“I’m really interested in X. I want to get a better job in the X field than I could achieve with my simple undergraduate degree. So I’m gonna apply to grad school, learn more about Field X, and then get hired by a great X organization that is impressed by my shiny new credentials.”
If this sounds like you, then I have bad news for you: You are completely wasting your time and money.
Grad school is not just the next step in the K-12 + College education ladder that you step on as a child. It is instead a tool that helps you further develop a purpose that you had even before applying. Rather than saying “Teach me what I need to know to succeed in Field X, and tell me what I can do with that knowledge,” you should be saying “I already know exactly what purpose I want to fulfill, and I want to use this school’s resources to help me fulfill that purpose.”
This is no subtle difference. I am basically saying that you should not even think of applying to grad school unless you know exactly what political cause you want to dedicate yourself to, or what company or non-profit you want to start after graduation, or what disease you want to spend your life researching, or what human rights advocacy group you want to become the face of. I don’t just mean that you should pick a clear passion for the purpose of writing your graduate admission essay. I mean that you should not even apply to grad school at all unless you deeply feel that passion and have a very clear purpose for your career.
When you enter grad school with a purpose and a big finished product in mind, every class you take suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Every paper you are assigned to write will make you ask yourself “How can I spin this toward my career purpose, so that I can learn about a new angle of my chosen issue and add this research to my portfolio?” Every class project will make you ask yourself “What piece of my [business plan] can I create or support with this project?” And if your program requires an overall Graduate Project, Dissertation, or Thesis, you will see that the paper is practically written for you already by the time you are ready to “start” it.
The reason I know these things is because I myself almost made the mistake of applying to grad school without having clear purpose. At one point I was actually very close to starting a Masters in International Relations simply because it seemed like the natural progression of my career and because I loved traveling and speaking languages (but doesn’t everybody?). But then I realized that I had always experienced one common, over-arching obsession in everything I had ever done in my life: Helping people learn things more efficiently. This passion became clear enough for me to change grad school directions toward a Masters in Education Technology, which I used to foster my mission and ultimately emerge with the prototype, business plan, and team for Brainscape.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking: “That’s great Andrew, but what if I don’t have a clear idea for a business or advocacy campaign or anything like that?” My response is that that is perfectly ok. Just don’t go to grad school! At least not until you discover the purpose in your career. Some ways to help refine the purpose in your career (and potential grad school application) include:
- Working a few more years in your current field, and volunteering for new types of projects
- Attend more networking events in the fields you’re interested in (try www.meetup.com)
- Try starting an organization, newsletter, movement, or some other project now, to see if you like it as much as you thought, and to verify what skills & knowledge that you would most purposefully try to acquire if you did go to grad school.
Any of these activities will help you hone in on your purpose without wasting $100k on grad school to try to figure out. The important thing to remember is that it is totally fine if your career passion is not specific enough to apply to grad school. Grad school is not for everyone, and it is still possible to be extremely successful (if not more!) by continuing to kick ass at your current career that you started with a simple undergraduate degree. I promise that your parents are still proud of you if you don’t have another title after your name.
So unless you’re aspiring to a specific professional career like Law or Medicine, remember that a graduate degree with no purpose is worse than no graduate degree at all. I know plenty of over-educated Ivy Leaguers who are having a harder time than ever finding good jobs. Don’t be one of them.