09/13/2012 12:57 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Graduate School Savvy: Part I

Graduate school is an experiment in hope. It's also a risky investment, an expensive program in which we entrust time in our lives to school for both a new identity and a ticket to a career. We expect that answers will be revealed to us through academic study, leading to future guaranteed success. We expect that it will be done for us. We expect to be made acceptable, valuable, and, finally, highly employable.

I've coached those with faith in such expectations but they were disappointed when such alchemy never took place. It won't. You have to make it happen. Start by reversing the profound conditioning to wait. If you think you've escaped this, think back to your early schooling. Most of us learned that we would excel, at least pass, if we did the work assigned by our teachers. And that's exactly what occurred. We would ask whether a test covered all or part of a chapter; how long an assigned paper needed to be; whether extra credit was two or three book reports by the same author. Remember? What we were unconsciously learning was to find out only what was expected of us and then to wait for a response. And we were always responded to specifically in the form of a grade. After all our grades were averaged, we were passed and always promoted automatically -- from first grade to second, first year of college to second, first year of graduate school to second. What did we really learn about the context of schooling? Caught in the "good student trap," we learned system dependence. And, we learned that the one with the greatest number of "right" answers or best grades was rewarded by being first.

Nothing like this exists in real life. By not recognizing it, we remain the same passive students at 24 or 44 as we were at 14 -- continuing the student-teacher dichotomy which we automatically transfer to the employer-employee relationship. And we found that though studying history or art or even business might have been interesting, it alone didn't lead to much else -- like new experiences, contacts, or even a job. This misuse of college leads to grave disappointment.

To change that, reframe graduate school in the same positive, productive, active, even experimental way that most successful people approach life. Turn college into your own laboratory to develop technical and interpersonal skills and forge new interests and contacts.

I've found that achievers in business act differently from those caught in the good student trap, sustainers who wait for their teachers/bosses to test and grade them, promote and direct them. Achievers do more than the work requires; they generate ideas. And they know the value of positive self-presentation in order to get the recognition which breeds credibility which in turn leads to opportunity. They are open to new situations and experiences. They understand the importance of forming connections and building alliances that result in the healthy exchange of ideas and sharing of experiences, vital to our changing world. That's exactly what you might do while you're investing time, money, and hope.

Up next, Part II: Six Strategies to make Graduate School a Successful Venture.

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