The right choice?

If you’re at the start of a new postgraduate degree, are you perfectly happy with the choice you’ve made, or are you still wondering whether you should have gone for that other PhD, or that job, or stuck it out in your old job after all?

I’ve been watching a TED talk from Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor who researches into the psychology of “happiness”. His book “Stumbling on Happiness” sounds like the sort of self-help manual I’d normally avoid like the plague, but it’s nothing like that. It elegantly demonstrates how the human mind fools itself into thinking it knows what will make the accompanying human happy, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

His talk discusses how we synthesise happiness, including how we can still be genuinely happy whether good or horrible things happen to us. However, he argues that having a choice, where that choice is reversible, leads to you being less likely to be happy with your choice. In short, if the only prospect on your horizon was a place on this Masters course, you’ll probably be happy. If you were agonising between leaving your job and coming on this postgraduate programme, and your boss said, “don’t worry, we’ll keep your job open for you”, you’re more likely to be unhappy with your choice, whichever choice you make.

If you enjoy that feeling that your head’s about to explode with the profound implications of what you’re hearing, watch this 20 minute TED talk:

If you want to see the transcript, it’s available on the TED site itself.

So, if you’re not sure if you’ve done the right thing, what can you do about it?
The start of a new phase in your life is often accompanied by a niggling doubt that you’ve done the wrong thing. If it’s a new job, it’s even got a name – the induction crisis. Apparently, up to 22% of employees leave their job within six months of joining an organisation (CIPD 2008). That’s why good employers put together induction programmes, training plans and regularly check to make sure you’re settling in.

There’s some of that at university (I reckon I’ll see around 2,500 of you for induction talks in your first week), but if there are over 100 new starters on your Masters programme, it’s hard to give you all a personal induction programme. It’s the opposite problem if you’re starting a PhD – you’ll quickly find out that conducting academic research can be a very solitary occupation.

Whatever your state of mind at the start of your postgraduate degree, I’d recommend putting some effort into the social side of university.

  • Try the Student Union activities – they’re not just for 1st year undergrads. With your extra maturity, you may even find yourself on a committee or two very quickly.
  • Become part of our vibrant Manchester community – if you don’t know where to start, have a go at volunteering, particularly with an organisation based outside the university itself. The Careers Service runs a volunteering database with details of local organisations who would love to hear from you.
  • Get to know the other postgrads on your programme – even if your School organises some sort of initial get-together, it will be down to the postgrads on your programme to take it further. All it takes is for you to chat to a couple of others and mention that it would be good to arrange an informal event for you all to get together … When I started work (back in the Dark Ages), our new employer organised a series of events for its 50 graduate recruits. However, the real life-line turned out to be our informal agreement that we’d meet up every Tuesday night in a specific pub in town. Sometimes there’d be half a dozen of us, sometimes twenty – but for years afterwards, there would always be someone you knew. Who knows what you could start with your postgraduate colleagues?

Will it help my career?
Absolutely. One of the challenges postgrads sometimes have when applying for jobs is that they don’t have anything on their CV apart from their postgraduate degree. This is particularly true for PhDs where activities prior to starting a PhD are pretty out of date once you get to the end of your degree.

Getting to know others on your programme (or elsewhere at the University) is also a great start to building your network which could help your career in the years to come. How do I know? Well, thirty years on, I’m still in touch with some of those people I used to meet up with, every Tuesday night.

All Postgraduate

Elizabeth View All →

Careers Consultant (Postgraduate) at the University of Manchester, UK

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