When graduation is staring you down, it’s easy to feel panic. Should you go to grad school? Should you enter the workforce? Should you sit in your parents’ basement and play video games?
Part of the problem is that you just don’t know what’s next. In all honesty, you can’t know. Your college classes and professors and mentors and friends have done their best to prepare you, but the whole point of graduation is that you are now on your own. ”Real life” has commenced, and that can be simply terrifying. You don’t know whether you’ll like your job, or whether you’ll really connect with your course of graduate studies, and you won’t until you actually start.
So how do you make a decision when you can’t know the right answer? You make the best decision from the options available.
Judge your opportunities across three criteria: Power, Potential, and Planning.
You’ve decided you need more preparation to enter the workforce. Depending on your chosen career path, this can be a great choice. I do strongly advise, however, that you not close your eyes to taking a gap year. Always leave that option on the table. Evaluate whether you would gain more from a gap year than from going straight to graduate school. If you do choose to take a gap year and work, you may find that you are far more prepared and far more effective when you come back to school.
Take my situation as an example. Just about a year ago, I was trying to decide between two law schools. Both schools were great, and both schools had given me the option to defer my enrollment for a year. Deciding to take advantage of that deferment was the best choice I could have made; I’m now starting law school with a wealth of new skills, experience, and knowledge, including, quite simply, a better understanding of being an adult.
“But, MJ,” you might ask, “how did you then choose between the two schools?” Let’s look at these three criteria to find out.
- Power: What comparative advantage does one school have over the other? Both schools will give me a J.D., and the same basic skills as a lawyer, but does one school have a better job placement percentage? Does one school have greater prestige? Have you researched the prestige and experience of the professors in your field at each school? What is the average incoming GPA/LSAT/MCAT/GRE scores? How selective is the school - what is their acceptance rate? Who has a greater alumni network which will open doors and qualify me for opportunities that the other just can’t? Does one school have a better percentage of graduating qualified students who can pass their professional exams? Does one school have a better academic reputation than the other? Does one school send graduates onto the type of employment I am considering?
You choose a graduate school in order to position yourself better for your chosen career. If you aren’t choosing the school which gives you the best position upon graduation, you’re wasting your time.
- Potential: What are the median salaries of graduates from the two schools? Does one school graduate students with far higher debt levels than the other? If so, is this balanced by a commensurately higher salary? If one school offers you way more money than the other, it can be easy to be persuaded by the zeroes at the end of the scholarship offer. But will that be worth it over a thirty or forty year career?
Choose the school that will give you the best position ten, twenty, thirty years down the road. Don’t be seduced by short-term gain; your career lasts your whole life, not just the remainder of your twenties.
- Planning: Your choice of graduate school will likely determine your future. The location of your school determines your immediate job prospects and the debt load you’ll shoulder will affect your finances for years, so it’s crucial to pick the school that’s the best fit for how you want your life to play out. Now, will everything work out exactly the way you want? Of course not. Choosing the school that ticks the checkboxes you need, though, puts you in a far better position to be prepared for both immediate job prospects and the debt load you’ll shoulder going right and the potential for circumstances which deviate from your plan.
Sit down and sketch out a rough outline of the start of your career. Where do you want to be immediately after graduation? Where do you want to be in three years? In ten? Which school gets you to your checkpoints? Check out the Graduate School Guide on the Career Services Website to help you evaluate your decision.
For me, then, it came down to Notre Dame Law and Michigan Law. Two great schools. Two great scholarship offers. I can’t say a bad thing about either school or either admissions process. When I evaluated the two schools across the three criteria, however, the answer about which was the right school for me quickly became clear.
Attending Michigan Law was the right choice for me because it positions me better immediately upon graduation for the initial job that I want to launch my career to get me where I want to be in ten years. I want to be the best lawyer in Detroit; attending Michigan Law is the best way to prepare for that.
Entering the Workforce
Let’s say Grad School is definitely not for you. You’re so fed up with writing never-ending essays, answering pointless questions on tests, and sitting in boring lectures. You just need to get out, find a job, and spend your time writing never-ending emails, answering the same pointless questions from your clients, and sitting in boring meetings that really didn’t need to happen. Aren’t you glad to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel?
In all seriousness, the work that you do is enriching and should be chosen carefully. Just like you want to have multiple grad school options, you’ll want to have multiple job offers to ensure you make the right choice. Let’s look at the questions you should be asking:
- Power: What comparative advantage does one job have over the other? Will one job give you better training, or let you take on more responsibilities? Which job will make your head hurt less? If you’re going to spend all your time at this place, who are the people with whom you’ll be working? What’s the culture like at the company? Which supervisor will you have a better relationship with? Studies show that the number one reason people leave a job is because they don’t get along with their boss; will that be you in six months?
You choose your first job in order to position yourself better for your chosen career. The first position leads to the next one, whether that is internal to your first company or a lateral movement to another company. Which job kicks your career into gear?
- Potential: What potential for advancement will you have? Do people often spend multiple years and receive multiple promotions at the company? What’s your starting salary going to be? What does the system for pay increases look like? Are there opportunities for continuing education?
Choose the job that will position you best to be where you want to be in ten years. It’s easy to be lured by zeroes at the end of a signing bonus. Are you trading long-term success for short-term gain? Your career is your life, not just a new car or a slightly nicer apartment.
- Planning: Your first job determines so much about the initial course of your adult life. It, and every job you take over the course of your career, will determine so much about who you are. Your future starts now. What choice will you make? What will prepare you to take advantage of the things that go well, and what will protect you when things inevitably go wrong?
Sit down and sketch out a rough outline of the start of your career. Where do you want to be one year into your first job? Where do you want to be in three years? In ten? Those answers will tell you which job offer to accept.
Make good decisions based on the criterion we’ve established and the insights they provide. Be willing to take chances and strive after something daring. Don’t miss out on something that could make your life better. Breathe, focus, plan, evaluate. Talk your thoughts out with your friends, your family, and your God. Trust your gut, and, whatever you decide, attack each new day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. I can’t wait to see what great things you can accomplish. If I can ever help, just let me know.