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Five Questions to Ask When Thinking About Graduate School

Craig Zelizer

August 29, 2022

Thinking about Graduate School? Answer these five questions first.

This post was written by Emily Robichaux, First Vice President for Sustainability at Amalgamated Bank several years ago when she was in grad school for her MBA in Sustainability. PCDN has updated the post given that it is full of wonderful advice for anyone exploring grad school.

After ten years in the workforce, I felt off-track. My tenure at organizations was getting shorter, I was uninterested in my work, and I sensed it would be difficult to move beyond the “project manager” title into leadership roles. I struggled to see how I could quickly transition into a new industry, new job title, and new job function through new positions alone, so I decided to shortcut the process and apply to graduate school to help move beyond these roadblocks.

My decision-making process was admittedly driven by intuition rather than being a thought process based carefully on reason, but there were several questions underlying my thinking and eventual decision to attend a sustainable business program. I am sharing them here, in case they help you think through your career path as well.

Are you building out expertise in an issue area or a skill set?

This may be a false choice, as you surely do both in all graduate school programs. But my focus was on acquiring the skills that I saw demonstrated by organizational leaders - financial management, strategic decision-making, and operational efficiency improvements. In reflecting on my career experiences, I gravitated towards action-oriented positions rather than those focused on research and policy, and so I chose to pursue an MBA.

Protip: Review the resumes of people in positions you’d like to have one day - what skill sets do those positions entail, and what degrees do the current position holders have? Identify the skill gaps as well as components of the job description that do not appeal to you - maybe it’s not the exact right fit.

Do you prioritize a curriculum that aligns with your values?

For me, this was a big one. I had actually thought for many years about pursuing an MBA but was worried I would not enjoy the experience because I didn’t see how the traditional business mindset of maximizing profit would sit with my personal values. My husband encouraged me to look at sustainable business programs, and I quickly found that this approach to business as a force for good would be a much better fit. These were the programs that would help me re-enter mission-oriented work while building out my skill set. I prioritized having a curriculum that reflects my worldview - one focused on sustainability and social justice. I did not want to spend my class time defending the need for living wages or for considering the carbon footprint of a business decision. Instead, my class time is spent being inspired by change agents looking to make the world a better place. This curriculum and network of alums will be invaluable as I move into the next phase of my career.

Protip: Look also for profiles of alumni from each school you’re considering - are they working in careers that appeal you?

Where do you want to build your career and network?

Attending graduate school in or near where you’d like to live has benefits. You can begin networking and working locally, getting a leg up on others who may move there later on. I am settled in DC with no immediate intention of leaving, so I needed a program that did not disrupt this plan. This focused my search on schools in the area as well as low-residency programs that enabled students to commute. For the latter, I prioritized schools on the East Coast, assuming that they would attract more students from this side of the country (where I wanted to build my network) than schools on the West Coast.

Protip: Attend an open house, sitting in on a class and speaking with current students if possible, to get a sense of the student body and their interests.

What are your future career plans, and what level of student debt do they support?

Going to graduate school can be a costly decision with long-term financial impacts. Given my background in non-profits and desire to refocus on mission-driven work, I did not envision myself in a traditional corporate job with a sky-high salary. So I prioritized schools at lower price points, a gift to my future self who will hopefully pay off her student loans in five years.

Protip: Check out salary.com and glassdoor.com for estimates of possible future salaries, and see how your loan payments fit into your in-school and post-graduation budgets.

What practical experience will you get while in school?

It was important to me to build my resume beyond simply listing completed courses. I wanted portfolio pieces that I could leverage while transitioning my career. I looked at programs that included real-world consulting projects and self-designed capstone projects, and I sought out extracurricular activities as opportunities to extend my learning.

Protip: Seek out extracurricular activities like case competitions, student committees, and fellowships that will further enhance your resume.

Having reviewed the skill set, curriculum, location, price, and practical experience considerations of three program, I chose to enroll in the Bard MBA in Sustainability program. I am proud to share that within one year of entering the program, I was able to lock in a fantastic summer fellowship with Groundswell, where I supported the organization’s community solar financial modeling and business requirement gathering for subscriber management software. I also performed a resiliency evaluation for the DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy School Food program as part of my Net Impact Healthy Food Fellowship.  In both examples, I effectively transitioned industry, job title, and job function in one fell swoop. These opportunities are possible in part due to the specific decisions I made about how to transition my career and which graduate school program was the best fit for my goals. Post-graduation I went on to continue my work at Groundswell , eventually serving as Chief Financial Officer, before moving onto to my current position at Amalgamated Bank.

Emily Robichaux with members of the DC Central Kitchen team, after presenting recommendations for making the Healthy School Food program more resilient to climate change. This project was one of her extracurricular activities, a Healthy Food Fellowship through Net Impact. August 2017

Post by Emily Robichaux.

Emily is a strategic, mission-focused, agile, and emotionally intelligent leader with over fifteen years of experience delivering impact and business results in sustainability, social change, tech, and product design. Accomplished executive with key competencies in strategic, organizational, and project finance; strategic planning and process design; mission development and implementation; and data-driven decision-making. Master's degree in Sustainable Business and Bachelor's degrees in Government and French Studies.

The career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program. The fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship increases the capacity of current and emerging peace leaders through academic training, field experience, and professional networking. Up to 100 leaders are selected globally every year to earn either a master’s degree or a professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of eight Rotary Peace Centers at leading universities around the world.

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