Career

Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by Ben Sands

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Before you say “yes” to grad school…answer this question

By Ben Sands – Get free updates of new posts here

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that last year’s crop of law school graduates was the largest ever: 46,776.

Unfortunately, despite an increase in hiring at large law firms, only 64.4% (!) had a job for which a legal degree was actually required.

Given that many recent graduates are now debating the pros and cons of graduate school, I wanted to offer a simple approach to helping ensure that your decision to matriculate is a great one.

FIRST, A DISCLAIMER

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a graduate degree. In fact, I would argue that the world needs MORE smart people pushing the limits of art, science and math among other disciplines.

Computer scientists, biologists, psychologists, physicists, medical doctors, economists, teachers…just a few of the many cohorts of extremely smart and hard-working people who, every day, leverage their graduate-level education to help us better understand the world and make it a better place.

That said, the world doesn’t need is more of its top talent heading off to graduate school just to figure out how they are going to change the world.  We do not need more of our “best and brightest” spending multiple years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue a path that, in the end, leave them unfulfilled, dissatisfied and disenchanted.

THE “ESSENTIAL” QUESTION

Before you fall victim to “premature matriculation” – yeah, it’s as embarrassing as it sounds – make sure you can answer this essential question in a clear and compelling way: why am I going?

I know, the question seems both so simple and so obvious.

Why? Well, because…

I’ve asked this question to many men and women wrangling with this decision and, more often than not the answers fall into one of two groups – to whom I have given the titles: “dream-seekers” and the “job-seekers” based upon their answers to the “why?” question.

Here’s what they sound like:

1. The “Dream-Seekers”

I’m going to pursue a graduate degree because…

> “The skills, experience and insight I will acquire via the pursuit of this degree are essential to the fulfilling my true “calling”/purpose in life…”

> “This degree is necessary step in the pursuit of a long and lasting impact in the ______industry; an industry in which I have always been deeply passionate – and certain that I want to spend the rest of my life working there.”

> “I want to do extraordinary things and therefore need to surround myself with people who are already doing extraordinary things” 

2. The “Job-Seekers”

I’m going to pursue a graduate degree because…

> “This is the next logical step in my career; I will plateau without it”

> “A graduate degree is the only way I can be sure to get the job I want – at the salary I desire – in today’s economy/job market.”

> “My mom/dad is a doctor/lawyer/engineer…I want to provide for my children the way he/she provided for me and this degree is the first step in that process.”

> “I am getting this education for free and the overall opportunity cost to pursue this degree is relatively low.”

> “Well, I really don’t know what else I would do…”

Sadly, too many of the graduate-school-bound population with whom I speak fall into the “Job-Seeker” camp – including a shocking number of people who decide to pursue a law, medicine or business degree simply because they didn’t know what else they could/should do.

If that sounds like you – or a friend you know – here’s my simple advice: Don’t go! (Yet).

THE “ESSENTIALIST” APPROACH

Until you have a clear and compelling reason to pursue a graduate degree, don’t go.

Obviously the financial and time-related costs to any graduate degree are significant but, what I worry most about is the opportunity cost of a poorly chosen graduate degree. In other words, what might you no longer be willing/able to do because of your graduate school commitment, expectations and subsequent debt?

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In his wonderful new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown suggests that what differentiates the world’s leaders and top-performers from everyone else is their…

“…systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so [they] can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.” 

My advice: approach the graduate school as an “essentialist.”  Go to graduate school only to pursue that which matters most to you…not simply in hopes of discovering it.

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About the Author

Ben Sands is an author, coach, and the founder of Regret Free Life. He writes about careers, money, leadership and how to make decisions you won't regret.


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