re coming straight from undergraduate, or you’re going “back to school” after a few (or many) years out in the “real world.” Regardless of which group you yourself fall into, you will not be alone – Rollins welcomes large numbers of traditional students coming straight from undergrad, and non-traditional students coming back to graduate school after a break from their studies.

I’m in the second group. Thus, a small disclaimer that I cannot speak to what it’s like to come straight from undergraduate.

Further, there’s a wide range of what a “non-traditional” student might mean. I have classmates that went into the workforce for just a few years between undergraduate and graduate school, and others that made full careers for themselves before returning to school after as much as a decade or two since their last time spent in a classroom.  

For this classification, I’m the former.

I graduated from undergrad in May 2015 with a B.S. in environmental science. Before the ink on my diploma even had time to dry, I was hired as Operations Manager (OM) for a national land conservation non-profit organization with whom I had completed an internship during my junior year of college. Thus, things fell into place for me to stay where I had put down a few roots and take a break from school. I knew in the back of my mind that I would, most likely, eventually return to grad school, and for this I credit the fact that I never fully walked away from the academic mindset.

Fast-forward about a year, and I was starting to feel bored and restless in my 9-5 job. Even though I was using my degree in a job I loved, I knew it was time to start thinking about moving on. Grad school, it was. At the time, it didn’t feel like a thing that would ever happen – despite completing applications, soliciting recommendation letters, studying for and taking the GRE. Even after the January 1st priority application deadline came and went, and I began receiving acceptance letters from the schools to which I had applied… still didn’t seem like a real thing I would be doing, because here I was, still working every day like nothing was amiss.

Then, I attended Visit Emory. My desire to stay in the southeast combined with Rollins’ reputation had already solidified my decision to attend Rollins. Soon came the hunt for a place to live, the big move itself, and orientation.

And with that, I transitioned from living in a small city to one of the largest. I had to remember my groove of how to take notes and study. I had to figure out how to make time for all of the cool stuff that Rollins, Atlanta and Georgia have to offer. And all while maintaining my devotion to a bedtime of 10 pm – I suddenly felt so much older than just 2.5 years out of undergrad!

Looking back, it seems easier than I’m sure it did at the time. But for those of you that are considering or planning on returning to school after a while out in the real world, have no fear. Probably the biggest perk of having that real-world experience is that you know how to manage yourself, your time and priorities, and are a little better equipped to take whatever curveballs life decides to throw at you.  

Here are a few bullet points of major challenges and advantages that I have experienced:


  1. You may find yourself judging your younger classmates. Your real-world experience is quick to chime in when their lack of it displays itself, and you may become a little annoyed with their outlook on grades still being of utmost importance (they’re not – it’s about the learning) and all the fun parties to go to (I need sleep).
  2. Speaking of sleep – you may find that you need a little more than in undergrad, when the occasional or even frequent all-nighters were commonplace, but now they may be most unwelcome.
  3. You’re no longer “working for the weekend.” Depending on your prior work experience, you may have to reacquaint yourself with the idea of looking past the weekend to deadlines far in the future.


  1. You are not alone. In fact, during my first year at Rollins a group of non-traditional students put together a new group on campus just for us “oldies”.  
  2. I can’t say it enough – you have real world experience! And with this comes perspective. This is invaluable.
  3. You’ll have a leg up on your resume and CV because you’ll already have work experience. Even if it is completely unrelated to public health, as was mine, this will still be beneficial when it comes time to look for that first REAL position and beyond.
  4. You’ll know exactly what you’re wanting out of graduate school – it’s not just another stop in the road for lack of a better thing to do. Which is fantastic – because if you’re going to make school your new full-time job and give up your free weekends and evenings for countless hours of coursework, it should be for something you enjoy.

And with that, I’ll end with a nod to my “past life” in conservation biology from one of my favorites:

“I find when I have been building a fence or surveying a farm, or even collecting samples, that these were the true paths to perception and enjoyment… If, [whether] as a poet or naturalist, you wish to explore a given neighborhood, go and get your living in it.” – Henry David Thoreau,  Journal, October 28, 1857

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