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If you are thinking about graduate school, please read the post at Grad Pit Stop before you do anything else.

Moving forward without writing things down, weighing pro’s and con’s, talking it through with a number of people you respect, and thinking that you will be fine is not a plan.    I say this because I didn’t do these things and it would mean a lot to me if others could learn from my mistakes.

I headed off to graduate school because it seemed like the next logical option without any formal or informal examination of my various broad reaching career options.  I loved studying, reading, writing, and discussing ideas along a broad range of deeply interrelated subject matter.  My faculty, who were great mentors and supporters, thought it would be a great option.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and looking more seriously ahead at a field replete with ABD-ghosts broken and floating lecturers teaching night and weekend classes, cobbling together a meager income from several different adjunct positions all over the region, that I started to see with greater clarity that the field I thought was so wonderful had a rusty carcass at its core.  The dream of making tenure by 30 was mythic for almost any person, even department stars.

There were quite simply too many implausible odds on writing one of two published books a year and scoring a tenure-track position at even the most remote a college, much less a top-tier university.  Unless I was on a holy mission to prove something or another, it just didn’t seem worth it to continue into the Ph.D. program.

When I started I was on a mission.  But then I discovered that my mission wasn’t built on pure desire to know, it was built and driven principle on a genuine desire to prove myself as “good enough.”    This discovery was piercing.

Like many transformational moments it was deflating, dispiriting, and fraught with despair at the same time it was the foundation of discovering the path to my self.    I totally admit that at the time it was happening, I didn’t see the opportunities as much as I saw the devastation.  It’s only in retrospect that I see how it was all meant to be.

So, I share this with you so that you might be much clearer on your mission, more conscious of actual field realities,  and more fully engaged in guided career exploration.

Sending fabulous energy!

If you’ve been reading along in my series on going to graduate school, you might at some point in the process get overwhelmed.  That’s totally normal.

If it’s helpful, I get overwhelmed as much as the next person.  Thinking about life… career options… relationships… from the big picture to the smallest pixel… there are moments when it can all become too much.

From questioning where one might to live, work, study, or raise a family?  to considering what others might think?  how it might work?  or even what might happen if…? Sometimes, it can be good to pause, take a minute to breathe, and consider the larger purpose of why we are heading off to do something.

Just like anyone, I can get caught up in exploring the enormity of options, unknown variables, quantity of elements to coordinate, etc…that it’s just a seemingly never-ending pointless laundry list of tasks and duties and responsibilities…and it’s at that moment, especially if I find myself discouraged, frustrated, or wanting to just quit, one of the most powerful things I’ve found I can do for myself and others is to ask “What’s the Point?”

Try it.  Take a deeeeeeep to-the-belly-kind-of-breathe…hold in and sloooowwwwwlyyy–as slowly as you possibly can– but evenly…let your breath out.  Gather your focus in doing so.   Slow your heart rate by slowly breathing in and out.  Ask yourself: “What’s the Point?”

When I’m asking “What’s the Point?” it’s not typically in a despairingly dramatic “ohhhhhh woe is me….what is the point of living…” while swooning, gnashing my teeth, and falling on my heroic but trite sword of death, while whining that “it’s not faaaairrrr.”  Not typically.   but you know everyone has their moments.  😉

More helpful in asking “What’s the Point”, I’ve found, is that it calls for a focus on purpose or mission.  In  Breaking the Rules, A Visionary’s Guide to Effortless High Performance, Kurt Wright examines the difference between a goal and a purpose.  For example, going to graduate school or getting a job is a goal.  It is a specific (albeit large) task that can be accomplished.   Goals are great.  But, a goal without a reason is hollow, demotivating, and unlikely to be successful.

Consider any time someone orders you to do something.  It really typically doesn’t matter who it is doing the ordering: it could be your mom, your boss, your significant other or roommate; it could even be yourself, but almost every time, our natural response is “Why?”  Often that “why” question is a way to resist…or contest power…but that’s deeply understandable.  Anytime we commit our time, energy, and resources to a task, it it is more helpful to know why we are doing so, than to simply march forward with a 1000-yard stare into meaningless action.

So, in someways whenever we get overwhelmed, frustrated, or otherwise feeling grumpy about something, it can be useful to take a moment to consider that core “Why” questions because the answer is central to providing a motivating reason to each goal.  Providing context and purpose is key to swift action and to meaningful results.

“What is the Point?” is another way of asking “Why?’ and gets at the central motivating reason or purpose of the goal.    Knowing the purpose of a goal is much more likely to move me into action.  Simply telling myself “I have to do this or that” makes me actually resist or procrastinate action.  When, we know why we are doing something, we have the power of choice.

Yet, if it’s helpful for me to share, sometimes that all important “why?” question can simply be too confrontational, too personal, too combative, or too philosophical to be helpful in asking ourselves and others.  It’s a crucially important question to ask, but because it’s the most core question,it can be too much for us to address, especially at stressful moments in life.

For example, even people close to us…even when we mean no confrontation…even when we ask a simple curious “so, why’d you park out front, honey?”…and it’s not a deep philosophical issue that requires soul searching…people can snap at you when you ask “why?”

So, here are ways to ask “why” in more effective frames:

  • What’s the larger mission?  What’s the central purpose?
  • Where does the mission point?
  • How does the larger purpose or mission frame options?
  • When does the mission connect?
  • Who benefits?

Ask yourself these questions at any point along the way.  Asking and answering these can keep you going, as well as keep you focused and motivated.

It can also be a great tool in crisis.

  • So, if you haven’t yet articulated a specific mission and find yourself adrift, unfocused or unmotivated, this can be a great jump start.
  • Or, if you at one point were on a mission and then started to forget to keep checking in with your mission and begin to get frustrated and overwhelmed, this can knock you out of your rut.
  • Or perhaps like all of us, even when you are clear on a mission, certain days and experiences are just hell.   Being able to not get stuck there is key.

Asking great questions, creating mission statements, or reciting inspiring quotations  and the like are a powerful tools in controlling our thoughts, beliefs, motivations, actions, and are a few of the key elements of transforming our lives on our terms.

Sending fabulous energy!

So, if you are just getting started in thinking about graduate school, it’s still a great time to start looking for specific programs.  Consider when you started looking for colleges when you were in high school?  What year was that?  When did your PARENTS start thinking about it?  Well, that’s about when you might start thinking about graduate school in comparison.

Even if you are fully in-swing with the graduate school application process, read on.  It’s likely there are things you might still be able to do or questions to consider that make this process really pay off.

So much of the search for the right graduate program starts with knowing yourself.   The process of getting to know more of what you want is always on-going as the further you get into researching programs the more refined your questions will become and more details will surface.  Here’s some starter ways you might find and research great programs:

1.  start with taking a look at favorite articles  and books you have read in class, in the library, or online that are related to the discipline you wish to study in graduate school.

  • who wrote those articles?  where have they studied?
  • where might they actually currently teach or have some connection?

2.  go the library, ideally a large university or city library with lots of resources and look for professional journals that appeal to you.  if you are enrolled, you likely have access to many of these articles in online databases and can search by key words, authors, and phrases.

  • which university names come up frequently in articles that rock your world?
  • which universities have published articles or books that you enjoy?
  • which programs and faculty names do you see referenced in recent interesting research articles?

3.  start with your current or alum university graduate students in similar or related programs.

  • what other programs did they apply to?  what about where their peers applied or went?
  • what programs do they recommend?
  • what would they share with you about the whole process?
  • what do they wish they had known before they started?

If you are thinking about going to graduate school, you may  have wondered about staying at your undergrad school for grad school.   It’s a deeply understandable idea, especially if you really like the subject, the school, and already have a place to live and lots of friends.  Yet, it’s often a very good idea to broaden your horizons.

Depending on your program and field there may be certain conventions specific to your field, so a great place to start is with talking with the faculty and graduate students in your program.  Certain programs strongly discourage or even flat out refuse to accept undergrads from their own program.  Other programs strongly encourage their applicants from their own undergrad program.  So, what gives?  How do you make sense of this?

Well, it might be helpful to first outline some of the key elements of a graduate program:

1) Graduate school is professional training that provides focus and direction for your career.

2) Graduate school provides grounding in key philosophies and practices within a field.

3) Graduate school provides a network at the school and access to professional networking through faculty, conferences, symposium, research, practicums, internships, residencies, and other experience designed to connect you with those in the field.

So, with these 3 key elements in mind, consider the following: no matter how wonderful your undergraduate program is, attending a different program for graduate schools gives you the opportunity to broaden your exposure to training in your field, acquaints you with more philosophies or approaches in your discipline, and of course widens the number of people in your network.    Perhaps that helps explain why some programs make policies that encourage you to look elsewhere for graduate school?

Yet, in certain cases staying at the same school might be the convention in your discipline.  For example, because K-12 licensure or certification is state-by-state, the convention has been to stay local when going to graduate school for education.  There may even be curricular and other encouragement to start undergrad in some kind of pre-education program that provides early or guaranteed entrance to graduate school.   That makes a great deal of sense given the way education is currently governed.

Yet, for most fields, you are likely to find it’s more the norm to look for programs across the country that are a good fit for the exact training, experience, and networking you desire.   This is particularly true if you are a competitive candidate for a number of program.  Often people regard their home school as a “safety net” program.   This is because a place where you are already known, liked, and succeeding isn’t regarded as stretching to the next level of what you can handle.   Making connections from where you are to where you’d be a great candidate is a lot more challenging and presents an opportunity for you really learn, grow, and integrate yourself into the field.

One element that many people find very surprising is that when looking at graduate programs that they are NOT limited to programs that are an exact match to their undergraduate studies.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • You might have an undergraduate major in English, but get an MBA.
  • You might have a film studies major and go on in Public Policy and Administration.
  • You might have a music degree and go on to a graduate program in Psychology.
  • You might have an business degree but then go to law school.
  • You might have an art degree but go to medical school.
  • You might have a biology major and get accepted into a Public Health program.
  • You might have an engineering degree but go on to study environmental design.

There are literally hundreds of examples I could give you of students who studied one thing as an undergraduate and successfully went on to graduate or professional school in another area.  So, how could that be?

Well, for some programs like medical school or related health professions, you need specific classes and experiences to get accepted.  Some students have these classes and most find they may need a few additional classes to meet these application prerequisites.    At the same time, what surprises many is that they didn’t need a specific degree in chemistry or biology to go to medical school.  They needed a core set of science classes, and very importantly, a compelling story of good fit for the medical program.

Yet in other cases, a minor or a core set of classes that may have been part of the general education curriculum may be sufficient academic preparation for entry into a graduate program.   You will need to research specific programs to see what courses, experience, scores, recommendations, or other evidence they require to evaluate your application.    For many students they are able to plan these courses into their general education.  For other students, it may require additional studies prior to graduate application.

The key is to broaden your horizon as early on as possible: look beyond your current school or even your current major to find the best graduate program for you.  Knowing what you want from a program is a good start.  Then, researching what is out there.  It’s a process.  Start from where you are.  There are many resources to assist you on your path. Use them all.

Sending fabulous energy!

Perhaps you’ve already applied to graduate school and are nervously awaiting the response?  Or perhaps you’re a recent graduate frustrated in the job search and find your thoughts keep turning to graduate school?  Or perhaps you’re stuck in a job and think that perhaps a graduate degree would help you move to the next level of your career?  Or perhaps you are an undergraduate student consider graduate school as the next step?

No matter what your situation, here are a few things to consider as part of the process:

1. This is the most important aspect and it might seem really basic, but know specifically WHY you are going.

  • What are your motivations for going to graduate school?
  • What do you hope a degree in a specific field will accomplish?
  • How is it tied to a specific career plan?  how realistic is that plan?
  • Who do you know who has a career in that field?  What do they suggest regarding your plan?
  • How very specifically do you think the schools you’re applying to will partner with you to meet this plan?

Put this all in writing.   This is the basis of each of the different letters of application you will send to the schools.

2.  Know your audience.  Each application to each school must be crafted with the specific school in mind.

  • Read absolutely everything you can about each school and this is mandatory:  Read the entire website of the specific department to which you are applying.  i.e.  if you are applying to the English program, read the entire English departments’ website.  if you are applying to law school, read the entire school of law’s website.   It is not enough to read the information admissions provides to you.    Know who the faculty are that teach in the program.  Know what the program requirements are.  Know what the structure of the program is.  Know everything the program put out there for you to read.
  • Speak to a specific audience in the letter.  Do not use the same letter of application to each school.   You might have an initial template you start with, but identify specific people in the department from whom you want to learn, name resources such as libraries in your field or research facilities in that program that are attractive, and  list experiences that the program provides such as teaching, research, interning, surveying, clerking, or whatever actually attracted you to them about their program.   Make the pitch to them as to why you selected their program out of the many that exist and what you hope to contribute to the program.
  • Best fit is key.  Part of the letter should address why you as a candidate are a good fit for their program.  Do it from their perspective:  How are you a team player?  What in your background qualifies you for their program?   What experiences led you to feel that going to graduate school in their program was part of your career or mission in life?  What’s your planned contribution to the program or field?   Use specific examples.

3.  Go Visit.

Perhaps you’ve already turned in the letters and didn’t do the above things?   It is what it is.   This is still a great move.  Or perhaps you are still exploring going in the future?  No matter where you are in the process of considering graduate programs, there is no substitute for a scheduled on-site visit.

  • Reading about a program online is great.  It’s mandatory before applying to a place you will be studying for a minimum of at least a year and typically 2 to 6 years.  Knowing the program’s culture is something that you will only truly understand by meeting the people in the program.  So, an on-site visit really helps you make sure this is a solid professional choice.
  • Visiting will increase your chance of acceptance.   It shows you are serious about your application and helps you fill in the gaps any application might leave.   Visits are very impactful any time of year, but timing is a factor.
  • Make sure you make appointments in advance.   People are not just waiting around in their offices on the off-chance you might pop by and if you don’t have an appointment they might not have time for you.  Scheduling appointments far enough in advance will ensure a great experience for everyone.
  • Request the experiences you want.   Ask to meet with faculty who do research in the areas of study and would potentially be teachers of graduate classes and/or your faculty adviser .  Ask to sit in on a class that is required in your area of study.  Ask to meet with graduate students in the program.    Ask to tour the facilities.    Ask for information on housing, student organizations or clubs, career services, programming, and time to meet with people who can answer these questions.
  • Be prepared to make quite a number of phone calls to set this all up.  It is likely that people keep their own calendars and there is not a central person to make this magically happen for you.   This is your job.

4.  Remember that you are interviewing them (the school) as much as they are interviewing you.

Take this as seriously as a job interview.   So, be prepared.  Ask questions.  Do research.  Set expectations and conduct yourself professionally.  Going to graduate school is an enormous professional investment in time, energy, and resources.  If you aren’t willing to commit to a serious search process, ask yourself if you are ready to commit to what graduate school demands of you.   Make sure that going to graduate school is a meaningful conscious choice on a path to a career you have chosen, researched, and are entering aware of what the graduate degree will do for you.

At the same time, just like a job interview, this is not a one-sided process of trying to squeeze into someone else’s expectations of what kind of candidate should do, be, or act like.  This is a process of you knowing what you want and asking questions…seeking to find the program that will be the best fit for you and one in which you can make a meaningful contribution to a field.

Graduate school can be a great investment in yourself personally and professionally… and like any investment, if you to do the research and groundwork to ensure the investment is a good fit for the goals you have, it is more likely to pay off.   And, if all of this seems a bit daunting, that’s understandable.    Most people find it pretty overwhelming to do this all on their own and so it’s wise to have a mentor or coach helping walk you through the process, pointing you towards resources, and providing accountability so you stay on track.

So, start where you are, take inventory of your resources, and if you need assistence, ask for help.  You aren’t alone.

Sending fabulous energy!