Why I hated Graduate School

Imagine having a dream.  A passion. A feeling of “calling” in this world that you can not ignore.  It beckons you to create, to share, to give to the world your offering.

I wanted to compose music.  My ideals were high:  I wanted to change the world.

I followed that calling for twenty years through my childhood then off to Graduate School.

Graduate School.  Where it was all supposed to end (or begin) happily ever after.

Picture this passionate red haired musician who happily spent her weekends analyzing the chordal structures of her favorite hymns, who sat on the front row of every music theory class with hands gripped to the edge of her desk in excitement, who magically came up with wild composing ideas that were performed by large choruses, dancers–and even an opera debut… see her?  She’s eager. She’s ready to learn. She’s committed.  She has vision. She has a drive that requires no further motivation other than her own…

as long as….

she can write from the heart.

Graduate school came as quite a shock.  The faculty had their own aesthetic and I was informed that my style did not fit into that mold.  I went from eagerly writing large projects that consumed my very spirit to suddenly spending teary nights mathmatically trying to put musical notes on a page for no more than a grade.

I drearily sat through composition class listening to student compositions written for “Bb Clarinet and solo Vacuum Cleaner” (no joke folks) where the faculty would rave about the intellectual approach and I would slowly feel all of my life’s happiness draining out of my soul.  Three years of having my passion squashed and submitting work that received A grades on paper but F grades in my heart was enough to cause a sorrowful turning away from something that used to bring me unimaginable joy.

That was three years ago.  I still hope to someday revisit music again, ignite the flame, shed the droning grad school voices that still haunt me, and follow my heart once more.

In many ways I sort of resent the Masters Degree.  It symbolizes something that was lost more than gained…


Unless I count it as one of my greatest life lessons on creativity.

1.  Recognize the voice of your heart.

We are given our passion for a reason.  We our drawn to certain styles for a reason.  We resonnate with ideas for expression for a reason.  The reason?  Because that is who we are. That is our authentic self speaking out and pointing the direction where we will be most happy and productive.  Sometimes that voice is louder than other times.  Do whatever you can to make sure you can hear it because the chaotic noisy world often makes it hard to recognize.

2.  Find a support team.

Creativity takes belief.  Belief in ourselves as well as from those around us.  It is infinitely harder to be sustained on our personal belief alone (especially when the censor works overtime to shut you down.)  My undergraduate experience included an amazing support of faculty, private teachers, family, and friends.  The synergy of their support propelled me forward in my progress.  Finding some type of community support that fosters your voice is important.  As is shedding the influences that bring us down.

3.  Learn to speak the language of your art.

Information is inspiration.  Just as my beloved undergrad professor told me, “You will not be inspired to compose a symphony if you don’t understand how the individual instruments work.”, we are limited without knowledge.  Knowing the rules helps us have a choice on whether or not to follow them.  The technical principles of any artform provide you with a vocabulary and skill set to allow you to create and interpret what you will.

4.  Knowing what you don’t like is just as important as knowing what you do like.

Three years is plenty of time to spend writing music I didn’t like.  Though I saw the experience at the time as a complete waste–if anything it increased my passion to follow what did speak to me.  I’ve experienced the same division in photography.  The more I fall out of favor with traditional and/or trendy portraiture the more I’m drawn to following my own style.  I can still appreciate other aesthetics for what they are, but recognizing the areas that I’m drawn to and the areas that repel me is a good lesson in finding direction.   Repeat: Gaining exposure and experience with the the styles we don’t enjoy helps us to recognize more clearly where we do want to spend our creative energy.


5.  You don’t always need a formalized education in order to learn.

Learning any subject or art form does not need to take place within the walls of a University.  For some the piece of paper or letters after the name is important.  But coming from a Masters Degree individual who spent 8 years in college–in many ways its overrated.  I’ve built an entire business that supports my family doing something I have no degree in or traditional classroom learning experience.  I do not discount the importance of mentors, apprenticeships, hands on work experience, books, research, or private classes.  But you do not always need “college” to teach and prepare you for what you want to do with your life or to give you credibility.

Oft times we are much better students when we are fueled by our own eagerness to learn and can specialize to a deeper degree when we make our own course.  Had I the option to focus on my musical education again, I would ditch grad school completely and take private lessons from a composer I really admired.  (Thats the way the classical composers learned…)

6. When one door closes another door opens.

All things in our life happen for a reason.  We can learn from every challenge. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today in the field of photography if it weren’t for the challenge of Grad School.  I left music for a season to pursue another creative field while I healed from my experience.  Never in a million years would I have thought I would be doing what I am now.  And I love it.

Sometimes our life’s greatest challenges are really an opportunity to head in another direction that we never would have considered before.


Brooke Snow is a Lifestyle photographer in Cache Valley, Utah. She currently uses her Masters Degree in music to sing silly songs in the kitchen to entertain picky eaters.  But hey, the songs are original and very catchy.  So maybe the masters degree really was worth something.

Brooke teaches private photography lessons , online photography classes, as well as seasonal photography classes in Logan, Utah.

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11 Responses

  1. My husband was just trying to convince me yesterday to get my graduate diploma (in engineering) framed. I told him it was a waste because I wasn’t working in the field anymore. Reading this, I’m thinking perhaps I should reconsider because if it weren’t for that and the career that I did have and didn’t enjoy I wouldn’t be where I am today doing what I love… 🙂 Great post Brooke. 🙂

  2. Oh I so agree with so much of this post. I have a saying on our dining room wall to remind the family and myself of an important lesson: “No one is good at everything. Everyone is good at something. Live Your Passion”. If we all do what we love then every day is filled with peace.

  3. Oh, Brooke! My heart just broke as I read your post! I could literally see you and feel your joy, your passion for music . . . just as I could feel your pain and disappointment as your professors took that away. 🙁 Shame on them!! I do hope you revisit your music some day (even though I’m sure the picky eater enjoys it now, lol!) because as a student of yours in photography, I have seen that passion burn bright, albeit for another art, but learning from you has been such a joy for me — simply because you always encourage, always tell us to follow our vision and our hearts. I am sure, someday, that we’ll be seeing your name on that opera debut!!

  4. My dear friend, I understand! You do have such gifts! Find the love again…please! I have heard just a brief glimpse into the musical treasure in your heart and I loved it. Others must hear it too! From one who feels like a master of none, I am the “Jackie” that cannot find enough time to embrace and act upon all the love of learning that dwells in my heart; I understand. Perhaps that’s why I love you so much.

  5. Woh. That last quote of yours just brought tears to my eyes. Infertility led us to Charley. I have not read a truer statement in quite some time. Such a beautiful and well-written post. Thank you.

  6. Wow Jess! You are right! That gives me chills too! And in some ways it makes everything all the sweeter doesn’t it? Needing to know the bitter in order to know the sweet. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. Brooke, I was a performance major in college for too many years. Finally at some point I realized that I wanted something different. I still love to sing but am so grateful for the paths I took of family science and photography. Your bio at the bottom of this post captures that place between your master’s and the sweet awareness of your life. It’s perfect. 🙂

  8. Brooke,

    Someone Mentioned you on the Rock The Shot photography forums so I came to your site to see what you were all about. I forgot to even count how many of your posts I’ve read so far, but I am totally inspired! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences!

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