Pursuing graduate school is a big step. Many potential applicants struggle to figure out if going to graduate school makes sense for them. This post offers 6 life design activities to help you decide if graduate school is for you.
How To Use These Activities
If you want to want to jump straight to the activites, here they are:
- Graduate School View (ACCEPT)
- 5 Whys (EMPATHIZE)
- How Might I… (DEFINE)
- Stakeholder Mapping (IDEATE)
- Informational Interview (PROTOTYPE)
- I Like, I Wish, What If (TEST)
Order of Activities
When you see pictures of the life design process, it’s often presented in a linear form:
However, the founders of life design, as well as design thinkers, know that the stages can be done ‘out of order’. While the activities below are assigned to certain stages, you should adapt them to fit your purposes and do them in the order you see fit.
What Each Activity Covers
Each activity will include an overview, background information, and directions (instructions, time, and worksheet).
- Overview: a quick explanation of how the activity can help you consider graduate school
- Background: logistics of the activity and links to additional detailed information
- Directions: brief instructions, suggested times, and digital worksheets (Google Docs/Slides)
6 Life Design Activities for Considering Graduate School
The following 6 life design activities aim to help you as you are considering graduate school:
Activity #1: Graduate School View (ACCEPT)
In order to determine if graduate school makes sense for you, you should reflect on what graduate school means to you. This activity provides a framework to start thinking about your graduate school view.
This activity is based on the workview/lifeview exercises from Designing Your Life. The core of the activity prompts you to reflect and articulate what work and life mean to you.
If you are looking for an example, one of my colleague’s, Clifton Shambry, beautifully articulated his workview:
My colleagues have adapted the workview/lifeview exercises to serve our students. For example, Patrick Brugh presented a ‘Sportsview‘ to engage collegiate athletes by merging learnings from the books, Designing Your Life and Finite and Infinite Games.
Write a paragraph detailing your graduate school view. Here are some guiding questions:
- Why go to graduate school?
- What’s graduate school for?
- What does graduate school mean to me?
- What defines a good or worthwhile graduate school experience?
- What does experience, money, prestige, growth, and/or fulfillment have to do with it?
- What do I expect graduate school to do for me once I complete it?
A minimum of 10 dedicated minutes
Activity #2: 5 Whys (EMPATHIZE)
After reflecting on what graduate school means to you, the next activity asks you to start thinking about why you want to pursue further studies. This activity challenges you to dive deeper and figure out your why(s).
The 5 Whys is a classic design thinking activity – in which one asks ‘Why?‘ 5 times.
As a life design educator, I have used the 5 Whys activity in various settings, including personal reflection. To learn more, check out the following post:
My colleague, Justin Lorts, also details an example of the 5 Whys in his post, How PhDs Can Use Life Design to Build a Fulfilling Life and Career (Part I).
Answer the question, “Why graduate school?” and try to ask Why?” up to 5 times for each response.
If you get stuck, look back at your Graduate School View and start asking Why? of some of the views you detailed.
A minimum of 10 dedicated minutes
Activity #3: How Might I… (DEFINE)
The initial question this framework posed was, ‘Why graduate school?’ This activity reframes that question into individualized actionable statement(s) that have the following structure:
How might I [verb] [details]?”
The How Might I… activity is based on the quintessential How Might We… design thinking activity. Both activities aim to initiate brainstorming around a well-defined problem statement.
How Might I… statements start with insights and then translate them into actionable statements. There are many possible How Might I… statements for individual insights. A good How Might I… statement has more than 2 possible ‘solutions’; however, it’s not so broad in which you can easily think of 20+ ideas in 5 minutes.
For more details on the How Might I… activity, check out the following post:
Using the responses to the 5 Whys activity as your insights, generate around 3 How Might I… statements.
If you get stuck, refer to my post with detailed directions on the How Might I… activity
A minimum of 10-15 dedicated minutes (this activity is one of the most challenging)
Activity #4: Stakeholder Mapping (IDEATE)
The previous activity generated new reframed questions and statements related to aspects of your rationale for going to graduate school. This activity helps you brainstorm all the people you could talk to to learn more about the one or multiple How Might I… statements.
In project management and various design fields (e.g., product design, service design, design thinking, etc.), stakeholders mapping helps visualize the range of people impacted by a given challenge or project.
In this framework, a stakeholder is anyone who can help inform a specific How Might I… statement. This can range from specific individuals to affinity groups to organizations.
We will be using stakeholder mapping templates based on the following post, which details 3 options:
Select one How Might I… statement and create a stakeholder map using one of 3 templates.
Try to keep going and fill the page. If you get stuck, take a break and then return to the activity.
A minimum of 10 dedicated minutes (includeing time to step away if you get stuck)
Activity #5: Informational Interview (PROTOTYPE)
The previous activity mapped the many possible stakeholders that could help you learn more about your How Might I.. statement. This activity challenges you to speak to some of the parties that you listed out via an informational interview.
An informational interview is a conversation with a person pursuing a project/role/field that you want to explore further. The goal is to research experiences and perspectives in a project/role/field that you want to explore further. They typically last 15-30 minutes.
If you’re not sure how to going about locating people to talk to, check out this post on Where to Find People To Network With:
Select three (categories of) people from your stakeholder map and set up an informational interview with each of them.
A minimum of 15 dedicated minutes per interview
Activity #6: I Like, I Wish, What If (TEST)
In the previous activity, you connected with multiple people who possibly had relevant insights. This activity provides a structured and simple way in which you can assess your thoughts resulting from your informational interviews.
The I Like, I Wish, What If activity is a classic design thinking prompt. It’s a structured feedback activity, similar to Rose, Thorn, Bud, which focuses on generating positive-oriented constructive feedback. The categories are as follows:
- I Like: What you liked
- I Wish: What you would want to change
- What If: New ideas, possibilities, and considerations
This activity can be done solo or with other people. Nonetheless, I recommend doing an initial iteration after each interview, while the conversation is still fresh in your mind.
If you’re not sure who to do this activity with, Justin Lorts has written about building a personal ideation team and the original Designing Your Life book as a whole chapter (11) on it.
After each informational interview, debrief to yourself (or speak to someone) using the I Like, I Wish, and What If structure.
Here are prompts for each category given the context of this exercise:
- I Like: What parts of the conversation resonated with you in a positive way and you might be excited to experience yourself?
- I Wish: What details of the other person’s experience would you want to change if you had to experience it?
- What If: What ideas did this conversation spur that you might like to explore further?
A minimum of 5-10 dedicated after each interview
As mentioned earlier, you can adapt these activities and do them in the order you see fit. For example, Activity #6: I Like, I Wish, What If could easily be done after each activity as a reflection and self-assessment.
Also, it’s important to iterate based on how the activities go. You can return to different activities and:
- do them again
- adjust them
- draw from a different insight
For example, if after completing Activity #5: Informational Interview (PROTOTYPE), you might realize that you need to ask a different broader question. You can then return to Activity #3: How Might I… (DEFINE) and reframe your question based on your learnings.
You could also return to Activity #1: Graduate School View (ACCEPT) towards the end of your process. Writing a revised graduate school view after going through these activities can help you know where you are at regarding what graduate school means to you.
If you decide that graduate school does not make sense for you at this time, feel free to peruse this blog as you figure out your next steps. You can also adapt the activities in this post. I also recommend Justin Lorts’ post on Imagining Your Future Selves.
If graduate school is an option that works for you at this time, check out my post on the Johns Hopkins University Life Design Lab @Homewood website – Getting Started with Graduate and Professional School Applications.
Considering graduate school is a major decision and these activities were designed to help you figure out the next step that makes sense for you.
Special thanks to Maren Gonzales for helping with SEO elements of this post.