Martin’s Situation: After spending most of my 20s tutoring and teaching, I started a PhD program so I could contribute to a scientific cause that I care about. I’ve been here a few years and I’m beginning to feel ambivalent about my research direction, plus I’m tired of living on a grad student stipend.
Martin’s Question: Do I stay in grad school or drop out and pursue something more lucrative? I’m pretty paralyzed when it comes to big decisions. I can see advantages and disadvantages to everything in life, and choices start to seem arbitrary at a certain point.
Julia’s Answer: This is a tough situation with a lot of variables. As I talked to Martin, I noticed that he was making his decision harder for himself in several ways:
- He believed there was an objectively right choice.
- He had some underlying judgments about each option.
- He was framing his choice as an either/or situation.
- He was working with incomplete data.
Let’s tackle these one at a time.
There is a “right” choice and I should know what it is.
I often recommend this TED talk about making hard choices because of the underlying message: you are not stupid or deficient if you can’t figure out the “right” option. Maybe there isn’t one! Rather, there are alternatives with pros and cons that can’t be objectively measured against each other.
Philosopher Ruth Chang refers to these kinds of alternatives as being “on a par” with each other. She says, “When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value…while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.”
Knowing that there may not be a “correct” option, I suggest that you ask yourself, “Who do I most want to be? What would the best version of myself do, and which option would support me in becoming that person?”
What does this option say about me?
You want to be aware of any pre-existing judgments you have about your options. Martin had an old dream of going back to school and two scientist parents he looked up to, so staying in grad school carried a certain amount of nobility, sacrifice, stick-to-itiveness, and idealism. In contrast, leaving for a more lucrative career felt a little like giving up or selling out.
It’s easy to see how these unconscious narratives can affect your decision making process. So ask yourself, “What judgments are you making about your options, and are they actually true?” (Hint: to uncover these, ask yourself, “What am I afraid people will think about me if I make this choice?”)
I have to pick between these two options.
Martin had already created a pro/con list that he shared with me. Now, I don’t think pro/con lists are great decision-making tools, but they are great for highlighting what you want and what you don’t. Here’s one way to use that to your advantage.
First, take everything from the “pro” side (regardless of what option they come from) and put them on the same list. This is your wish list.
In Martin’s example, one pro of staying in school is “satisfaction of working for a cause I believe in” and a pro of getting a tech job is “well-paid with good job security.” Even though these advantages stem from different options, they’d both go on the wish list.
Next, see what “cons” you can turn into wish list items. This could look like:
- Ambivalence about my research direction = Ability to make a difference
- Farther away from family = Opportunities to visit family often
Now that you have this wish list, what directions could you explore that would incorporate as many of these as possible? There might even be a third or fourth option you hadn’t considered before!
Finally, identify where you need more information.
Even though Martin was clearly leaning towards leaving his program during our conversation, his fear of the unknown was making the decision a hard one. “It might not be as great as I think it is,” he said several times.
Fortunately, this problem has an easy solution. Find people who are doing the thing you’re interested in and talk to them. (We go over exactly how to do this in our coaching programs!) Get their stories, find out what they love and hate about their work, and use their advice to plan your next steps. Speculating is only going to get you so far and a reality check is the best way to get unstuck.
Still stuck? Take a test drive.
If you’ve done all this work and you’re still waffling, Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans recommend that you take a few days to “test drive” your decision. For the next 1-3 days, choose to live as a person who has decided to stay in grad school and make the most of it. You don’t have to share what you’re doing with anyone else; just see what it feels like to make that decision and move on with your life.
After this first test period, give yourself a couple of days to reset. Then spend another 1-3 days as a person who has decided to leave grad school and pursue a more lucrative career. What does it feel like to be that person? Finally, take some time to reflect on both these experiences and see if any new insights emerge.
These test periods give your brain a break and showcase the other ways you make decisions: emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Bringing in these additional elements will hopefully help you gain some additional clarity. If you’re still truly torn after all this, congratulations! You can’t choose wrong. Pick a direction and make it yours.
Putting it all together.
As you can see from this case study, thinking about how you make a decision is a lot more important than the decision itself. Here are the steps again:
- Let go of needing the “correct” answer.
- Uncover any underlying assumptions or judgments about each option.
- Reframe the problem in terms of your desired outcome.
- Identify where you need more information.
- If you’re still stuck, take each option for a test drive.
If you go through this process, I think you’ll find that your tough decisions become a little more manageable!
What hard decisions are you struggling with? Which of these steps will you try first?
Client Feedback on Working with Julia in a Cardy Career Coaching program:
“I was really down on myself – lacking the confidence needed to be successful in my job search. Julia truly helped me get over my last work situation and being laid off. She helped me understand that I’m competent, intelligent and would be an asset to another organization! I’m now in a better mental state and ready to take on my next challenge.” – Career Direction Clarity + Action Plan Client
Great post. I think one thing I would add is to continue what the job market is going to be when you do end up finishing the PhD (or whatever program you are in).
Are there hundreds of other applicants who want the job as bad (or worse) than you do? Do they have better CVs/resumes? Are you willing to do what it takes to fight through that horde to get to the top?
Many grad students do not have an accurate perception of what they are getting into vis-a-vis what is waiting for them after they graduate. Some of this is likely due to students being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and actively ignoring the red flags along the way. Some of the burden of this knowledge should also rest on the faculty appropriately preparing their students for the fierce competition ahead.
Anyway, thanks for sharing! Love your stuff.