Determining the Right Graduate Program for Career Advancement

I love the process of backward planning. If you aren't familiar with how that works, backward planning is a concept by which you start your strategy at the end result and work your way backwards to find your starting point. It assumes that you may not have a good idea of where to start something or exactly what tasks have to happen in between, but that you have a really good idea of where you want to end, and that it's actually an awesome place to start.

Because the things that separate Now You from Future Ultimate-Career You probably boil down to three things: Content, Contacts, and Confidence.

This technique has served me well getting to work on time in the morning. I need to be in my office by 8:30 a.m….which means I need to be on the 7:50 train…which means I need to drop the kids off at school at by 7:35…which means I need to leave the house by 7:20; downstairs for breakfast by 6:40; kids up by 6:15 to be dressed and ready for breakfast; which means I'm up for the day at 5:00 a.m. in order to get done all the things I need before the littles invade my space.

If someone had simply asked "What time do you need to get up in the morning to make it to work on time?" I would not have voluntarily suggested 5 a.m. But turns out, when I backwards plan my day, that ends up being the unholy hour of my awakening. I had two concrete points: I knew that I had to 1) Get to work and 2) Would have to get out of bed at some point, though didn't know exactly what that looked like. The stuff in the middle is a little fuzzy and looks a little different every day. But getting to work on time requires getting out of bed at 5 a.m. These two things I know now.

"I need a new job." "I need a promotion." "I need to do a massive life/career pivot." These are things that people say all the time and constitute a pretty solid end-state. The end-state is the desired outcome, the point at which we start to backwards plan. New Job. Go. The only things that separate Now You from Future Ultimate-Career You probably boil down to three things: Content, Contacts, and Confidence.

For many people, they realize that this means they will likely have to go back for some schooling. But understanding what that might look like is going to take some massive backwards planning to make sure that you start in the right place.

Step one: Identify where you think you'd like to land. "I want a job using math" is a different end-state than "I want to be an investment banker," though many of the steps along the way may end up being similar. Wanting to be an accountant is different than "I want to work for a Big Four Accounting Firm." Think big. Pick the jobs and companies that are your ideals. Home in on two or three career paths that seem to match with your interests. There will likely be significant overlap of skills/talents and aptitudes/temperaments. I would guess your choices won't be pastry chef OR roller coaster designer. Your potential end-states will likely all look relatively similar. But the more specific you can be, the better.

Step two: Look at people who have the job you think you might like. What do they have in common? What skills do they share? What has their job progression looked like? What degrees have they earned? Do they all have random trajectories or are there commonalities? My guess is that you'll start to see some patterns here, too. This is also a good place to start to weed things out. If everyone in the field you think you like has an extensive statistics background and that isn't your speed, that might not be the job you really want.

Step three: Reach out to folks in those fields that are most attractive to you. Ask some questions. You may only know that you love math and are good at it. You may THINK you want to be an investment banker until you find out the hours that they keep and the types of things they are tasked with doing. Suddenly, you'd rather be a financial planner because you like working with people as much as numbers.

Step four: Once you've really honed your end-state, take a good look at where you are right now. What skills and/or degrees do these people have that you don't? Who do these people know that you don't? Do the financial planners have master's degrees in Finance or MBAs or simply a CFP? Be honest with yourself about your current situation.

It's highly likely that all this research will uncover some gaps and will lead you back to the idea of graduate-level coursework. Because the things that separate Now You from Future Ultimate-Career You probably boil down to three things: Content, Contacts, and Confidence. Grad School allows you to learn new things; make new connections; and gain the confidence necessary through knowledge and networks to feel prepared for your what's next.

Many grad schools can fill those gaps, so you'll want to start looking at things that differentiate them — like structure, delivery method, cost, and location. Did all the people in your chosen field go to top schools full time? Did they do school on evenings and weekends while keeping their jobs because in that industry work experience is as important as school? If you are really into that whole roller coaster building idea, are there top schools for that specifically? Do you need to live near an amusement park or simply make friends with the people designing for those parks? Is this going to have to be a one-class-at-a-time-online degree because of your personal life and finances?

Figure out which schools fit your life situation and are best suited to help you achieve your career goals; the ones that work in your life plan, but also provide you a path that is similar to those in the business that you strive to have as contemporaries; those whose success looks like what you are hoping for.

Like getting up at 5 a.m., initially selecting a graduate school can feel daunting. So let's backwards plan:

Ultimate Career → Find people in that industry → Research their paths → Talk to these people → Identify your skill gaps, network gaps, and confidence gaps → Find graduate school programs that fill those gaps and meet your life needs → Start at the Graduate School of your Dreams!

And remember, there are many people along the way set up to help with this exploration. Admissions officers often have their fingers on the pulse of these things and have worked through this backwards planning with many students before. Lean on people who are committed to your success and your what's next: your own network, mentors, graduate school advisors, HR professionals, career centers, and the folks in the colleges you're looking to attend. You'll get a good sense of the type of support you can expect as a student by the way they support you as a prospective student.

After all this backwards planning, you'll be ready to take a major step forward.