Seriously Serious About Grad School

I’ve put off going to grad school until my 30s because I wanted to wait until I was ready to make the commitment. Given my interests are so varied it has been difficult to determine what exactly I should pursue in further education, especially as I’ve moved up the corporate ladder and, without an advanced degree, started to make a six-figure salary. So right now it isn’t about the money. I don’t expect to make more by earning a graduate degree. What I expect is that I will open all those doors that are tightly shut on my face right now that I desperately want to open.

For the past 10 years, I’ve wanted to go to graduate school for human computer interaction or interaction design. While my ultimate goal is to become a VP of Product, I’d rather approach this from the more scientific and design side over the business side. I know people who clearly are the right type of people to get an MBA, which was, until recently, another option I was seriously considering. But as much as I’d love to better understand how a business works, I have no aspirations to be in charge of business operations at a company. If I ever want to be in charge of a business it will be in a very tiny startup that I founded and I learn more about how to manage this type of business by spending my time in actual early-stage startups. So I think this is the right decision.

My goal is to somehow score well enough on the GRE to get into a graduate program in fall 2014. I think this is ideal timing too because at this point I will have been in my current role for over 4 years (if I can make it that long) and I don’t think anyone would hold it against me for wanting to shift career paths. I still have a few goals to accomplish in my job today, such as working closing with a colleague on a project where I am getting some product management experience, figuring out how to iterate on our website so I fully understand a/b testing aligned to generating quality leads, and honing my semi-executive presence over the silly person I really am.

But it feels good to have a goal again. I could easily just keep plowing along as I’m doing today, and finding jobs in marketing/pr, but this would never make me happy. I value my experience in this field, as I think it’s always good in product to have a solid understanding of not only your customers but also how the overall market would respond to your story. I wouldn’t give up this experience for the world, even though had I gone to grad school 5 years ago I might already be in a senior product role by now. It has taken me a long time to accept that life is not a race and there really is no destination for the journey. There are many things that come up along the way that you don’t expect and the best you can do is let life teach you its lessons while doing some soul searching in determining what makes you happy.

I’m pretty clear on what makes me happy — building a product with crazy good user experience from the ground up with a team of people who care about the experience as much as I do, but who bring their own unique ideas to the table so we can collaboratively kick ass. I like to build products that help people, whether that be improve efficiency, make it easier to learn new things, or help people lead healthier lives. I could see doing my graduate thesis around education and social user experiences, possibly somehow tied to wearable technologies.

I’m fascinated by the future of mobile devices — while google googles are terrible from a design perspective — the future is a connected one, where we measure so much more than we do today about our daily lives. I’d be very interested in designing learning experiences for children with ADHD which are designed to capture a short attention span and help these students memorize information. Some tie in with psychology, learning, and computer interaction. This is my passion and this is what I’m going to do. I have no idea how I’ll make a career out of it, as I don’t want to end up in the R&D wing of some giant corporation slaving away at projects that never see the light of day — maybe I’ll have to start my own educational technologies business. Who knows. But it all sounds extremely exciting, compared to spending the next 30 years begging reporters to give my company a smudge of virtual ink.

The real challenge, the biggest challenge, perhaps the ONLY challenge, is getting a high score on the GRE. I don’t know for sure if I could get into my top program choice, but there are a lot of good HCI/Interaction masters programs out there and I’m very confident with my experience in technology, even on the business side, I’ll be able to get into a good program as long as I can achieve reasonably high scores on the GRE. Easier said than done. Despite being a writer and philosopher of sorts, I’m a terrible academic. Studying has never been my forte. So I need to somehow come up with a way to motivate myself to learn and retain knowledge. It’s crazy how I’ve never really learned anything in my life past basic verbal skills and arithmetic. Or, I should say, I’ve never been taught anything. I always figure things out for myself. It’s pretty crazy looking back on my education and realizing that I never let myself actually be taught anything. The good thing about graduate school is that I’d be taught about things I’m very interested in, and a lot of it is about teaching yourself and doing your own projects/research, which is how I learn.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about this plan. It does put a huge damper on my $50k per year savings goals, and any trace hope of early retirement, but I don’t really want to retire early, I love working, and I’m miserable when I wake up in the morning with nothing meaningful to do. I need to work on that as well (doing nothing is ok) but ultimately right now I know I need to set myself up for a career that is going to fulfill me not just for a few years, but for the remainder of my professional career. Design-thinking product management, especially in the area of learning technologies and connected devices, is most definitely it.

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