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Considering Graduate School?

Here’s How to Avoid a Biased Decision

Every time you approach a decision, you’re inherently biased. 

For simple decisions, like buying a morning coffee, your brain’s natural biases hone in on certain facts (and ignore others)—saving you time and energy. But when it comes to evaluating a complex choice—like one with as many social pressures, rewards, and costs as a graduate degree—your psychological shortcuts can lead you astray.

In this case, we tend to process information (talking to counselors, researching schools, interviewing graduates, visiting the campus, etc.) in a slightly skewed way, thanks to our behavioral frameworks, relying too much on expectations or assumptions and overlooking facts. So back to the question: Should I go to graduate school?

“Many individuals invest tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours in a postgraduate degree by relying on intuitive shortcuts instead of asking the right questions,” Gary Belsky, co-author of Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and Should You Really Be a Lawyer?says.

The good news? Awareness of these shortcuts can help you learn to ask the right questions about grad school and, ultimately, make a more informed (and objective) decision.

Ronnika Williams

Master of Library Science, North Carolina Central University, ’14

“In college, my history professor noticed how I thought outside of the box as far as the classes I selected. He believed I would be the perfect fit for a graduate or doctoral program, especially since there weren't many black women in the profession. I thought he was crazy at first, but every time we spoke he convinced me more.

When I started graduate school, I was initially a history major. My classmates really wanted to teach in academia, but I found myself gravitating towards projects that used primary documents like 19th century manuscripts. I loved interpreting the stories of the past and finding unknown treasures within countless boxes of letters donated to the university. I made a decision to switch to a graduate program in Library Science—even though I didn't get a degree in history, my professor’s belief in my potential led to the best decision I ever made.”

Step Away from the Crowd

Young people are on track to be the most educated generation in history. Today, 18- to 34-year-olds are more than twice as likely to have a master’s, professional, or doctorate degree than young people in 1980, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Education.

As you see more people around you applying to grad school, you might be more likely to consider getting a degree, too—a shortcut called herd mentality.

Graduate school might be the right decision, but it’s helpful to consider your motivation before diving head-first into applications. One way to take a step back: Are most people your age or in your field actually applying to grad school?

“Find out if it’s the true majority because a lot of times what you think everyone is doing is just your perception,” Linnea Gandhi, managing director at behavioral science and data analytics firm TGG Group, says.

If you think you’re being unduly influenced by a group, stepping away from the environment can shift your perspective.

Gandhi offers an example from her own first year of an MBA program: “In the fall, it seems like everyone is recruiting for consulting and banking, but actually it’s just a very loud contingent. I knew I was susceptible to it, so I didn’t even put myself into the system for formal recruiting.”

 

Look at the Bright Side, But Be Sure It’s Realistic

If you decide you do want to attend graduate school, the next step is to dig deeper into the benefits versus the costs. At face value, a graduate degree is both personally and professionally rewarding, but psychologically, we often overestimate the benefits before doing our research—known as optimism bias.

A 1985 study found that second-year MBA students overestimated the number of job offers they would receive, the magnitude of their starting salary and how early they would receive their first offer.

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“Overall, law school or any other degree is a positive thing,” Belsky says. “It’s an education, it’s a chance to acquire skills, it’s a chance to be with other smart people. But there’s a lot of reasons why it might not work out, and we tend not to see them because we have a strong predisposition to believe that things will turn out well.”

While it’s likely that grad school will benefit you, check your expectations against the experiences of other graduates. Many schools release program-specific surveys where you can learn about typical employment rates, fields of work, and salaries of students after graduation.

 

Eamon O’Connor

Master’s in Urban Planning, Harvard Graduate School of Design ’17

“I never like to stay on a track for the sake of staying on a track, and graduate school was no different. I had faith that my passions would reveal themselves as I dug into the working world after college—and I was open to building on them in a professional or educational setting.

I spent four years at Deloitte engaging with design in a business setting, and during that time, I also discovered my passion for cities amid a rapidly changing San Francisco. I realized I needed to fuse the two—applying the design and strategy sensibilities from my work to the urban context that fascinated me—which is what led me to apply to urban planning graduate programs.”

Consider All of the Evidence

The most common behavioral shortcut you’ll struggle with is confirmation bias. In other words, we tend to find confirming evidence for what we want to believe and ignore the rest.

If you want to go to graduate school, you’re likely to seek out students who are currently in graduate school (and probably enjoying it) or talk to people who successfully applied their degrees in a field you’re interested in. If you talk to someone who doesn’t like grad school, you might be quick to discount their experience as an outlier. “A lot of it comes down to what your sources of information are,” Belsky says.

Like all shortcuts, confirmation bias exists to save us time and energy in decision-making. One solution to combatting these shortcuts?

“Literally slow down your thinking,” Gandhi says. To do this, try writing down the counter-argument to your decision. “Make yourself write not pros and cons,” Belsky says, “but just cons.”

Another solution is to compare graduate school to other options to expand your perspective—for example, what would you do for the next two years if not business school?

“My encouragement to people thinking of going to grad school is understand all of the options on the table. If I’m just thinking ‘grad school or not,’ it’s a very different decision than ‘Am I going to grad school or working at J.P. Morgan?’” says Gandhi.

By taking a step back when you ask yourself ‘should I go to graduate school?’, you can anticipate and identify any behavioral pitfalls in your decision process. “Behavioral economics isn’t about how bad or irrational things happen to us—it’s about how we interpret the world,” says Belsky. “At its best, it helps you identify when biases are getting in your way, and when they are helping you.”

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