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Graduate Matters

The journey to grad school starts by getting to know yourself

How one prospective graduate student gained clarity on her career goals with the help of a life coach.

BY CHELSEA CHEN | FEB 03 2021

Editor’s Note: This is a conversation that happened between the author and her personal life coach. The goal is to shed light on the thinking process of a prospective graduate student through questions to bring about personal awareness. 

Life coach: Tell me about the graduate studies journey that you are embarking on.

CC: I am pursuing a career in counseling psychology. To give some background, I completed a bachelor’s of science in earth system science in 2017. I was originally enrolled in the life sciences/pre-medical stream but soon switched to physical sciences for the smaller class sizes and opportunities for fieldwork. Throughout my studies, I had the chance to engage in field school courses in geology, human geography, and environmental studies. I really enjoyed working within the field but felt compelled to address pressing questions I had about human nature.

Since the fall of 2020, I have been enrolled in a post-degree program at the University of Waterloo called “Make-up psychology.” It’s a non-degree program that allows students to take undergraduate psychology programs, engage in thesis research, and ultimately become more competitive for graduate school applications.

What motivates you to consider a graduate degree at this point in your life?

I’m a person with many interests and this presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to long-term planning. My process in choosing a career has involved a lot of value-oriented exploration of my various interests. For example, my main goal when I graduated from university was to gain financial independence and control of my time. I did this by living frugally while working remotely as a writer and as an online ESL teacher. There were also two years where I worked as a dishwasher on weekends so that I could attend a contemporary dance program during the week.

Slowly, through tending to my interests and taking note of my needs, I recognized that a career in psychotherapy is most suited to my values and goals. First, I’m interested in humans and the experience of living, which also fuels my interests in writing and dance. I also value financial stability, and a career in dance (at my skill level) wouldn’t be able to provide that for me. I also have a chronic condition that makes it difficult to train for extended periods. This was difficult for me to admit since people’s relationship with monetary wealth can be quite complicated. While furthering my education, I can support myself through student financial aid, potential scholarships, a part-time online job, and living frugally. Although pursuing more schooling doesn’t immediately translate to earning a salary, it can lead to better long-term career prospects. I also do not have to worry about my physical health as much. Additionally, I want to contribute to people’s personal growth and ease emotional suffering in some capacity. Lastly, I do very well in environments of change. I think a career in psychotherapy will be engaging and open new doors in the years to come.

I also recognize that it is very unlikely that my career, no matter how great or how suitable for me, will satisfy all of my desires or check all the boxes. I think it’s more of a balance between what I’m willing to give up and choosing between multiple good choices.

How will graduate school bring you closer to your goal(s)?

My goals are to be able to work as a psychotherapist and conduct scientific research. This will probably happen by completing two degrees. I can build my psychotherapy skills will completing my master’s. Additionally, registering as a psychotherapist after completing my master’s degree will allow me to work as a psychotherapist during my doctoral research (i.e., should I continue in research). Clinical psychology programs are also notoriously competitive, so my preference for a master’s program is strategic for multiple reasons.

Where do your doubts/worries about graduate school stem from?

There’s always the possibility that I am not accepted to any of the four programs I applied for. However, I think it does not have to put my plans on hold as I can be working towards the same goal in other ways. For example, I can gain counseling or clinical experience by working with helplines or NGOs. It’s helpful to see my career development on a longer timescale of 10 or 20 years. This way, I can focus my energy on developing skills that support my goals should I have to reapply.

Another worry is being misinformed or biased towards a particular school of thought or way of therapy. As a student, I am giving over a considerable amount of trust to my instructors to be measured in their opinions and teaching. I worry that I will not catch all of the biases and limitations presented to me and will act out these misconceptions. For example, much of current counseling practice centers around a “Western” perspective that values individuality and personal autonomy. Notions of commitment and responsibility to others, even family members, which are central in other cultures, can sometimes be overlooked.

I think the main way of addressing bias is maintaining intellectual humility on the material I’ve been taught. I think it’s a balance between giving space to process thoughts and contributing to a conversation by speaking both assertively and generously. Although I can address these concerns in the classroom, perhaps it is not the best use of my energy. I’m exploring ways to voice my concerns outside of the classroom so that I am not dependent on the responses of my instructors or the structure of classroom discussions.

If you had a magic wand, what would you desire for your graduate studies journey?

Currently, I’m exploring ways to enjoy learning in a way that allows me to engage from a relaxed and grounded place. I tend to be hyper-focused on my goals. It’s a useful trait, but sometimes the demanding schedule and desire to do well makes it more difficult to enjoy my pursuits. It’s as if the outcome (e.g., whether I get into graduate school; if I’ll become a skilled and versatile counselor) becomes too weighty. Since I cannot prove or predict the outcome, all my current goal-oriented pursuits tend to become more serious and stressful. It’s challenging for me to enjoy something that isn’t attached to a goal. It’s something that I’m growing in awareness. Most of the work is on taking note of my physiological responses and making time to relax in comfy environments. In my view, finding relaxation would also require confidence in my abilities as a student and as a budding psychotherapist. It also helps to be engaged in activities and relationships that are not dependent on my achievement.

You have used various resources to support your thinking on this graduate school application journey. Please share some.

Books 

  • Overcoming Indecisiveness by Theodore Isaac Rubin is a one-stop-shop for understanding decision making from a value-oriented place. It’s an excellent resource for anyone with conflicting values and who has trouble committing to personal goals. I find his method thoughtful and gentle, and thus more sustainable.
  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg outlines the mindset and communication technique that (1) minimizes unintentional harm from habitual ways of speaking, (2) provides a guide to communicating in a way that makes room for mutual understanding, and (3) supports the development of self-empathy and empathy for others. I would recommend this book to everyone and anyone.
  • Relationship circles – The most important diagram of your life (agileleanlife.com)
    This is an article that helped me to understand and organize my emotional resources. I recognized that much of the emotional and physical fatigue I felt were entangled with a habit of investing in goals and relationships that had little chance of becoming something enriching or supportive for me. I would recommend this article to anyone who is looking for ways to maximize their effectiveness, want to become more emotionally stable, or is interested in building healthy relationships.
  • The Plan by Lyn-Genet Recitas
    If you have any chronic health issues or mental health concerns, I would highly recommend this book. The sad fact is that most physicians have a surface understanding of nutrition. The book outlines an intensive process to identify and eliminate “reactive” foods from your diet that will reduce inflammation, and often, stabilize mood and increase energy. I stumbled upon research based on the same hypothesis that “healthy” foods differ based on the individual.

Courses 

  • The Self Authoring course
    I used this online reflection course to build a robust vision for my long-term goals and their relationship to my personal values. After doing this course, I accepted that neither a career in dance nor earth science met my central life and career needs. The course is developed by a team of psychologists and has a strong record of overwhelmingly positive results.
  • Vipassana Meditation 
    Vipassana, also called insight meditation, is a technique of meditation concerned with “seeing clearly” into the nature of impermanence. The practice of Vipassana has been tremendously instrumental in my development towards self-empathy (and, by extension, empathy for others). At the core, Vipassana teaches through physical experience that we are not our thoughts or emotions. By creating distance between our sense of self, and our fleeting emotions and thoughts, we become more able to observe our mind and emotions without reaction. It also paves the way to personal change from a somatic, physiological level. The 10-day silent courses are paid for by past students, and new students are encouraged to donate to provide for future students. I acknowledge that taking on a 10-day meditation course may invoke feelings of nervousness for some. It’s very typical to think that you’re not ready, but it’s much easier to try something difficult amongst a community of others embarking on the same challenge. I highly recommend this course.

What suggestions do you offer for those thinking of applying to graduate school?

I would recommend starting early by exploring your interests. For example, you might want to explore whether you enjoy (or are suited for) research. An excellent way to gain experience is through volunteering for non-profits and research labs. This will make the application process easier, bolster your CV, provide references and help your decision-making process as well.

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