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Is grad school for you? 4 questions to ask first

Saturday, October 10, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Grace Woo

The voice on the phone was filled with equal parts of anxiety and anticipation: "Grace, I’ve worked a few years and I’m ready to take my career to next level. Should I go to graduate school?”

Over the years, I have been asked this question by many women who trust my judgment. Having participated in several graduate programs, they expect my ringing endorsement.

Not so fast.

Related: 3 missteps that hurt your career

I want to propose something bold here: If you want to have a fulfilling, successful career, you need to be a trailblazer and create your own career path.

I’ve put together four questions for anyone who’s thinking about going to graduate school:

1. Why do you want to go to graduate school?

"I don’t know, it just seems like the next logical thing to do.” That’s the typical answer. If that's your reason, I can guarantee that it’s the most expensive and wasteful way to spend two years of your life. Many believe a graduate degree can help us rise above our competitors and lead to life-long career success. But I have seen many graduates from top MBA schools settle into so-so careers. There are other paths. I asked an award-winning movie producer — who never went to graduate school — the secret of her success. She joined the movie industry at the dawn of computer-generated special effects, when digital technology created new creative possibilities. The most logical career progression for a creative-writing major like her was to join a studio's story department. However, she noticed she had a unique talent: She can get creative and technical types to work together and create critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies. She moved into the role of a producer and was quickly promoted. The secret of her success is having a deep understanding of how her unique talent fit in the shifting industry landscape. Technological changes create opportunities for prepared minds.

2. Is there something you are passionate about?

I’m not a huge fan of telling pre-college kids to follow their dream. We need maturity and experience to discover that sweet spot where our passion and career opportunity collides. If you have worked for a few years and you find it extremely hard to roll out of bed to go to work every day because your job has zero redeeming interest, it’s time to think about your passion. Nina has been working as a computer programmer at a government agency for several years, and she was itching to make a move — going to a startup seemed like a logical next step. After spending six months talking to friends and her network family, she told me: "I really want to bring new technology into government agencies to improve efficiency. That’s what I want to do”. Bureaucracy and innovation? They shouldn’t exist in the same sentence! She explained that President Obama’s Open Data Initiatives project is changing the culture at work and she senses a small opening for new ideas. She worked hard for six months. She immersed herself in the local Open Data community movement during weekends. She rallied other software developers in her agency around her Open Data vision. She successfully petitioned her chain of command and gained approval to create a volunteer hacker group for Open Data pilot projects. The secret of her success was spending the time to figure out where her passion met new work opportunities and brought everyone around her along the path she created for herself.

3. Do you find yourself looking at joining the "tech” sector?

Everyone whom I’ve talked to regrets that they didn’t go into "tech” while in college. Silicon Valley is just so hot these days. Being tech savvy will be important for any of us to thrive in the future of work — but it can be done in a very different way. Helen reluctantly became a stay-at-home mom after a brief stint in the financial industry. I visited her back in 2010, and was sad to find her visibly depressed and easily irritated. She felt isolated. One solace was making ornamented hair clips when the kids were asleep. I encouraged her to turn it into a business — the next logical step for someone in her situation who felt as she did. To my surprise, she went right to work. She used Facebook and Pinterest to get product design feedback and to sell products. She was featured in the Christmas Fair of a local school. Her business rebuilt her sense of worth and I was thrilled to see her smiling again after 5 years. Helen will never be a featured in Forbes magazine, but she finds her balance of work, family and self through the help of technology. For me, Helen is extremely successful.

4. Have you talked to your friends about this decision?

We value expert opinions on the all-important graduate school decision. I would argue that you should first speak to your friends who know you well. Your elementary school best friend may know nothing about your industry and your work style, but they know your strengths and weaknesses. You need to know who you are and how others perceive you before you think about passion, career opportunities and whether graduate school is the right choice for you. It’s your first step if you want to blaze your own trail. Ask 10 friends and family members to list your top three strengths and weakness. I did this exercise a few years back, and was shocked to discover a consistent pattern of my strength and weakness emerging from these interviews.

Get to know your strengths and weakness. Find your passion. See where these intersect with the changing environment. Test, learn and blaze a uniquely yours career path.

Grace H. Woo is director, supply chain sourcing strategy at McCormick & Company and a blogger on workplace issues. She is a trained economist and received her bachelor's degree from London School of Economics and Political Science. While pursuing her master's degree in urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, she did research under Annalee Saxenian, an expert in the social networks of Silicon Valley. She is also an alumni of Harvard Business School.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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