"Grace, I've worked for a few years and ready to take my career to next level", a voice filled with equal part of anxiety and anticipation on the other end of the line. "Should I go to graduate school?"
Over the years, I have had the honor to connect with many women who've asked me this question. I'm the beneficiary of various graduate programs and they expect my ringing endorsement. Not so fast.
I want to propose something bold here: if you want to have a fulfilling, successful career, you need to be a trailblazer. Create your own career path.
I've put together 4 questions for anyone who's thinking about going to graduate school to think through, with stories of women who asked themselves that question and come out with their own answers.
1. Why do you want to graduate school?
"I don't know, it just seems like the next logical thing to do." That's the typical answer. If that your reason, I can guarantee that it's the most expensive and wasteful way to spend two years of your life.
Many of us believe that a graduate degree can help you rise above your competitors, and give you a bit more assurance to life-long career success. Unfortunately, we don't live in China in the 5th century anymore. I have seen many graduates from top MBA school settled into so-so careers.
I asked an award-winning movie producer - who never went to graduate school - the secret of her success. She joined the movie industry at the dawn of the computer-generated special effects, and this digital technology created new creative possibilities. The most logical career progression for a Creative-Writing major like her was to join the Story Department. However, she noticed she had a unique talent: she can get creative and technical types to work together and create critically-acclaimed and commercially successful movies. She moved into the role of a producer and quickly got promoted.
The secret of her success is having a deep understanding of how her unique talent fit in the shifting industry landscape. Technological changes create opportunities for prepared minds.
2. Is there something you are passionate about?
I'm not a huge fan of telling pre-college kids to follow their dream. We need maturity and experience to discover that sweet spot where our passion and career opportunity collides. If you have worked for a few years and you find it extremely hard to roll out of bed to go to work every day because your job has zero redeeming quality, it's time to think about your passion.
Nina has been working as a computer programmer at a government agency for several years, and she was itching to make a move -- going to a startup seemed like a logical next step. After spending 6 months talking to friends and her network family, she told me: "I really want to bring new technology into government agencies to improve efficiency. That's what I want to do".
Bureaucracy and Innovation? They shouldn't exist in the same sentence!
She explained that Obama's Open Data initiative is changing the culture at work, and she senses a small opening to new ideas. She worked hard in the past 6 months. She immersed herself in the local Open Data community movement in the weekends. She rallied other software developers in her agency around her Open Data vision. She successfully petitioned her chain of command and gained approval to create a volunteer hacker group for Open Data pilot projects.
The secret of her success was spending the time to figure out where her passion met new work opportunities and brought everyone around her along the path she created for herself.
3. Do you find yourself looking at joining the tech sector?
Everyone whom I've talked to regrets that they didn't go into "tech" while in college. Silicon Valley is just so hot these days. Being tech savvy will be important for any of us to thrive in the future of work - but it can be done in a very different way.
Helen reluctantly becomes a stay-at-home mom after a brief stint in the financial industry. I visited her back in 2010 and was sad to find her visibly depressed and easily irritated. She felt isolated, and her only solace was making ornamented hair clips when the kids were asleep. I encouraged her to turn it into a business - the next logical step for someone in her situation who was doing absolutely nothing.
To my surprise, she went right to work. She used Facebook and Pinterest to get product design feedback, to sell products, and was even featured in the Christmas Fair of a local school. Her business rebuilt her own sense of worth, and I was thrilled to see her smiling again after 5 years.
Helen will never be a featured in *Forbes* magazine, but she finds her balance of work, family, and self through the help of technology. For me, Helen is extremely successful in her own way.
4. Have you talked to your friends about this decision?
We value expert opinions on the all-important graduate school decision, and I would argue that you should first speak to your friends who know you well. Your elementary school best friend may know nothing about your industry and your work style, but they know your strengths and weaknesses.
You need to know who you are and how others perceive you before you think about passion, career opportunities, and whether graduate school is the right choice for you. It's your first step if you want to blaze your own trail.
Do this. Ask 10 friends and family members to list your top 3 strengths and weakness. I did this exercise a few years back, and was shocked to discover a consistent pattern of my strength and weakness emerging from these interviews.
Get to know your strengths and weakness. Find your passion. See where these intersect with the changing environment. Test, learn, and blaze your own career path.