I was grading midterm exams in my office one frigid day in March when I was surprised to see Marco, a former student, standing in my doorway. He had that all too familiar “deer in headlights” look on his face. I invited him to step in and asked how I could help. He proceeded to look up at the ceiling (almost as if he was seeking divine intervention) and mumbled, “I don’t know where I am and what I should do.” Since I knew that he would earn his bachelor’s degree in May, I sensed that he was probably experiencing some of the usual emotions associated with college graduation. Most college students can’t wait to “get out” until the reality of the “getting out” hits them. That’s when they begin to question — what next? Marco confirmed my assumption when he said that he needed to make some plans, and he didn’t know where or how to start.
All of his questions, concerns, and fears for the future came flying out in machine gun-like fashion. He finally took a deep breath and said that “getting it all out there” was actually a relief and that he was now ready to ask, “How do I decide if graduate school is the right path for me?” From my experience leading graduate school workshops I was sure that I could successfully guide Marco through this process. I told him that in order to find the answers he was seeking, he would need to ask himself the right questions. I promised to develop a problem-solving plan for him and we scheduled a follow-up meeting.
I decided to “borrow” some of the critical thinking and problem solving techniques I use in the interpersonal communications classes that I teach at the undergraduate level. I was planning to use the “Three E’s,” as I have coined them, involved in the brainstorming process.
At our next meeting I told Marco that I had developed a 3 “E” (explore, examine, evaluate) brainstorming strategy that he would need to apply to four graduate school-related questions in order to find his answers. He would, by answering all four questions utilizing this strategy, be in the best position to successfully make an informed decision about his future. Here’s how we did it:
QUESTION #1: What are your short and long-term goals/objectives?
• Explore: Make a list of what you believe are your short and long-term goals as well as your educational and professional objectives. Try not to over-think this question. In other words, list everything that comes to mind.
• Examine: Once you have listed everything and anything you can think of, you will be ready to carefully examine your list. Did you omit anything? Did you include items that may not really belong in this category? Would you like to revise a list item?
• Evaluate: You are now ready to evaluate and prioritize all of the items in order of importance to you. You may well be surprised by how much you learn about yourself.
This three step process is even more important for those who have been out of school for a few years, hate what they are currently doing, and have no idea of what they want to do. For this group an additional list of what they do well and enjoy doing will help to facilitate their decision-making process.
QUESTION #2: Will graduate school help you to reach your goals?
• Explore: Conduct some field research. Gather information from current and/or former professors, attend a graduate open house or info session, participate in content-specific breakout sessions, request feedback from graduate students in a variety of programs, make contact with people who are currently employed in your area of interest and, of course, seek additional assistance from graduate admissions consultants who are experts in the field.
• Examine: Compile an all-inclusive breakdown of all of your findings. Read the results and look for patterns in the responses from different sources. Once you note any patterns or lack thereof, you will be ready to evaluate.
• Evaluate: Place some sort of weight or value by priority next to each of the responses you received. Take the reliability/ credibility factor into consideration in each case. Whose opinion do you trust? Is she or he a credible source of information? And last, but not least, what really “grabbed” your interest. Have some fun with this—use emoticons (happy faces, winky faces, angry faces, fist pumps, hearts, etc.) – whatever works for you and helps you to evaluate the information you have collected.
QUESTION #3: Is now the right time?
• Explore: The answer for this question is somewhat dependent on the field you think you may want to pursue. You will need to explore the admissions’ criteria as this may vary from program to program. For example some MBA programs require 2-3 years of business experience in order to apply, while other MBA programs welcome applications from students who have just earned their bachelor’s degrees. An Executive MBA program will require that applicants present with 5-7 years of higher level management experience. Another example might be Ph.D. programs that will only consider those who will earn a master’s degree enroute to the Ph.D. Other programs will consider both categories in making admission decisions. Clearly, you need to explore all of the options that may be available to you as well as their requirements.
• Examine: Compile all of your research on the timing of graduate studies in terms of field of study and personal needs. Create a balance sheet listing the timing based on field of study on the left and your personal needs on the right. This will help you to compare/contrast, organize and visualize, so that you can move on to the assessment/evaluation step.
• Evaluate: At this time you should weigh each of your needs and plans in order to assess, under what circumstances, the timing and your needs intersect or appear to be oppositional. This is not quite as easy as it sounds since there are so many variables to consider. For example, what do you do if you need to start right now, need to cut costs and stay in your home city but all of the programs in your city require 2 or more years of experience. Something has to give. As a result, you may need to be open to all possible options in order to decide the best course of action for you.
QUESTION #4: What are the benefits/costs of pursuing an advanced degree?
• Explore: Since costs and benefits vary from person to person, you will, once again, need to explore the personal benefits and costs based on your expectations. For some the costs will be strictly financial, while, for others, the costs may include time to degree, lost earnings, energy, and impact on interpersonal relationships. Just as with costs, the benefits are also subjective. Some will perceive the value of an advanced degree strictly in terms of salary levels while others will view it in terms of how the advanced degree will expand them intellectually. I suggest that you fold a sheet of paper in half and list what you consider the benefits on one side and the costs on the other side. You are now ready to examine the information that you have compiled.
• Examine: Once you have listed all costs/benefits that came to mind, you are ready to carefully examine the items on both sides of the page. Did you miss something? Are all of the items relevant to the question? Is there something you wish to eliminate or change in some way?
• Evaluate: Now you will need to weigh the level of importance of each cost and benefit. In fact, I suggest you use “Interpersonal Exchange Theory.” This theory is based on a very simple equation (Benefits-Costs= + or – gain.) If we deduct the costs we pay from the benefits we receive we can come up with either a positive or negative outcome. Clearly if the benefits outweigh the costs then will have a positive gain. Keep in mind that this is not strictly a “numbers” game. The weight of each benefit and cost must also be carefully considered. You may have many more benefits but the costs, though few, may carry a greater weight. Even though this equation may seem somewhat simplistic, it can be one more helpful technique in the decision making process.
Marco couldn’t wait to get started and thanked me for the help. About 4 weeks later he once again appeared at my office door. This time the “deer in the headlights” look was replaced by a huge smile. He said he had decided to pursue a master’s degree and wondered if I had a plan that would help him identify graduate schools that would be a good fit for him. I smiled and said, give me some time to develop a strategy for you. His answer, “You got it!”
By Carol Drummer, Former Hofstra University Dean of Graduate Admissions, who for 10 years reviewed and signed off on over 4500 admissions decisions per year and has taught communications and rhetoric since 1991. Want Carol's help to get you accepted? Click here to get in touch!