"What is retirement? Do I sign up now?"
"Credit? What is it? How do I get it?"
The above questions came from volunteers of Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) at their annual retreat last month. I asked those present to give me some suggestions for the Career Corner column and the responses made me smile.
Another question that came up was, "How important is it to go to grad school before getting a job?"
Many soon-to-be college graduates and post-graduates doing a year of service (such as MVS) are deciding if graduate school is the next logical step, and if so, when they should do it. Believe me, I GET IT. Grad school is a big, costly decision and (unlike an undergraduate degree) it is more likely to be a financial burden you shoulder without parental assistance.
Full disclosure, I went straight from college to grad school, and while I wouldn't necessarily recommend that path to anyone else, I also don't regret my choice. I recognize that everyone's individual circumstances are different; what makes sense for one person wouldn't make sense for someone else.
Obviously, there are some of you for whom a graduate degree is required. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or college professor, you're going to need more schooling. Case closed.
But what about those who really like school? What about people who feel that a graduate degree would open more doors and increase their salary? What if you're just unclear about what you want to do and think graduate school might help you figure it out?
Some people will tell you that you should work for a few years before going to grad school.
Some people will tell you that NOW is the time to go to grad school — before you have a mortgage and a family.
Some people will tell you not to go to grad school just because you don't know what else to do.
Some people will tell you not to go to grad school AT ALL!
Some people will tell you to follow your passion and interests and the rest will work itself out.
Some people will tell you that the only sensible way to justify the expense of a graduate degree is if it will make a financial difference in your career.
Honestly, depending on my mood, I have been ALL of these people! So instead of telling you what to decide, I'm going to give you a framework for figuring out how to decide for yourself.
As an MBTI® (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) practitioner, I thought it might be helpful to share the MBTI Zig-Zag Model to problem-solving. It's a useful technique for making any difficult decision, and it can help you understand and appreciate the perspectives of others.
First, knowing your MBTI type is helpful but not essential. Since I'm an MBTI snob, I will not link you to one of the "free" assessments online that is based on the MBTI (because they are garbage). Interested in learning about your MBTI type? Talk to me.
In short, the MBTI is a personality assessment tool that looks at four sets of dichotomies or preference pairs.
Introversion vs Extraversion (I or E) – where we prefer to direct our energy.
Intuitive vs Sensing (N or S) – how we prefer to take in information.
Thinking vs Feeling (T or F) – how we prefer to make decisions.
Judging vs Perceiving (J or P) – how we prefer to live out our lives.
*Note that we ALL use ALL of these functions.
So you end up with one of 16 different possible combinations. For example, I am an INFJ (If there's anything you should know about INFJs, it's that we love to talk about how we are INFJs). For this particular activity, we are going to look at the two middle letters, aka "the heart of type." If you don't know your type, you might start to get a good idea of the two middle letters as you go through this exercise.
Here are the different combinations: SF, ST, NF and NT
Where do you see yourself gravitating?
Again, YOU DO ALL OF THESE THINGS. The MBTI looks at preferences, not behavior. If you are right-handed, you prefer to sign your name with your right hand … but with a little extra concentration, you could use your left hand if your right hand was, say, in a cast. You could even get better at it over time! It would just take more effort and would never feel quite as natural. Similarly (according to Briggs, Jung and Myers), you have one set of behaviors that comes more naturally than others. Furthermore, none of these behaviors are better or worse than the others.
So what does this have to do with making decisions about graduate school? You can use ALL FOUR of these functions in the Zig-Zag Model to help you evaluate and make decisions — including whether or not grad school is right for you.
Here is the Zig-Zag. It starts with Sensing (what are the facts?), then INtuition (what are the possibilities?), followed by Thinking (what are the logical consequences?), and ending with Feeling (what is the impact on others?).
Source: Collegiate Gateway.
So let's say you are deciding about whether to go to grad school. Here are some possible questions you might ask yourself.
1. Sensing (S)
What are the facts?
When would I need to apply? Where have I been accepted?
What are each program's requirements?
What do I know about the schools I'm looking at already?
Does the job I want require a certain degree?
How much does it cost? How would I pay for it?
Are there grants, stipends, or teaching opportunities available?
What information does the school supply about its track record in terms of job placement?
2. Intuition (N)
What are the possibilities?
Why do I want to go?
What do I know about myself? Are there any patterns or themes I see emerging?
Am I using grad school as a buffer to avoid the "the real world?"
What would I do if I didn't go to grad school right now?
What doors would open if I had this degree? Would any doors close?
What is my gut instinct?
3. Thinking (T)
What are the logical consequences of either choice?
How much more would I earn in this field with a graduate degree?
If I had to argue this in front of a judge and jury, what would be my case? How would I stand up under cross-examination?
Are there more pros or cons? (Count them up!)
Are any of the pros or cons weighted more heavily than others?
What would I tell a friend making the same decision (looking at the same information)?
4. Feeling (F)
How would this decision impact others?
Who else is impacted by my decision?
What do they need in order to buy into this decision?
What are my values? Does getting this degree fit into my value system?
How would I feel if I chose to pursue this degree now/if I waited awhile/if it never happened?
Will this decision create or detract from harmony in my relationships?
The Zig-Zag Model ensures that we stretch to the opposite side of our preferences and spend a little time there rather than just jumping back to our preferred modes. This approach works on your own or with a group of people. As an INFJ, I naturally privilege the N (possibilities) and F (keeping harmony). I love brainstorming, considering possibilities, and creating/maintaining a harmonious environment. Still, when I give too much or too little time to any of the four functions, I know I'm in danger of overthinking or underthinking.
Using this framework, I'm forced to approach the decision in ways that are not as natural, but equally important. For me, that means spending more time in the practicalities (S) to really understand what I'm getting into. And while it's great to focus on building consensus, I know I'm also prone to glossing over points of conflict in order to keep the peace. Adding in an analytical perspective (T) gets me to a better decision.
You might have already figured out that the biggest challenge here is not actually about grad school at all. Instead, it's more about growing in the knowledge of who YOU are. The value of this exercise is in developing your own judgment and deepening your capacity to understand yourself and others.
People are going to give you contradictory opinions because we all have different ways of taking in and prioritizing information, and then making decisions based on that information. You are going to have regrets in life — it's pretty much unavoidable. The best you can hope for is that you have good regrets and that they are, in fact, YOUR regrets — not your mom's or dad's or your best friend's cousin's. How then to answer the question, "How important is it to go to grad school before getting a job?" As attached as I am to my own perspective and experience, all I'll say is this: It's up to you to decide.