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Graduate Matters

Is further education the best path towards achieving skill development?

Six things to think about as you consider whether or not to pursue a graduate degree.

BY CHELSEA CHEN | JAN 31 2022

Take a look at your peers in your senior-level undergraduate course. How many will be going to graduate school? Between the 1980s to 2010s, the number of full-time master’s enrolment has tripled. The enrollment growth within doctorate programs is even larger, growing fourfold in the same period. Several universities have seen a new spike in graduate applications in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the pandemic. Even so, many students cite the lack of career readiness and confidence as reasons for continuing in higher education. Will you be applying to graduate school? And how will this degree serve your professional future?

In part 2 of my miniseries (read part 1), I continue the consideration of whether to pursue graduate studies. The Grad Matters column has spotlighted this question from several perspectives, read here, here, and here. This question embodies more than the investment of money or time to academic studies. It is also about how far and wide the graduate degree catapults our professional trajectory, and whether it fits well into evolving workplace demands, the remuneration command, or the ability to choose a job that utilizes our skills.

My hesitation about the advantages of a graduate school over alternative methods for skill development is partially inspired by my good friend Joyce’s professional path. In watching her glide between various positions with a bachelor’s degree, I questioned whether I needed further education to enjoy the fruits of professional life.

Joyce and I met during a government-funded French immersion program. We quickly grew close as roommates in a rural Quebec town of roughly 3,500 people. She was pursuing a computer science degree at the University of Toronto while I had just finished my first year at McGill University with an undeclared major. Joyce surprised me with her plans to discover waterfalls, improve her typing speed, and become fluent in French by the end of that summer. The following year, while still doing her bachelor’s degree, she applied to teach English in Korea, stretching a gap semester into two years, by which time she had become fluent in Korean.

Half a decade later, Joyce accomplished her dream of working as a software engineer at Google. Now, she has shifted once more into the financial tech startup space. She doesn’t have a graduate degree and has no plans to pursue one anytime soon. Joyce explains that she will miss the income if she pauses for graduate school. Besides, a graduate degree is not necessary nor directly beneficial for landing a job in her field, as is true for many other fields. In fact, Joyce works alongside colleagues with graduate degrees, but while their degrees may benefit them personally, they were not required nor were they directly related to the work.

The rarity of Joyce’s courageous self-devotion was more apparent when juxtaposed with my experience in university, where educational and career choices were often perceived as make-it-or-break-it, irreversible, and a matter of success or failure. As I continue to ponder about my next steps, I reflect on Joyce’s path and offer six considerations to prepare for the forked road:

1. What is this time for?

Rather than thinking about time in its standardized abstract measurements (i.e., seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc.), we can think about it as defined by what occurs within that time. For instance, nap time and a hockey game are ways to conceptualize time concretely. Concrete time places events at the centre and the amount of time as a second thought. If a hockey game goes into overtime, the concrete time of the game would naturally expand.

Joyce took a total of seven years to complete her bachelor’s degree. The extra years may be seen as a delayed entry into the workforce and lost earnings, or it can be seen as time spent addressing vital questions to arrive at a coherent life vision. The simple shift of adopting a concrete conception of time orients attention to a specific goal. This can help direct our mental resources wholly to a single plan.

2. Have a time frame, even if it is arbitrary

To balance the first point, having a time constraint, even when arbitrary, can comfort anxieties of over-commitment. Joyce did this often, whether it was dedicating a summer to learn a language or setting goals with arbitrary deadlines. Giving yourself a guideline can allow you the freedom to explore an interest that you would otherwise push aside. This can be in the form of a summer internship, a gap year, or taking on a lighter course load. Along the way, you will gain invaluable information to better direct your choices.

3. Get to know your values and needs through experience

Although we know an immense amount about ourselves, there is a surprising amount that we must discover through trial and error. Joyce personified this principle by relying on experiential knowledge, which nurtured her deep sense of self-confidence and humility. Joyce also mentions that it is often easier to explore while in school, before the structures of work and the responsibilities of adult life set in. Networking, mentorships, and online research can provide a wealth of information. Still, often knowledge cannot substitute for experience. Taking an experiential approach to learning can reduce the pressure to make the “right” decision when vital information is still lacking.

4. Focus on what you can create

When we focus on an issue or a mistake, the crippling thoughts of “what if” can saturate our perceptions and offer no resolution; conversely, a focus on creation can empower solutions. In the case of Joyce’s dedication to typing in the morning, even a few minutes before breakfast – over many days – it can result in substantial improvements. Over time, our skills and our ability to manifest our goals also increase. What seems impossible now may be possible with a plan, steady practice, and focused effort.

5. Overcome the sunk-cost bias

We engage in the sunk-cost bias whenever we continue to invest in an unfavorable decision based on our previous unrecoverable costs. Joyce was keen on making the best decision at each moment without overvaluing prior expenses. In one case, I had already bought a bus ticket for over $200, months in advance of the trip date. But as the date approached, the more desirable option was to forego the trip. Joyce reminded me that I had already bought the non-refundable ticket, and I would have lost an enjoyable weekend if I let the “sunk-cost” of that expensive ticket bias my decision-making. Over-emphasis on past investments can perpetuate old decisions when they no longer benefit us. In these cases, it is better to cut the losses and start again.

6. Make time for your interests, even if it’s not your career 

Although Joyce was ambitious about her educational achievement and career success, she still carved out time to explore her interests. Whether it was taking a weekend bike ride from downtown Toronto to Hamilton or learning to play the piano, she made time for fun. To Joyce, formal education is only one component of skill-building, self-knowledge, and character development. Investing in personal interests lessens the weight of finding a mystical career that satisfies all our needs and interests. It also allows for a balance between passion and practicality without obsession over one or the other.

Joyce methodically explored several career options and personal interests by the time she completed her bachelor’s degree. She gave proper time for exploration, focused on tasks within her influence and control, gave less consideration to “sunk costs,” and remembered that academics were only one part of her education. Like her, we can build a silhouette of a fitting life, tweaking it gently to make an ever-cozier nest to support our flourishment.

Educational and career decisions are nearly never linear and require some adjustment as personal values and interests shift. As we see now, the pandemic has provided a pause for Canadian workers to re-examine their career choices. With one in four Canadians considering a career change in light of the “Great Resignation,” Joyce’s approach could benefit anyone contemplating their career trajectory, educational planning, or hoping to balance passion and practicality.

ABOUT CHELSEA CHEN
Chelsea Chen
Chelsea Chen is an aspiring psychotherapist with a background in Earth system science and contemporary dance.
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