When I decided to go back to grad school, it was because I felt that I had a significant lack of knowledge in an area I wanted to know more about. Grad school had professors and books and lectures and conferences that would help fill that gap to progress my career.
I think that when most people begin to look for graduate school options, they do so in order to fill this knowledge gap: There is something missing in your current repertoire for advancement that graduate school will offer you.
When I started my master's program, I was super young and incredibly green. I was going to grad school to pivot my career a bit and to learn the stuff that I felt I desperately lacked from undergrad for this pivot. As such, I was pretty singularly minded in my focus. When I walked into class each week, I was intimidated by the age and experience of those in the room with me (what could I have possibly offered them?). I kept pretty much to myself, learned the material necessary to earn the credential, filled the gap, and then shuffled on along to the next thing.
Other people's experiences were filling a knowledge gap I didn't even know I had.
By the time I started my PhD program, I had been working for a good while. When I walked into that classroom on the first day, I realized that I was closer to the "sage" age of the classroom than the newbie side. (I felt really good about that, by the way.) Maybe I could be a helper to these younger students by sharing my experiences and by including them in a way I wasn't included (or at the very least, didn’t take advantage of) in my previous experience. I was determined to not let that opportunity pass me by a second time.
It didn't take long for me to realize that the people in my class, regardless of their age or their AMOUNT of experience, all came to the program with super interesting backgrounds. Their paths were not mine, but they were all really very cool, nonetheless. I appreciated that we immediately got down to the business of knowing one another. Not just "hi my name is" types of things, but really sharing what brought us to this classroom, why we cared, where we came from, where we were hoping to go, and what our experiences had taught us about the field we were collectively entering. We had an amazing breadth of knowledge between the lot of us.
It was these relationships that ended up defining my graduate school experience. Yes, I learned from my professors and the books and the lectures and the conferences, as I expected. All of that was incredibly important. But what contextualized those concepts for me was being able to look at these issues through not only my lens but through the eyes of the dramatically different skills, talents, and backgrounds of my peers. Other people's experiences were filling a knowledge gap I didn't even know I had.
Graduate school is a time like no other. You will be exposed to countless individuals who care about the same things you do, but who do so through entirely different experiences and viewpoints. Taking advantage of the skills and talents and professional experiences of those around you to reframe your own knowledge is a vital part of the intellectual growth that happens as a graduate student. Yes, lean on your professors (and books and lectures and conferences). But you can also lean on your peers in a way that will open your mind to not just one way of seeing things but of multiple approaches to viewing and solving problems. And together, it's just better and more informed work across the board.
My graduate school colleagues remain some of my closest friends. They continue, 10+ years later to be those who I call when I need to have my perceptions checked, my ideas challenged, and my assumptions tested. I rely heavily on them, using their different-than-me backgrounds and experiences as the lens through which we all gain new knowledge and make new advances.
Graduate school is about embracing the experiences of others and using them to propel thought forward together. Whether you are the oldest person in the room or the youngest, with the most experience or just starting out, find a place that cares about you sharing what you already know, who you are, and why your voice is an important one to add to the conversation.
And speak up. Without this diversity of opinions and leveraging of what we all inherently bring to the table, we risk both stagnation of thought and missing out on a critical part of the graduate student experience.