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I want to start this by outing myself as an absolute school nerd.
As in, I used to “assign” myself summer book reports in elementary and middle school. I would gladly be an eternal student — if I could get paid just to go to school and learn for the rest of my life, I’d be in heaven.
So when I hear my clients saying things like, “I’m not really sure what I’m passionate about or what kind of career I want, so I’m thinking about going back to grad school to figure it out,” I’ll admit that my first split-second reaction is, “Yeah, school!”
But even I have to admit that going back to grad school isn’t always the right answer to the question, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
To be honest, more often than not, I see people going back to grad school simply because they don’t know what else to do. Plenty of people use grad school as a way of feeling productive and directed, when unconsciously it’s just a way of postponing the scary step of figuring things out in the “real world.”
GRAD SCHOOL CAN BE AN EXPENSIVE DISTRACTION
I was coaching a woman recently who had applied to a few grad schools and wasn’t sure what she should do if she got accepted into any of them.
When I asked her, “Why are you planning to go back to grad school?” she paused and finally admitted, “I don’t know exactly. I just don’t know what else to do. I just don’t like my job, and I guess this will make me more marketable somewhere else?”
I see this all the time — so many people end up making a reactive decision to go back to school as a way to escape their current situation and/or buy themselves time before they have to make a real decision (and a real plan). And no wonder so many of us are doing this! It’s completely overwhelming to figure it all out on your own.
I DID THIS MYSELF 3 SEPARATE TIMES … WITHIN 2 YEARS
Senior year of college, it finally hit me that I was going to have to leave the college bubble and get a real, adult job.
This did not sound fun in the slightest.
So, I decided to apply (semi last-minute) to a branding & copywriting graduate program. I had no branding experience, so I scrambled to create an entire college career’s worth of content for a portfolio in about a week and sent it off.
As you can imagine, I didn’t get into that program, so I had to do the thing I’d been dreading: get a real job.
Less than six months into my big-girl job, it was clear this was NOT going to work for me. I was bored, unfulfilled, and having what I called “Cubicle Panic Attacks” at the thought of staying there for years (or decades … shudder).
SO I FELL BACK ON MY OLD TRUSTY GRAD SCHOOL PLAN
This time, I found a different communications program. I had no idea what I wanted to do with communications, but I figured eh, why not? I’d enjoy it, and it was broad enough to be relevant in a lot of careers.
Going through the application process was a great distraction from my boring job. In fact, it made me feel a little rebellious that I was secretly planning my escape.
It gave me the illusion of control and direction.
But after I submitted my application and had to go back to my distraction-less daily grind, I got the sinking feeling that I didn’t really care about communications that much. Sure, it might be better than my job (that wasn’t hard to do), but it still wasn’t what I really wanted.
A couple of months later, I withdrew my application. I didn’t want to be tempted to say yes if I got accepted, because deep down I knew this wasn’t the right next step for me.
By this point, Rachel and I had started seriously talking about starting a business together, and at the time we thought it would be a therapy practice. I submitted applications to three grad schools, and when I got the acceptance letter from my first choice, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Not a good sign.
Clearly therapy still wasn’t “it” for me.
Long story short: Every single time I applied to grad school, it was a reactive or fear-based decision. And I wasted a ton of time (and some money) researching and applying to grad schools when I didn’t even really know why I was doing it.
I see this same pattern reflected in so many of my clients.
OK, SO WHEN IS A GOOD TIME TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
Grad school (or any kind of additional education) may become a necessary step in the process once you’ve gotten clear on what you want and why you’re going back to school.
The most important question you can ask yourself before deciding whether or not to go back to school is, “What’s my intention?”
If you have a pretty clear answer to that question, then grad school might be a great means to an end.
But if you have no idea what your intention is, then there’s a good chance you’re using school as a distraction from having to answer the bigger questions about your life and career. In that case, it’s probably best to put the grad school thing on hold until you know why you’re doing it in the first place.
I believe that anyone considering further education should first focus on the inner work of identifying their values, passions, fears, vision for the future, strengths, etc. If at that point you realize that some kind of continued education is required or would be a valuable step forward, then by all means, start applying!
For me, once I discovered (through hiring a coach, doing a lot of self-reflection, and learning more about the different fields I was interested in) that coaching felt like the right next step, I finally had a clear reason to go back to school.
So I enrolled in a specialized, certified training program (the program is called iPEC, BTW, and it was completely amazing!) to take me toward a specific purpose of becoming a confident, powerful coach and business owner.
HOW CAN YOU GET THAT CLARITY BEFORE DECIDING TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
Well, frankly, that’s what we do in 1-on-1 coaching. It’s an awesome way (and obviously the option I feel strongest about) of getting clarity, direction, self-awareness, and a solid plan based on your personality, goals, and desires. And it’s what worked for me personally when I was figuring out whether or not to go back to school.
There are, of course, other ways to get this clarity, and you might need to create your own “figuring-out-what-I-want-in-life” program through books, conferences, videos, or mentorship.
The point is to become extremely aware of your bigger vision and your internal drivers so you can make a proactive decision, instead of being reactive and using grad school as an escape or a distraction.
Now tell me: Have you considered going back to school? How strong is your underlying “why” for going (or not going)?
Kristen (& Rachel)
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I’m in the exact same boat your client was in. I’m finishing undergrad in December with a major in journalism. But I’m still unsure of what I want to do in the future. I started looking at grad schools since so many people told me I should, that if I start working, I won’t want to go back to school. I don’t believe in that, but I do believe it will help me find what I ultimately want to do and help me find a job. I’m still debating and still unsure.
Thanks for sharing this, Karla! I’m glad to hear you’re questioning the things other people tell you that you “should” do and figuring out what’s right for you. Looking forward to talking with you personally about this soon so you can get some clarity!
This sounds just like me! I feel like I’m so passionate about the things I enjoy in life that I want to do EVERYTHING and sometimes think grad school is the only answer. Once, I went as far as enrolling, signing up for classes, packing up my home, and driving 12 hours to a new town for grad school…and then the day before orientation, I panicked, knowing it wasn’t the right thing for me. So, I got back in my car and drove home. It was embarrassing (friends still gently tease me about it!) but I’m so glad I had the guts to, well, go with my gut before I spent thousands of dollars and lots of time on something that wasn’t right for me 🙂
I can absolutely relate to that story! It’s so awesome that you made the bold, scary decision to drive back home the day before orientation because you knew, deep-down, that it wasn’t right for you.
Cheers to being multi-passionate! If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed or lacking focus again in the future, Rachel or I would love to help you get some clarity and direction in a free 30-minute coaching session: https://clarityonfire.com/free-coaching 🙂
Great read – so relatable and very eye-opening. It’s nice to read something from the perspective of someone who has been in this situation. I’ve struggled with the idea of grad school since the minute I graduated – is it the right decision? Should I just go back because I’m not sure what kind of career I want? And I’ve put pressure on myself as I see some of my peers deciding to go back while I’m still trying to figure out who I’m going to be as a young professional. This article really puts things in perspective, and I feel a lot more confident about not pursuing grad school until (if/when) I’m clear about what I’m going back for 🙂
WOW! Are you guys reading my minds right now??? A bit of context…I’ve been accepted into some great film school programs (some say the best in the world). I’ve been stressing out the past couple weeks figuring out if I should go. I even put a deposit in for one school and looking up housing. But my gut is telling me that it’s wrong. But I know I want to create and make films so I’m at a loss.
I recently did the PPVE course and, while it helped me to find a job that I liked, I don’t feel like it’s the best fit for me either. Not saying the PPVE course was wrong (because I consider it a great investment!) but I’m not 100% sure what to do next.
I would be *greatly* interested in a free coaching session. I tried clicking the link but it went to 404 so I guess it doesn’t exist? If there’s any way I could sign up, I’d greatly appreciate it!
Another problem is in Grad school when all the academic work is finished and what’s left is the thesis writing, analysis-by-paralysis creeps in. My friends and I were discussing this the other day on reasons why when we are so close we rather delay. Is it work? Is it the lack of drive? The lack of a support group like what a classroom offers?
Good point, Belle! Procrastination (in the form of analysis-paralysis) can hit HARD once you’re at that final thesis-writing stage. Maybe this podcast about procrastination will shine some light on what might be behind that for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts after you listen!