Follow your gut
Should you get a graduate degree? The short answer is: Until the Golden Rules of Graduate School are in place, it’s probably not the right time.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of alternatives to graduate school, ways to figure out if it’s right for you, and methods for accelerating yourself towards those Golden Rules.
In this article we highlight 12 extracurriculars that no prospective student should ever overlook.
Going through the steps we outline here will help you in 3 important ways:
If you have a lot of interests or don’t know what your career goals are:
This is absolutely the only way to get clear answers to those questions. The key to success here is to make this process an exploratory, “safe to fail” and “safe to learn” experience. Realizing that you actually hate the day-to-day of your lifelong career dream is a GREAT THING. Spending money on classes that ended up being meh is absolutely awesome. Why? Because you gathered crucial information—about yourself and the world around you—that you will inevitably use in the future. Think of it as putting together a puzzle or going on a treasure hunt. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does.
If you’re like me, you really eschew the idea of a career goal. Why focus in on one thing that may not ever happen? You’d rather keep your eyes open to all the amazing possibilities and let opportunities come to you organically. DON’T lose that mindset! It is becoming increasingly crucial in today’s job economy. However, DO channel your powerful curiosity through the process described in this article before you let it burst onto your professional scene. You’ll find that you’re able to explore a lot more at a much more reasonable cost. Jobs and grad programs are huge sucks on time and money. Life is just too short and too full of opportunities to give everything on the buffet 1+ years of your attention out of simple curiosity.
If you know you need a boost, but you’re not sure whether a degree is the answer, or which degree is best:
One of these options will probably do the trick. Many times, just following the steps below is powerful enough to catapult your career to the next level. This is especially true if you pursue several of the options we suggest. Why? All of these activities will give you the confidence and foundational knowledge to speak intelligently on a topic and quickly learn more. And the best part is, unlike a grad degree, none of these will suck away years of your life and/or thousands of dollars.
- If grad school really is the answer to your career goals:
Then it will become clear to you through this process. As you become increasingly involved in your field of interest, you’ll realize where most of the job opportunities lie, what skills you need to move forward, and where all leaders in the field got their degrees. You’ll learn about scholarships, internships, and organizations that aren’t widely known. You’ll build a network. And all of this will foster your advancement organically, including helping you discover your ideal grad program.
Find the answer
Step 1: Gear Up
This step is especially important if you can’t decide between your many job and degree options, or you just don’t know which one is best for you. That clarity is crucial to making a graduate program worthwhile.
First, establish a running list of the job fields and degree programs you’re considering. You can add and remove items from this list whenever you want. Ultimately, the goal is to whittle it down to just one shining star option that you’re absolutely in love with. This process will guide you toward that goal via dedicating some of your free time to the kind of work or study you’re considering. If you’re like most people, your shining star is not currently on your list. But don’t worry—it will show up!
Step 2: Get Your Feet Wet
OK, you’ve got your list and you’re ready to get started. Find one way to explore each of the potential options on your list in a free or low commitment way. We’ve listed a few ideas below. Some of these ideas are better suited to different topic areas than others, and you don’t need to try all of them. If these low-commitment activities begin to feel anything less than exciting, abort mission and mark that option off the list. Keep the ones that become a highlight of your week. Try to be cognizant of the fact that a dismal environment can make even the most intriguing of topics miserable. So if the professor is awful or you can’t find a club in your area, give it another shot before striking that option off the list.
Audit a class
University professors typically welcome people who are truly interested in their course material. If there’s a community college or university near you, find the course schedule online. Email the professor in advance or show up early to class. Explain that you’re interested in the topic and ask if you could sit in on one or more days of class. If they give you the opportunity to submit homework and tests, take it.
Find people that work in or have previously worked in your field of interest. Let them know you’re considering something similar and ask them to share their insights. What tasks do you perform daily? What’s your favorite parts of the job? Least favorite parts? What do you wish you had done differently? Who else would you recommend I speak with?
Join a club or Meetup
If there’s not one in your area, try creating a Meetup group and see who joins.
Online skill building
There’s plenty of free and low-cost resources online to brush up on your skill set and get your brain back in gear. Almost all jobs require computer skills; if you aren’t proficient with Excel and Powerpoint, it’s time to get started. Learning the basics of online communication platforms (like Slack and other project management softwares) and more advanced computer programs (Photoshop, GIS, Premiere Video Editor, Articulate, Access) will put you another step ahead. Vanessa Da Costa, who offers career services for those in public health-related fields (and discounts for RPCVs!) has a regularly updated list of online learning resources. Khan Academy, YouTube, Esri, LinkedIn Learning, Udacity, SAS Programming, SwirlStats, edX, and Open 2 Study are great places to start.
Step 3: Jump In
You’ve marked some ideas off your list, and hopefully you’ve added some new ideas too that you’ll be testing. For those that have already made it past Step 1, the next test is to publicly commit some time and/or money and see how much you still enjoy it. We’ve listed a few more ideas below.
As you try these out, notice how you feel. Do you find yourself getting excited about what you’re hearing? Dreaming of all the ways the information is applicable in real life? Learning more in your free time just because? Are you feeling invigorated? Do you find yourself naturally connecting and forming friendships with the people in this field? These are great signs; on to Step 3! In contrast, if the topic feels like a chore, or you can’t wait to get out of there, then mark it off the list. If you’re not excited now, you definitely won’t be after graduate school.
Take a course
Sign up for a class at your local community center, county adult education office, university, or college. Alternatively, there’s lots of classes available online. But be sure to do your homework! A weak instructor can make the most riveting of topics miserable. For online courses, find out how much face time you’ll actually have with your instructor and classmates. Interacting with people will give you a much better feel for how much you enjoy the topic.
Attend a conference
Find a conference on your topic area of interest and register. The level of focus is important here. If you’re broadly interested in community development but not sure where you’d like to go with it, don’t go to a conference on modeling groundwater contaminant fluxes in developing communities. Instead, look for an event schedule that covers topics ranging from community water resources to maternal health to sustainable farming to community entrepreneurship. If you’re a groundwater modeler considering community development, then the former might be just right for you.
Whether you’re interested in community organizing, teaching, or corporate marketing, there’s likely an opportunity to volunteer out there. While an opportunity to try your hand at what you actually want to do would be great, it’s also good to take on a supporting role that allows you to see a lot of the different activities happening in the organization (administrative assistants know everything). A lot of organizations don’t publish volunteer opportunities, but may well be open to having a volunteer. Their primary concern is that you won’t get in the way or cause trouble. Be clear that your priority is to learn and assist without impeding them in any way.
Similar to volunteering, except that the organization has recognized that the work you do will actually benefit their operations. You’ll be asked to commit for a given period of time. In exchange, look for some type of reimbursement of your expenses (mileage, free lunches, lodging, etc.).
Another step up from interning, and a more appropriate term for anyone that brings relevant experience to the table. Typically paid, but in some cases (like Farmer to Farmer) only expenses are covered.
Step 4: Grab Your Goggles
Peace Corps folks are by nature Jacks and Jills of all trades. We are also really used to getting done what needs to be done without considering whether we want to or enjoy doing it. That can make it really hard to home in on a great career choice. If you’ve gotten through Steps 1 and 2 and it still feels like there’s a million different ways you could go, then it’s time for some outside perspective. This can feel like an unnecessary cost, but it’s a lot cheaper than realizing 3 years from now that you don’t like your job.
Peace Corps Transitions by Songgaar has an Career Assessment that’s especially designed for Peace Corps folks. You can add it to your wishlist, request pro-bono services, or even book a free session.
Step 5: Start Swimming
You’ve been taking classes, volunteering, interviewing, and learning a ton. You’ve added things to your list that you didn’t know existed before, and you’ve marked off plenty of things that might be fun once in a while, but aren’t meant to pay your bills. Now you’ve got just one or two items left that you never seem to get tired of doing. That means it’s time to up the ante by committing even more time or money to those things. We’ve listed a few ideas below for getting invested. You should love the things on your list enough that these suggestions sound like a freaking blast. If your initial reaction is more along the lines of “ugh, that’s a lot of work” then go back to Step 3. It’s better to take your time now, while you’re in the “safe to learn” zone, than try to backtrack later.
Computer-based work naturally lends itself to part time schedules. There’s tons of writing, coding, teaching, marketing, and design jobs out there with flexible work schedules. For other fields, you may have to take a non-directly related position that nonetheless gives you tons of exposure to the day-to-day in your field of interest (think admin assistant).
Complete a Certification
A certification typically consists of a series of classes with some time of award or title granted at the end. This could be anything from an EMT certification to a Project Management certification. It typically takes some time and you have to pay out of pocket. May be online or in person. Bonus points if you’re currently employed and can make a case for your employer to pay for the classes.
Intensive short courses
Similar to a certification, except the coursework is done intensively over a short period of time. Short courses are typically done in person. This might feel more inconvenient than an online course, but getting facetime with future potential colleagues is a massive advantage. This is also a very unique opportunity to gauge how much you enjoy being immersed in your topic of interest for multiple full workdays on end. Intensive short courses are usually on pretty specific topics. By this point you should have enough context in the field to know what specific topics you need and want to learn more about. If you don’t, go back to Step 3.
You did it!!
Take a moment to turn around and enjoy the view from the incredibly beautiful mountain you just climbed. You’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be because you loved every minute of the hike, AND it got you where you wanted to go.
So, should you get a graduate degree?
What did you learn? What would you change? Comment below, or email us anytime! We read and respond to every single one. firstname.lastname@example.org
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