Choose the destination before you choose the car


I have several undergraduate or post-baccalaureate students come to my office each week asking for advice on their career direction.  I usually start by asking this question: “If you were to look 10-15 years from now, what would your ideal job look like?” The most common response is, “I want to get my Ph.D./Master’s degree” or “I’d like to go to X/Y university.”

This puzzles me. It’s as if someone came to me to ask about a long road trip they were considering and I asked, “So, you’d like to go on a very long road trip … where do you want to end up?” and the student answered, “I’d like to drive a Volkswagen Jetta …”

I get where students are coming from. They have finished (or are close to finishing) undergrad and countless friends and family members are interested in “what’s next.” It makes sense that after 16+ years of schooling, a long affiliation with your undergrad institution, and people hounding you right and left, that you would be thinking about the nextschool and the next step in front of you.

The problem is that graduate school is a different animal from undergrad. This is the time to be very focused on where you want to end up – not on the car that may (or may not) get you there. More than undergrad, your choice for your graduate school program has enormous implications for your career. So at this very important first step, be sure you know where you want to end up (and maybe more importantly, where you do not want to end up).

Instead, at this point in your career you need to focus on the details of your specific job. Now is the time to get some research done … For all of the work you did in undergrad for that paper or thesis, this research will have the biggest influence on the next few years, and very likely your career. Specifically, you want to know everything there is to know about the destination: What exactly will you be doing from day-to-day, and what will your profession actually look like? Take some time to explore all the options available from your graduate terminal degree. Research the actual activities of someone doing your ideal job. Talk to people in your field and see what they have done and why they made the choices they did. Ask them pointed questions like:

1)      What choices did you make that got you in the position that you are in now?

2)      How did you settle on your graduate school choice?

3)      If you could go back to yourself just before grad school, what advice would you give?

4)      Were there opportunities that you didn’t take that you wish you would have? Why did you not take that opportunity?

5)      Are there choices I should make right now to make sure I succeed in this field? Are there schools or programs that will help me get to where I want to be? What about schools/programs that will hinder me?

6)      What do you love about your job? What do you hate?

Remember that cognitive dissonance (more about that in future post) plays a role in their responses … so take each person’s response with a grain of salt.  Once you have gotten information from several people about their jobs/careers, you should be in a much better position to decide where your destination should be. Then and only then should you decide what car to buy.