How to choose a grad school path. (Hint: don’t ask your professors)

Do you ever wonder why people on shows like ‘The Bachelor’ fall in love with someone they only recently met? I mean, 25 women or men actually fall in love on this show, and to just one (imperfect) person. How is this possible? Well, one important psychological process that is definitely at play is cognitive dissonance. Research has shown that people believe what they believe, and even feel what they feel, to some degree because of their actions. That’s right – behaviors determine beliefs more than the other way around. We want to think, “I believe in and value “X” and so I will behave in a way that is consistent with that belief.” Turns out that this is not true. Not only that, no one of us is immune to this huge influence of our behavior.

Think about it this way: each person on ‘The Bachelor’ competes for the attention of that one special person, day after day, week after week … and before they know what has hit them, they are suddenly ‘in love.’ In one sense, you could say, after all of this drama and stress, how could they not feel something for this person?

To me, the fascinating thing is that cognitive dissonance occurs outside of the person’s awareness. The individuals on ‘The Bachelor’ are not thinking, “Oh, I must like him/her a lot, I mean I’m here, right?!”

No, it’s deeper than that … these folks’ feelings actually change because their behaviors are so incredibly powerful. They really are in love. It just turns out that they likely fell in love because they came to a show about falling in love with one person, aaaannnnddd they continued to behave in a way that was consistent with falling in love with someone.

So how does this relate to your decision (or not) to go to grad school? It relates in a very specific way: everyone you ask about their career choice is powerfully influenced by their own behavior. “I must like what I am doing, because I am doing it.” Of course there are exceptions – lots of people hate their careers or jobs – and if you talk to someone who has this experience be sure to listen carefully to why they are unhappy. But, the people you are most likely to ask about their career choice are probably going to be somewhat set in their careers. Take for example professors: many of us have been doing this work for a long time. Many of us deeply enjoy our work, and many do not (don’t even get me started on committee meetings). But, when a student asks us about our career choice it is hard not to think of the positive elements of our work and the way that we got here in the first place. More specifically we think, ‘This path must have been the right one because I got here, right? I’m doing this so I must I enjoy it, right? Right??’ Maybe. Or maybe we would have been happier in industry or in an applied setting. It is tough to know.

Photo by Noa Cafri

There is another element to this. Our thoughts about career options are deeply influenced by our own career path. This is sort of related to cognitive dissonance. Professors work in academia and so we value academia (maybe we always valued this type of career, or maybe we grew to value it because we keep doing it … who knows?) … and this value might blind us to alternative options for your career. So what should you do?

1)      In spite of our cognitive dissonance I do think you should still talk to your professors … just take our advice with a grain of salt. We are blinded by our choices as much as the next person.

2)      Find people who have graduated from of your graduate program of interest and see what options/career paths they took and why. Linkedin is a good resource for finding people who have graduated with a degree from your program.

3)      If you are considering a specific career, reach out to professionals already doing your future dream job, tell them you are considering a career like theirs and you’d like some advice from them. Offer to  buy them a cup of coffee. Busy professionals may not respond, or have time, of course, but most people are excited to talk about their careers to people who are interested.

4) Most of all, like any scientific endeavor, gather a large enough sample of data, take a hard look at the data that you have, and most of all question your cognitive dissonance:

Are you sure you aren’t taking this career path because you have already started down this path?

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8 Responses

  1. Manpreet Kaur says:

    Thanks for all the information Dr. David. This is indeed a wonderful and a very helpful post. Also, I could very well relate to it, since I had a huge confusion about where to apply and where not.
    Similar confusion happens with my research interest sometimes. Do you think its okay if our research interest keeps shifting or should we be very specific about what we want to work on in grad school?

    • David Gard says:

      I think it is reasonable (and very common) to have your research interests shift over time … most people are not born knowing what they want to research exactly, of course. 🙂 I’d say that it makes sense to use the time between undergrad and grad school to pay attention to what interests or excites you about research specifically. Once you apply to doctoral programs you need to have a fairly specific research plan in place (this is not necessarily true for master’s programs usually), but before this, read various journals and pay attention to what you are excited about…

  2. Manpreet Kaur says:

    Thanks for the information Dr. David. This will be of great help. I am 90% clear with the ideas that I want to pursue, but sometimes I am not sure if I should keep a broader picture of my interest in mind or should I narrow them to a very specific topic (Before applying to doctoral programs). But as you said reading journals and more about my research interests would put more light to it. I would certainly streamline my ideas with it.

  3. David Gard says:

    I think talking to people about your plans and studies would also be a good idea for deciding if you need more or less focus. This is really difficult to figure out on your own and having some guidance s crucial.

  4. Colin says:

    Hi Dr. Gard, I’ve been in the same field since undergrad, it’s all I’ve known. How do you know if you are engaging in cognitive dissonance? Have you ever operated with cognitive dissonance? How did you recognize it?

    • David Gard says:

      We all operate with cognitive dissonance to some degree. It’s a bit like asking, ‘how do I know if I am breathing the air around me?’ Or maybe better than that … an analogy could be a fish swimming in water that slightly heats up over time. Does it recognize that this is happening? Probably not, until it is too late.
      Another example is taking a job that has shady ethics around it … not to target one job … but say you worked at a used car lot and everyone around you made ethically compromising decisions. It would be tempting to say, “I’d be different!” … but research indicates that most people over time would change their ethics, not their behavior.
      All that said, I think the knowledge of cognitive dissonance is very powerful. It allows us to push ourselves to reflect. What am I feeling? Is this what I want? Is this work in line with my values? Am I happy with this work? I think it also suggests that we should all really work to try out different activities … you never know if you don’t try.

  5. Manpreet Kaur says:

    How important is it to connect with the professors (with whom your interest overlaps) before applying to the PhD and Masters program?

    • David Gard says:

      This is a good question … I’d say that it almost never hurts to try and connect with a faculty member that you are interested in working with. If you live in the area or are visiting the area of a school that you are applying to, try and meet with the faculty that you are interested in working with. Of course this may not be possible with busy schedules, but if you can, I say definitely try.

      For Ph.D. research oriented programs I think this is really crucial. For one thing it helps you put your face to a name, so when they are reviewing applications they can look for your application. It also can help you decide if you want to work with this person for >4 or 5 years.

      For master’s programs this is less crucial, but it can still help for the reasons noted above.