Deciding to attend graduate school is a huge commitment of your time, money, and energy. It’s extremely stressful to make that kind of decision.
How do you decide if graduate school is the right choice for you?
Already accepted to a graduate program? You might be interested in our article with 27 helpful tips for graduate students.
Making a Pro/Con List
If you are like me, then you want to start making a decision about something as important as grad school with a pro/con list or some sort of other cost/benefit analysis. I tend to sit down and divide a sheet of paper in two parts, then list out all aspects of the decision and assign a positive or negative value to them.
Do I like more money? Is that a positive? I would answer that with a big yes. Then “More Money” goes on the “Pro” side of the paper.
Do I like more stress and work? Less time with my family and friends? No. Then “More Stress” and “Less Free Time” goes on the “Con” side of the paper.
You end up with a list of items and a feeling of “At least I did something” but you don’t end up with a lot of clarity about the decision (at least I don’t).
You need to get clear with yourself on what you really value in the potential outcomes from this decision.
Make a Value Driven Decision
What goals are worth sacrificing your time, money, and energy to get?
Every decision is a trade-off of some kind. What do you really care about? What do you value? How would graduate school help you get more of that?
I’ve posted a video below that was created by the team at MindTools.com. The video will give you some simple steps for identifying your values.
Now let’s see if you can use the activity described in the MindTools video to identify some of your values.
Grab a journal or a loose piece of paper and find a reasonably quiet spot to work through this activity. Take a couple of minutes to clear your mind of negative emotions, stresses, and all the other to-do items floating around in your head.
The easiest way that I have found to temporarily clear my head of stresses is to write out the list of the things that are stressing me.
Write “Things I Need to Do” at the top of your list and then write down 5 to-do items that are bothering you the most. You probably have a much longer list that just the 5 items, but the only purpose of this step is clear your mind temporarily so you can work through the values activity. You are not trying to make a comprehensive list of your stressors.
After you write the five items down, look them over and say to yourself, “These things can take care of themselves for ten minutes. I have written them down, I will not forget them, and I will get to work on them when it is their turn.” Let yourself release responsibility for those things temporarily. The list is taking care of them for a bit.
Take a deep breath, close your eyes for three seconds, and slowly hiss your breath out through your teeth.
Now you are ready to start focusing on identifying your values.
1. When have you felt really happy?
Let yourself remember times when you felt very happy. Write “When have I felt happiest?” at the top of a sheet of paper and then start writing these memories. Identify the time, the place, and the people you were with. Write down what aspects of that memory made you feel happy.
Was it a specific emotion (i.e. feeling capable, feeling cared for, feeling safe, feeling excited, feeling challenged, etc)? Or maybe it is a specific type of experiences (discovering a new place, learning a new idea, meeting someone exciting, getting praised by another, etc)?
Sit in the memory for a minute and let yourself really feel the positive emotions that make this memory a happy experience. Take your time with this step because it might not be easy for you to immediately identify and express the reasons why this memory is a happy one.
Complete this exercise for three happy memories. For each of these memories, write down 3-5 specific positive emotions or types of experiences. When you are finished, you should have 9-15 specific emotions/experiences that you associate with happy memories.
Look the list over for commonalities. Are there certain types of feelings that crop up in two or three of the memories? Is it the same type of experience in every memory? If so, you may have discovered one of your core values.
Out of your list, pick three emotions or experiences that resonate with you the most or repeat themselves on multiple lists. You are going to add more to this list during the next two steps.
2. When have you felt particularly proud of yourself?
Let yourself remember times when you felt very proud of yourself. Write “I felt proud of myself when…” at the top of a sheet of paper and then start writing the details of these memories. Identify the time, the place, and the people you were with. Write down what aspects of that memory made you feel proud.
Were you proud of yourself because of an accomplishment? Is the feeling associated with something that a friend or family member said to you? Who were you with? Were you working with someone or working on your own?
For each memory, write down 3-5 aspects of the experience that contributed to your sense of pride. When you have completed the activity for three memories, look through your list. What does each of these memories have in common with each other? What makes you feel proud of yourself?
Complete this activity for three memories where you felt proud of yourself. When you are done you should have 9-15 components of an experience that add to your sense of self-worth and pride. Pick three components from that list that resonate the most for you and add them to the list you created in the last activity.
3. When have you felt really fulfilled or satisfied in what you were doing?
Think back to a memory of a time when you were doing something that felt really satisfying. The memory could be a work project, a hobby, something you were doing with friends or family, or maybe a leisure activity.
What made you feel so satisfied in what you were doing? Did you feel at peace? Were you feeling challenged and stretched in some way? Did you feel like you were helping someone? The experience that made you feel satisfied could be any number of things, but the most important factor is that you were feeling satisfied.
Write down 3-5 aspects of the experience that gave you a sense of satisfaction and then repeat the activity for three memories. When you are finished you should have a list of 9-15 components of an experience that you find satisfying. Look through your list and pick the top three components you listed and add it to the list from the last two activities.
Evaluate Graduate School According to Your Values
At this point, you should have a list of 9 aspects of an experience that you associate with feeling happy, feeling proud of yourself, or feeling satisfied and fulfilled. Now you are going to rank them according to which of them are the most important to you.
This process is mostly a gut decision. Which of these jump out to you the most? Do you immediately agree with any of them?
Your goal with this part of the activity is to choose your top three most important aspects of an experience. When you have those picked out, you will translate them into a values statement.
The entire purpose of this exercise is to identify your personal values so that you can evaluate whether grad school is right for you.
Does Graduate School Fit with Your Personal Values?
At this point, you should have a list of your top three most important values. Now you are going to see whether a graduate school program fits with those values. I have put together a couple examples below.
Personal Values Statement Example 1:
Let’s say you are looking at an MBA program and your top three most important values are:
- Feeling challenged & pursuing personal growth
- Having the authority to make big decisions
- Working in a team of people you like
You could write a statement like “Getting my MBA will be challenging. I will have to stretch and learn and grow in order to succeed in the program. If I have an MBA then I have a better chance at picking and managing my own team of people. I want to pick a team of awesome people and work with them to make a huge impact in my industry. The MBA program will challenge me and give me the opportunity to pursue my goal of managing an awesome team.”
You could post that statement in some visible places around your home to remind yourself why you are pushing through the difficult process of getting your MBA.
Personal Values Statement Example 2:
For this example, let’s say that the program you are looking is law school. Your personal values are:
- You love being creative and artistic
- You really value spending time with family and friends
- You love reading and learning
Can you see how difficult it would be to fit law school into these personal values? The practice of law is not particular creative in an artistic sense. It’s more creative in a logical, persuasive sense.
The practice of law is not particular creative in an artistic sense. It’s more creative in a logical, persuasive sense, so you can scratch off value number 1.
The reputation of law school and the career of being a lawyer is that both require long hours to be successful. If spending a lot of time with family and friends is a high value for you, then a career that requires a lot of time away from either group would be really stressful and non-satisfying. Your number 2 personal value does not fit with that graduate program or the career after the program.
The third value on this list could fit with both law school and the practice of law. There is a lot of reading required for both law school and being a lawyer, so that would fit nicely. Number 3 on the values lists would work well with this chosen career path.
Would choosing a career that only fits 1 of your top three most important personal values be a good idea? That would depend on how important that one value is to you, but most likely you will need more than one alignment of your values with a career to feel satisfied and motivated in it.
It’s Your Turn
Now you need to do this exercise yourself. Do you personal values line up with the graduate program that you are considering?
Work through your list of values and see if you can fit the program into those values. If you can align your values and your work, then you will be far more effective, successful, and satisfied in your work.
Let me know how this process has worked for you. Do you feel more clear minded in your decision? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk with you about it.
- Making a decision based on a clear understanding of your most important personal values is far more effective than using a pro/con list or something similar
- You have to know what your personal values are so you can prioritize
- How to identify your values in 3 steps
- Does a graduate school program fit with your values?
- Reinforcing your decision with a personal values statement
Looking to Upgrade Your Grad School Efforts?
Check out our Resources page. The resources include helpful websites, books, and proven study tools to give you every advantage in your graduate school program.
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