Grad school and Advisor/Mentor relationships

Grad school is not a journey that you take alone, but rather one that you traverse with the help of others (e.g. Advisor or mentors). Since being accepted to grad school, I have had the realization that while I am in the process, I am not alone. I am surrounded by supportive professors who want to see me succeed. I would venture to say that most graduate student both in Ph.D. or Master’s programs have opportunities to connect with those who can help one to advance both academically and professionally.

One of these important relationships is that of your advisor/mentor. I put the “/” in between those titles because the two can be separate individuals or the same person. The role of an advisor/mentor can differ greatly based on the goal of the relationship. For example, an advisor may provide guidance when it comes to courses, professional development, etc… but may not be open to discussing non-academic related issues that may impact you as a graduate student.

A mentor, however, may fill the void that the advisor does not address by providing support in non-academic areas. How you as a graduate student identify potential advisor/mentors can make a huge difference in your success. In short, advisor/mentor relationships are a crucial component of grad life and you should be encouraged that in the game of grad school you do not have to be alone.

Navigating Grad School: When to Ask for Help

Navigating Grad School: When to ask for Help

            When we graduated from college, we learned how to hold ourselves accountable, become a responsible, young adult, and be independent. While it’s important to be able to do things on your own, it’s also important to know when you’re struggling with something and need to reach out to someone who can give you proper guidance. However, as a student in grad school, it’s important to understand that sometimes the help you receive may not seem incredibly helpful at first.

Throughout one’s undergraduate career, there are times when you’ve reached a point in your course work, whether it’s related to your major or an elective, that there is a problem or concept you are having trouble understanding and can’t solve on your own. This is when you should go to a fellow classmate, the professor, or a tutor to get help in gaining a better understanding of the concept. Fully grasping concepts in grad school is important, because the material you learn in your courses will be not only be needed to conduct research projects or write papers, but also will be critical to the career path you choose following graduation. That is why it’s imperative you have thorough knowledge of the material covered in your courses. So when you do seek help with a class, it’s important that you’ve not only paid attention in class, but you’ve also reviewed the material on your own time. You can’t expect the professor to just give you the answer. The profession can give you hints or a general idea of the necessary steps to solve the problem. Unlike reaching out to a professor, your classmates can be more helpful when getting insight about a particular concept you are struggling with.

Getting help with a class from a classmate can be more beneficial than getting help from the professor for various reasons. If the classmate has already taken the course or has studied the subject in question, he or she can give you better insight on how to understand the course material. In my first year at IU, I got help from a second year PhD student in order to get a better understanding of the material in my partial differential equations class. Thanks to him, I not only got an A as my final grade, but I also gained a better understanding of the material. If you ask for help from a classmate who is in the same class as you, it too can be beneficial as long as you put the same amount of work in the learning process. Teamwork and collaboration is necessity not only in academics, but life as well. Although teamwork is positive, each individual must be able to contribute. I say that because while classmates will want to help you, whether it is studying or doing homework, when it comes to completing the work you shouldn’t expect to mindlessly copy their answers and consider that to be “getting help.” One reason that’s bad is because it can make the other student feel like he or she is doing the homework for two people. Another reason that is unacceptable is because you cheat yourself by copying the problem without understanding the mechanics behind it. As I stated before, this is material you’ll need to complete your PhD program and even in your career after graduation. So the help you get from the classmates may not seem like the help you want, but it’s the kind of help you need.

At some point in a person’s graduate student career, getting help from someone else will be required. It’s not just about getting the answer but understanding the material and knowledge needed to get the answer. Lastly, in order to succeed in grad school, you have to help yourself and to do that, you have to have the drive and desire to learn the material in your classes.

Did I say something wrong? Are there things not to ask current students?

You’ve finally decided on a program, but what to know more about the student experience at the institution, and in the program. You’ve found some current students who are happy to answer your questions, and are waiting on your email. But, you start to wonder: what is appropriate to ask a current student? Is there anything I shouldn’t be asking?

Some questions do fall into the “taboo” category for many folks. Those questions usually fall into the benefits category of a students experience: how much are you getting in scholarships; how much are you getting paid if you have a job though the university; do you receive health insurance through the institute, etc. It is important to remember with questions like this that they are sensitive in nature, and can be information that many folks are not prepared, or willing to answer.

More then anything, though, I do want to address something which I was told when interviewing for gradaute programs: you can ask any question if you do it right, the worst they can say is no. The above questions are ones that many folks may feel are inappropriate or awakard to ask. But, for many, they are questions that you need to know: how much will you get paid if you’re paying for school yourself; your family doesn’t have insurance currently, will you be provided it. If you need to or want to know these things you should feel comfortable in asking them. But, what is critical is knowing HOW to ask these question.

Step 1: Don’t jump in

If this is the first time you’ve met someone, don’t jump right into a tough question. Get to know them, and discuss with them other components of their expereince before asking. Not only will this allow you to gauge whether or not it is applicable to ask the questions you want answer to, but it will also allow you to gain information related to the program and student’s experience you may not have expected. Getting to know the current students no matter what you may have to ask is critical for your future and success.

Step 2: Ask a lot of questions

No matter if you have difficult questions to ask, or simple ones, ask as many questions of students as you can. You may have a difficult question to ask, and that information comes out in response to another question, thereby eliminating the need to ask. No matter what, questions are helpful.

Step 3: The worst they can say is no

In the end, if you ask someone about their experience, and they decide that they dont want to answer the question, then that’s how its going to go. The worst someone can do is say they dont want to answer the question, or they dont feel comfortable to answer the question.

While, yes, there are some questions that fall into the “taboo” category (questions I will address in the following post), I personally believe that you should feel comfortable to ask any question of the current student. This is, at least, if you do so respectfully, mindfully, and understand that that person has the right to refuse to answer anything they do not feel comfortable answering. Asking very loaded or personal questions may be something that some people are comfortable answering, and others may not. Knowing how to ask someone these questions is, then, essential if one hopes to gain the information you seek. I would like to personally state that I am happy to answer any questions folks may have about my personal experiences or program if anyone has them: my name is Jimmy, and my email is

Civic Engagement; Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

This last weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. With the Civic Leaders Licing Learning Community. Student living in the Civic Leaders community are often members of the School of Public and Envrionmental Affairs (SPEA) and are interested in civic leadership, government, public service, and working with non-profits. This trip was planned in order to connect students to the federal government, as well as to give them an opportunity to meet with alumni living in the DC area what hey could discuss their current positions and opportunities to work in and around the federal government.

On the first day of the trip we traveled as a group to the Executive Building where we received a brief tour and then met with the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and several other members of their staff to discuss issues related to Black Lives Matters, the US prison system, the Its On Us Campaing, and college affordability. After visiting the the Executive Building, we traveled as a group to the Russel Senate building where students met with alumni of SPEA at an engagement. At the end of the evening, students were given free time to explore DC on their own.

The second day we woke early to travel to the Supremem Court, where we took a tour of the building and then had the opportunity to sit in the courtroom of the Supreme Court and to learn about the history of the judicial branch. From there we crossed the street to the Capitol building, and met with an economist, an editor from the Atlantic, and an Indiana senator to discuss the current election and hot topics related to college students in the United States. Free time followed these great discussions, and then was finished with a dinner at The Monocole near Capitol Hill, where students were introduced to current participants in the Washington Leadership Program.

On our final day in DC, we began with a visit to the Newseum where students were able to visit the exhibits, and followed by free time until we returned to the busses in order to return to Bloomington.

Throughout this trip, I was able to hear students say “this is exactly what I want to do after school,” or, “I cant believe that this is something I could do through SPEA.” These comments are what truly mattered about this trip. Students were able to see what they could accomplish with their dedication to academics and collegiate success. And to see the looks on their faces as they were introduced to these new avenues for their future was truly inspiring. It is rare that you are able to see students go through experiences such as this, and even rarer to be able to support those students in a way that could push them to achieving their dreams. I am excited, and ever so fortunate, to be able to work with these students for the rest of the year.

“Grad school may make you feel stupid”

“Grad school is suppose to make you feel stupid”, I  heard someone say before starting my own grad school journey. Wow -”Stupid”–Really? How am I supposed to respond to that, I thought? Was that a prediction that would become true for me?. All of these questions ran through my head before starting grad school in the fall of 2014.

The later realized that the person who probably said the above statement was making an observation rather than a prediction. I realized through my experience that graduate school is suppose to be training ground for both education and professional development. Thus, I would agree grad school has made me feel “stupid” not because of the difficulty but rather because of the vast amount of opportunities to expand my knowledge. Also, due to the nature of the grad school I have been able to expand my network of expertise by connecting with those in other disciplines. This means that while you can feel inadequate the fact that you can learn and be supported by others should bring you up. So while the idea of grad school making you feel stupid might not be appetizing, as a process grad school makes you a better student/scholar in the end.

Best of luck in grad school!

Prelimenary Grad Application Prep

So, you are thinking about applying to grad school, and you have identified a couple of universities where you want to submit applications. Great. Applaud yourself in having completed the first step to pursue your dream career and field of study.There are a couple of personal check-list items that you should consider getting answers to prior to submitting your application, which include inquiries about funding, relevant faculty research areas, and the prospective employment opportunities available during enrollment and post-graduation. With all these personal check-list items considered and well-researched, here are some other important questions to ask yourself in preparing your respective grad school applications:

  • Have you contacted the department/program where you want to apply?

Most students will send shortened, generic emails inquiring about their programs of interest. This does not necessarily help them to appear unique or different than other prospective applicants. Consider arranging a call with the graduate faculty administration, and professors with related research areas to make an lasting impression before your application materials are submitted. While most applicants will stop at an email, you will be ahead of the game with a personal touch.

  • Did you identify the deadline for each application you intend on submitting?

This is important. Many times, prospective graduate students want to apply several applications at once, which could make composing, paying, and requesting supplementary documents challenging. Remember, grad school application deadlines vary by department. When you are conducting research on your prospective department pages, identify the administrative staff and graduate faculty that will be handling your paperwork, and confirm the deadline with them via email. It helps to know whether an early application would make you a stronger candidate for admission based on your preparedness, and a little extra time for them to review your credentials.

  • Have you considered how you will pay for the application fees and transcripts?

Most prospective graduate students are so eager to apply to grad school that they do not seek out the most cost efficient options for submitting their applications. Do some research. Many programs will waive application fees for competitive or early applicants. Also, consider saving money during your senior year of undergrad to budget for potential transcript and application expenses.

Moral of the story:

Graduate school applications require lots of research and personal preparation. Do yourself a favor and be sure to start this process early, financially accountable, and confident that your application will not just be another one in the batch. Being honest with yourself, and knowing what is required to get where you want to go is essentially how you will reach that personal and academic destination.



What is a PhD? Research?

To understand grad school one should understand the term “Research”. What is your understanding of research? You might be thinking, it means the process of discovering a completely new groundbreaking technology by solving a very hard problem which no one has ever solved before. If so you might be wrong. It actually means the process of exploring the documented knowledge about solving various related and interconnected problems to gain directions/insights of designing a new approach to tackle the problem at hand in a better way leveraging the latest technologies. It includes conducting experiments in multiple settings (with various possible inputs) and sharing of your documented findings/inferences with the world so that we can progress collectively breaking the barriers of ignorance.

This illustration does an excellent job.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

  • By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:pic2
  • By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:pic3
  • With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a speciality:pic4
  • A master’s degree deepens that specialty:pic5
  • Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:pic6
  • Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:pic7
  • You push at the boundary for a few years:pic8
  • Until one day, the boundary gives way:pic9
  • And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:pic10
  • Of course, the world looks different to you now:pic11
  • So, don’t forget the bigger picture:pic12

Keep pushing! All the best!

Source via Quora: Matt Might, a professor in computer science at the University of Utah, created The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. to explain what a Ph.D. is to new and aspiring graduate students. Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.

Deciding on attending graduate school?

If you are a college junior or a senior wondering whether to go to grad school or not, hopefully this might help. However, this is valid more generally. It is imperative for most of you to be under pressure by your peers, family and the whole world itself. People start comparing with friends and other students to see if they can stay ahead in a so called ‘great competition’. ‘They’ say the competition is real. You should be on top of the world. So a natural advice would be to find your ‘passion’ and follow in the footsteps of your successful alumni/role model/idol in that field. It seems like the world expects you to figure it out all by yourself very quickly. That is not how humans and world work. As far as my wisdom goes, every individual is different and everyone has his/her own way of going about things in life. One may like to take more pressure, one might like to live life in a very leisure way. One might like to spend more time away from work.

Did you ever really spend time figuring out who exactly you are in life? Did you ever wonder why identical twins who look exactly same and brought up in exactly same environment grow up to be two very different individuals?

It might sound crazy to you but trust me you will feel a lot better after reading and trying this. I call this the process of ‘self-discovery’ and it is neither easy nor quick. There is nothing called ‘the moment of truth’ or ‘the judgement day’. It will not happen in a day, week, or even in a month. It takes years to figure out who you are. Then the answers to questions such as what do you want in life and how to go about achieving it, will be consequently answered. There are thousands of books, blogs, videos that talk about this process of self-discovery. For example, ‘they’ say that you need to be spiritual, religious or renounce the worldly pleasures to see who you really are. ‘They’ may be right. While I am not judging their ways, I found something really helpful, which might even be a shortcut in this process.

First of all – make up your mind and convince yourself that it is worth spending time to do this. Now, allocate a solid weekend. Go to a place alone where there is no Wi-Fi, people, etc. (you get the idea – A serene place, for example a lake, a beach, or similar). Put your phone in silent mode and start watching the nature for some time so that you should lose track of time. Don’t listen to any music. Pay utmost detail to the environment around you. Watch and listen carefully to each and everything around you. Just be present as much as you can. A thousand things may pass through your mind while doing so, just ignore them and try to focus on the environment. Practice observing the nature for at least half an hour. I know it is very hard to do so. But take a leap of faith! This practice helps you get on top of all the noise in your mind.

Now start thinking about some of the best moments of your life. Start visualizing those memories and focus on moments where you were this mindful while doing something.

Did you ever really extend/polish/overdo any projects related to your major both in and out of academics?

Do you love/enjoy reading more and more about any news, articles, books (both fiction and non-fiction) related to your major?

Were you that mindful while listening to your professors in the class?

Did you ever feel ‘mind-blown’ while listening to a lecture or a talk related to your major?

Did you ever feel the urge to learn more about a specific chapter/lesson/project?

Did you feel the urge to ask more and more questions which appear to be more abstract in nature but about the field in general?

Do you like to discuss about science/your related major more often when you look back at your most recent conversations with people?

If these questions struck a chord with you, then you might want to attend a grad school. Otherwise, you might want to reconsider your options.

The exercise I just talked about gives you a sense of direction and not even close to a decision. To come to a conclusion you need to do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people (I mean really!). I received some of the best advice from my professors and other alums who were pursuing graduate studies.

  • A lake in Bloomington, IN

Monroe Lake in Bloomington, IN


Grad school is a marathon

Grad school can often feel like a sprint to the finish. However, grad school should be experienced as more like a marathon or triathlon due to the twists and turns that can happen until the coveted graduation day arrives.

First off, as a student you have to balance courses, research, internship experience, etc…while trying to balance a social life. This means that while grad school can be difficult to handle due to having to balance competing things, it is an experience that is spread out over several years in order to be successful. Thus, grad school is more of a marathon than a 100-m dash to the finish line. Also, remember that grad school is not a solo experience where all the runners are running individually, but rather it is an opportunity to connect with your peers, faculty, and administrators in order to be successful.

I hope that throughout your individual graduate school journey you are encouraged by knowing that its is more of a marathon and that you can pace yourself rather than feel rushed in order to finish.

Purpose in the Journey


Reflecting back to my high school days is bittersweet sometimes. I remember how awkward I was as teen with the usual insecurities about body image, and desiring to stand-out on my own merit. These cherished, yet bittersweet memories I hold of my adolescence are some of the key incidences that affirmed the purpose in my journey. I was curious in high school. I tried different things like writing poetry, reading philosophy, and trying out for the track team. These experiences were fun, as a matter of fact, they were telling in regards to foreshadowing the journey that I embarked, which would bring me to IU as a Ph.D. student in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

Hindsight is an interesting metacognitive reality for many of us when it appears, because we typically are caught off guard by it, which is the best thing for us in the long run in my opinion. We are enlightened by our previous experiences to reflect on the possibility of some pre-destined journey that we are paving with our personal testimonies and goals. This moment of hindsight reflection is never-ending. What becomes our journey is the compilation of experiences leading us to identify our purpose. It was the lessons learned, hardships, and triumphs of my unintended high school experiences that shaped me to be able to attend IU years later, when I really think about it.

In truth, writing poetry as a teen was something that helped me express myself. It wasn’t that I could not talk. I actually think I talk too much sometimes. Self-admittedly, I could be a better listener. Nonetheless, I realized when I would write poetry as a teen in high school, I became more of an empathetic person. Through deliberating my own internal workings, and allowing myself to feel, I became more confident conversing with people in different settings. Whether I meet someone at an academic networking event, or hold my own class discussions as an Associate Instructor in my Ph.D. program, I was channeling that teenage girl that just wanted to connect with people on a human level. I wanted to relate to people through their good and bad experiences, through their vulnerabilities expressed in writing and discussion.

Reading philosophy was interesting too, because I had a psychology/history teacher in high school who embodied “philosopher” just by the way he said hello to us. He may be too shy for me to share his name on this post, but I will just say that his hello’s were kind of like, “You have something on your mind, I can tell before you said hello, and that is okay. We all have something on our minds subconsciously that is looking for acknowledgement, a welcoming, to be invited to our conscious reality.” The point of sharing this meaningful, awkward, yet humorous dialogue is that it made me interested in “digging deeper.” It made me want to search into my soul for something bigger than my physical shell. Shortly after this spiritual awakening, I bought a philosophy book filled with Western classical intellectual thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, etc.

I understood very little in the book at first, but I just kept rereading it on my own. I didn’t tell anyone I was reading it, and it was not assigned for school. I read it until I could find the meaning that most related to me, and my understanding of the world around me. It opened me up to the possibility of differences in approach, and most importantly, the art of constructing arguments. This came in handy years later when I began my core readings and coursework in my major field of study. There will be tons of reading and new information you will encounter at an Research 1 institution. Academic reading is no easy skill to master, but my strategy is that I try to find the relativity and application still as I graze the lines of my books with my electrical pencil, making those marginal notes that carry my conscious and subconscious inquiries.

When I tried out for the track team, I was really just trying to prove that I was more than just beauty and brains. I wanted to be an exceptional athlete too. This didn’t quite workout as I had intended because I quit tryouts within two weeks of this goal, but the memory of it is something that I promised I would not forget. I quit because I was loosing weight too fast, and I thought that I would lose more than I was gaining in trying to prove to myself in something that I was not passionate about at all. I did not really want to run for fun or competitively, so what was the point in trying out? I needed a better reason than “just because.” I realized the day that I quit in my reflection that I was trying to fit-in based on a fixed idea that I had to be good at everything, or else I was not good at all. I realize now that I can be comfortable with a passion for helping people, and educating them on the humanity of African-descendants in relationship to their own. I do not have a status-driven job with lots of lucrative benefits. Although working benefits are always welcomed with me.

I am happy that I chose Indiana University, Bloomington as a place to be cultivated and rigorously prepared based on its available resources and standard of excellence. More than anything else, I realize that life is a marathon. This journey towards my purpose is an on-going pursuit that began the moment I dared to pay attention to what I had been attempting all along in high school. I just wanted to write my own story. I wanted to tell it from the depths of who I am, and lastly have the effort I put into it reflected in what I apply in my work. I am still a work in progress, and I love it. I am on my way.