Is grad school for you? 4 questions to ask first
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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.
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
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
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.
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
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