I want to talk about a psychological strategy that is used by Olympic athletes, military commanders, CEO’s, and other highly performance oriented people.
This strategy is simple and easy to implement, and it may have a dramatic impact on your graduate school experience and chances of success.
You have to know why graduate school matters to you.
Are you starting the application process for graduate school? You might be interested in our central GRE prep page with FAQ articles, tips and strategies for getting a better GRE score, and recommended tools.
Why Do You Want a Graduate Degree?
It is extremely important to know why you are pursuing a goal.
If your reasons for pursuing graduate school are externally imposed (i.e. your parents want you to do it, you feel like you have to get a graduate degree or you will never advance in your career, you told people that you were going to do it and now you have to finish it, etc.), then you may have a sense of being forced to finish the program. Feeling forced to do something is one of the fastest ways to lose your energy and motivation for completing any task.
If your reasons for pursuing graduate school are internally imposed (i.e. genuine interest in the program topic, you are personally excited and driven to get the job you need the graduate degree for, you believe that content of the program is important for its own sake, etc.), then you will have a stronger and longer lasting drive to complete the program regardless of the problems you encounter.
The scientific theory behind this psychological principle is expressed in Self-Determination Theory. If you are interested in learning more about the research, you can check it out at SelfDeterminationTheory.org. Some of the basic principles of Self-Determination Theory are:
- Feeling forced to do something drains your energy and motivation
- Doing something that aligns with your personal values and internal beliefs leads to greater satisfaction and energy in the pursuit
- Feeling that you have chosen to pursue a goal of your own will is energizing and satisfying.
A graduate school program is a long and demanding process to complete. You will likely encounter all kinds of challenges as you complete the programs, including having difficulties with a professor or advisor, problems finding funding, and personal conflicts with other students.
Don’t handicap yourself with a burdensome mentality that drains your energy. You have to take the time to get clear on why you want to complete your program, the outcomes you want from the program, and why the program is important to you personally.
Some of the links included in this article are affiliate links for The Graduate School Site. For example, we frequently refer to the 7 day free trial of Magoosh GRE study prep and The Princeton Review's Free GMAT Practice Test. If you make a purchase through our affiliate link, then we will get paid a small commission for the transaction. This commission will not increase your price for the service.
How to Determine if You are Compatible with Your Graduate Program in 3 Simple Steps
Take a few minutes to work through the following activity. Let me know how it goes for you by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk with you about this process.
Grab some paper and answer the questions below. Before you start, make sure your environment is distraction free so you can focus.
1. How will my life change if I am successful in this program?
Write down the outcomes you want from your program. I’ve listed a couple possibilities below to get you started, but you might want completely different outcomes from your program than anything listed here. Go with whatever personally resonates with you.
- Do you want a specific job?
- Do you want to be more respected in your current role?
- Do you want to please someone else by getting the degree?
- Do you want to deeply understand a certain topic for your own satisfaction?
- Do you want more money?
- Do you need this degree to be able to pursue the career you want?
- Do you want something impressive to add to your resume?
- Do you just want to do something, anything that might improve your life, and graduate school is the only idea you have?
Write down everything that comes to your mind. Don’t filter or edit your responses now (you will do that later).
Let’s do the same exercise from a different perspective.
2. How would getting this degree make me feel different about myself and how I identify myself?
Doing something that agrees with your identity is incredibly energizing. Knowing that your goals are true to who you are can give you the drive you need to succeed in almost anything, regardless of the challenges involved.
Pursuing a goal that either does not fit with who you are or directly conflicts with your most important values adds a huge amount of stress to the work. You constantly argue with yourself over why you should even be doing the work because you don’t believe in it.
How does this degree enhance something in who you truly are? How would it enable you to get stronger in something that is already important to you? Don’t move on to the next step until you feel like you have answered these questions thoroughly.
3. What new opportunities would open up for me if I completed this program?
You are probably pursuing a graduate school degree because of a goal you have that would be made more feasible with the degree. That goal could be money, credibility, job stability etc., but you also probably have a position in mind after you finish the degree.
Do you want a promotion at your current work? Do you want to change career paths completely and start over in a new field? What opportunities will be made more available if you finish the program?
Write down every opportunity that you might want to pursue after finishing your program. Don’t filter the list based on what you think is most likely, but write down every possibility, even the ones that seem impossible.
You Have to Remind Your Brain Why Graduate School Matters to You
You are going to take your notes from this activity and create for yourself a mantra, a reminder, that will keep you focused on what is important to you. This mantra will help you remember why you are pushing through the challenges and frustrations of graduate school.
Based on the notes you just made, create a mantra statement that explains why you want to finish your graduate program. The statement should be short (2-3 sentences) and address a couple key points:
- What are you hoping will be the outcome of finishing the program? How will your life change?
- How does this outcome align with who you are and what you value?
- What opportunities will become available to you if you finish the program?
I’ve listed below a couple of example statements that you can use as a model.
Example Mantra Statement 1:
If I complete my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, then I can become a veterinarian. I care about becoming a veterinarian because I want to protect the health and well-being of animals, who can’t do this for themselves. I love animals and I love helping them, and this is the best way that I know of to help them every day.
Example Mantra Statement 2:
If I complete my Master’s in Data Science, then I will be more competitive to work at a cutting-edge, compelling company. I want to work with a company like Uber or Amazon or another company that crunches through enormous amounts of data and makes huge decisions with that data. I think the process of finding patterns in Big Data is extremely interesting and I want to be on the cutting edge of the field.
Example Mantra Statement 3:
I want to get my Ph.D. in Economics because it would allow me to work at the highest levels of government and business to make decisions at a strategic level. I want to be an expert in this important field because I want to be a decision maker for decisions that matter.
After you have written and edited your mantra into something short and personally meaningful to you, put it on a couple index cards. Post the cards in prominent places around your home.
You need to read this mantra out loud once in the morning and once in the evening to remind yourself why you do what you do. If you keep your purpose clear and defined, then you will be far more energized and motivated to push through the challenges and setbacks of your program.
- If you can align your personal values and self-identity with the graduate program that you want to pursue, then you will find it much easier to stay motivated.
- Beware of motivations that externally imposed because they are actually demotivating and sap your energy to do the work.
- Remind yourself every day of why you do what you do and why it is important to you.