FOMO and the art of surviving your first semester of grad school

I'll be the first to admit it: going back to school is tough. Last summer, I left a job that I loved and moved to Ann Arbor to pursue a master’s in human-computer interaction at the University of Michigan’s School of Information (UMSI). My first week on campus was surreal, and I was instantly barraged by so much new information that I found myself questioning whether I could hack it in this new, unfamiliar environment. (Spoiler alert: I survived) 

What made things so tough was FOMO, or the fear of missing out. My undergraduate degree is in English and art history, and my primary work experience is in communications, community organizing, and agriculture. I came to Michigan excited to learn everything I could about UX and interaction design, but feeling like I had to play catch-up to get on the same level as my peers with backgrounds in computer science.

Turns out, I was dead wrong. Instead of being a disadvantage, my unusual trajectory has provided me with solid foundations in many crucial skills for a UX designer, including project management, patience, comfort with ambiguity, and the ability to see multiple perspectives and work effectively on diverse teams. I'm learning technical skills fast, and have had great opportunities to practice what I've learned through a fellowship and extracurricular activities.

I came away from Fall term with a ton of new skills, amazing friends, and the knowledge that UX design and I were made for each other. That said, there are a few things that I had to remind myself of throughout the semester.

1.   Your unique experience is an asset

In interviews, I am frequently asked about the mixed bag of experience on my resume, and why a company should choose me over a candidate with a background in a more technical field. I’ve learned a lot of unique skills in my jobs over the years, from repairing bicycles and designing graphics to leading project teams, and each experience has given me perspective into the different ways that people approach problems. Each of my classmates brings a unique set of skills to the table, and our combined strengths lead to much more interesting brainstorms and outcomes than they might if we had all followed the same path. 

2.   Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there

You’re in school for a reason: to LEARN. You don’t have to be the foremost expert on a subject to participate and learn something new, you just need patience and a willingness to push yourself. Last summer, I was incredibly nervous walking in the door of my first hackathon, thinking I’d act as a fly on the wall and soak up all the expertise surrounding me. Instead, I quickly realized that my team needed me to facilitate communication and draw wireframes, and I ended up enthusiastically taking on the role of the user experience lead along with the amazing Jo Golden. I even presented our project to the crowd, which (if you know me) wasn't easy. Our team ended up being selected as one of five national winners of the U.S. Census Bureau’s City SDK National Challenge. Get out! Push yourself! Do things! You’ll be glad you did.

3.   Try not to overdo it with extracurriculars

In my first week at UMSI, tons of student groups presented amazing opportunities to get involved, and choosing which to pursue was stressful and confusing. I was afraid that I’d choose one and regret not choosing another, so instead of being selective I tried to do everything. I succeeded, but it wasn't easy. FOMO is your worst enemy, and my overloaded schedule made my first semester more than a little overwhelming. Get involved in a few activities you’re really excited about and that will give you a leg up in your internship search, and then try not to sweat the decision. Those other activities will still be there next year (that’s the beauty of a two-year program!)

4.   You’re your own best advocate

This goes hand-in-hand with #2, and is something that took me years to learn. In classes and group meetings, your ideas and opinions are valuable and valid, but no one will hear them if you don’t speak up. You’re entering a community of supportive, energetic people, and they’ll be glad to hear what you have to say. Once you’ve given your opinion, own it! You never know how your ideas can shape the outcome of a project.

5.   Don’t get hung-up on first impressions

Some of the most amazing people I’ve met at UMSI are people that I wasn’t sure about at first glance. I also know for a fact that I was in a fog my entire first week back at school, and I’m very glad no one wrote me off those first few days. Studying HCI means you'll be doing tons of group work, and everyone brings a unique and valuable skill set to the table. Learning from your classmates will make you a way better designer in the long run.

6.   EAT FOOD. Everyday. Not just when it’s free.

You will get a lot of free food in this program, so there's no reason to starve. Try to attend events that offer Jerusalem Garden (you’ll know when you get here), and try to avoid eating pizza five days a week. If you don’t have a car, Ann Arbor has Zipcars all around campus that you can rent for quick trips to the store. If you notice that your friend hasn't eaten lunch, see what you can do to help. They're probably stressed out and could use a yogurt.

7.   Schedule time to unwind

I don’t care what background you come from—the first semester of grad school is tough. Everyone is excited about the field, and that enthusiasm is so contagious that sometimes it’s difficult to peel yourself away from the computer. (I should note that I’m writing this at 1:27 a.m. on a Thursday). Figure out how much time you need to spend unplugged each week and put it on your calendar so that you don’t forget. I don’t know a single person that didn’t hit a wall last semester, and knowing what you need to do to relax will help when that time comes.

8. Ask questions! Lots of questions!

I think it goes without saying that people pursuing careers in UX are naturally curious (myself included). For everyone currently finishing up their applications to UMSI (or other programs), I'm happy to answer any questions you have! Just leave a comment below.