In the image above, you could see the recruitment fair, where about 1000 energetic undergraduate and master’s students are exploring opportunities for graduate studies at more than 300 colleges and universities across the nation. This is the “California Forums for Diversity in Graduate Education”. I had the opportunity to visit the forum at University of California at Santa Barbara on November 7 on behalf of the University Graduate School of Indiana University.
I am an avid fan of boardgames. So many of the lessons that I have learned so far in my PhD journey can be tied back to particular experiences shared around the gaming table.
One of my favorite board games is Settlers of Catan. If you have never heard of Settlers of Catan, I recommend that you create a new tab, go to Amazon, and buy it immediately.
Settlers of Catan is a strategy resource management game in which the objective is to gain resources (wood, sheep, wheat, brick, and ore) and build/settle on the island of Catan. Pretty simple, right? Well, as with many things in life, it is not as simple as it seems. In the game, you must trade with players in order accomplish your goal of building as many settlements as you need in order to win. This can make the game quite an experience.
As in Catan, you must be diligent in research as you bring together your resources (data, time, subjects, ideas, and finally publications) to be successful. An excellent element of the game is that collaboration amongst the players is almost always required to be able to win. This means that learning from your advisor and peers on how to improve your research should be considered a resource that will allow you to become a winner (i.e. published first author on an article/chapter/book, snag an awesome postdoc,or whatever the goal is in your field).
However, you must keep in mind that everyone around the table wants to win, so YOU must be resourceful and meticulous in your strategy/approach. Make sure that the people you align with have your best interests at heart, and don’t be afraid to invest in others as well. Research is important, so make sure that you utilize and maximize your resources to ensure that you achieve a win!
Here’s to playin’ the game. I’ll see you at the board.
Once you’ve decided that you want to go to graduate school, it’s time to prepare you application packet. You need to draft and edit your personal statement (and edit it again, and again, and again—trust me), you need to ask your faculty for letters of recommendation, you need to take the GRE, you need to compile transcripts, and so on. Yes, it’s tedious and stressful process. Be proactive, get started now! The more time you give yourself, the more prepared you will feel when it is time to hit submit on your applications.
Let me add one thing to this list. Ask yourself where you want to go. I mean it, really consider were you want to go and compile your list of schools. Ask those same professors who will be writing letters of recommendation for you if they have any suggestions. Consider their suggestions. Research the schools and the programs. But keep in mind these are just suggestions. The list can and will change.
When I was applying to graduate school, I visited IU in October as part of the Getting You Into IU program and I knew IU was at the top of my list. But between October and December I often asked myself if I really wanted to move from California to the Midwest. I did. So my list of schools included 3 in California, 5 in the Midwest and 2 in the East Coast. Friends, family, and mentors often asked me if I was sure about my decision to leave California if I was not admitted to any of those schools, and I was. But, maybe you can’t see yourself living in the opposite coast or you don’t want to leave your home state.
Why is the list of schools so important?
- Application costs pile up quickly so it’s in your best interest to be selective.
- You need to apply to places you can see yourself living in. You’re about to spend at least 5 years in a program, you need to be happy where you are.
Grad school is challenging enough, pick a school in a city or town you really want to live in.
Earlier this week, prospective students visited IU as part of the “Getting You Into IU” recruitment program. It was a pleasure meeting these students and learning about their interests, their backgrounds, where they’re from, and even sharing with them some things about my experience as a doctoral student. These students took initiative and applied for a program that ultimately gave them a glimpse into graduate life at IU. They had individualized schedules, met with faculty in their departments of interest, and were able to see what Bloomington has to offer…all in less than 48 hours!
Even if it’s not an institutionalized program such as GU2IU, I encourage you to visit your campus of interest and connect with current students. Sometimes, those conversations and visits are all you need to affirm (or disprove) your idea that a particular institution is or is not for you. It’s so important to hear from those individuals who are where you ultimately want to be and it’s equally important to see the lay of the land.
When speaking with current students, ASK QUESTIONS! Students are going to be honest and transparent with you so just about everything is up for grabs; nothing is off limits. What’s the workload like? How do I find an assistantship? Where can I get my hair done? How is the nightlife? What’s the dating scene like? Where should I live? All of these (and so many more) are good questions that current students can enlighten you on.
During GU2IU, I exchanged contact information with prospective students and have even talked with some since they left a few days ago. Keep the connections going. Stay in contact, stay engaged. When this happens, you’re one step ahead in the process of building your community. So, when you arrive at your institution (IU, of course!), those students you met will be welcoming you with open arms.
If there is one thing that I heard often before I entered graduate school and even when I arrived, it was that this experience can be an isolating, lonely one…IF I make it that way. As a result of hearing these words of wisdom from friends and mentors, I made it my business to be intentional in creating a support network while building and sustaining community on campus.
As a first year graduate student, I have quickly learned some of the tricks of the trade for surviving the first year.
- DON’T isolate yourself during the first year. Grad school is hard enough already so don’t carry the burden alone. This leads me to the first DO:
- DO enjoy and get to know your cohort during the first year. These people will be around you (for better or worse) for many, many, many years to come. They will be your future colleagues. Therefore at least some of them should be your support system, therapist, editor, friend or whatever else you needs to get through grad school. BUT…
- DON’T start comparing yourself with your cohort or other students. Being a grad student itself is extremely challenging, but once you start comparing yourself with others the challenge can become unbearable. Remember that the first year for EVERYONE is an extremely difficult time, where people start doubting themselves and their ability to be a successful graduate student. It’s also an extremely humbling process, but the struggle becomes more bearable when you are not afraid to seek out help or advice. This leads me to the last rule:
- NEVER be afraid to ask questions or seek help from professors or fellow students. If you don’t understand the readings, start a reading group. If you doubt your writing, ask a fellow student to help you with ideas and edits. If you don’t know how to frame your research ideas, reach out to a professor. Remember that no one assumes that you should know everything or that you are dumb for asking questions. After all, if you already posses all the knowledge, then what’s the point of going to grad school?
As I move into my 3rd year in the PhD program in Sociology, it is becoming more and more evident that I am no longer a student, but a scholar. This is my last year with courses, so very soon there will be a great deal of freedom in terms of time, with which I will be expected to develop my own intellectual identity. And this is not easy.
The first year in my program I was really just surviving because the work and the local culture was very different for me. My second year was somewhat easier as I began to get the hang of things and learned to use my time more strategically. As I enter my 3rd year there is pressure, but now you place most of it on yourself. Ultimately it is on you to pace yourself, gain great mentorship, and more importantly BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. This is all a process and at times grad school can feel very unproductive, but remember every aspect of your graduate education is there to provide you value. You are not only gaining intellectual and discipline specific training, you are also learning life skills. Think about it!
As you continue to present your research, you gain more comfortability in receiving and incorporating feedback. The more responsibilities you take on, the greater understanding you gain in what you are actually able to handle.
The moral of this post is you have no idea what grad school can do for you outside of the obvious training. But grad school, like life, is a process. And if you embrace what you can gain, rather then what you are giving up or missing out on, your journey from student to scholar will be as much a life transformation as it will be a journey in professionalization.
This past week, I took a break from reading for class (procrastination is a must) and decided to read MARCH, a graphic novel by Congressman John Lewis and his co-creators Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. It’s a graphic novel like any other, it has a superhero and villains, but this one is based on real life characters.
On Monday September 21, 2015, Congressman Lewis, Aydin, and Powell came to the IU Auditorium to talk about MARCH.There is ALWAYS something going on in Bloomington! Not only was it great to hear them deliver an incredibly powerful message, it was fun to get to talk to them and have them sign my copies of the novel.
As a history nerd, I enjoyed hearing Congressman Lewis’ talk about his experience during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In addition to that, he and his co-creators had a powerful and inspirational message to share that resonated with me, this generation is capable of doing as much as the generation of the 1960s did. Lewis had a challenge for us all, “stand up, speak up, speak out, and find a way to get in the way…” “…get into good trouble!”
This morning at 8am, I joined my U215 students (freshmen Hudson & Holland Scholars) in our discussion section where we engaged in a very robust conversation regarding the “college for all” crusade and the question of whether or not a college education is really the “golden ticket” to success. My students, who are extremely bright and vocal, shared their various opinions, but by the end of the conversation, they all reached the same conclusion: college is definitely worth it.
As a graduate student, there are times when I ask myself, “Is this thing called graduate school really worth my time, effort, sleepless nights, MONEY, and all of the other sacrifices I have given and continue to give for this PhD?” Even though I have these moments that sometimes manifest themselves in the form of griping and complaining, I still manage to draw the same conclusions as my students: It really is worth it!
If you are grappling with the question: “To go or not to go to graduate school?'” because of the major costs involved (in terms of dollars and cents and the intangible things like time), do not let those thoughts deter you from pursuing a graduate degree. Yes, it’s important to count up the cost, but do not get so wrapped up in the costs that you negate the benefits, both tangible and intangible. Be your own cheerleader and encourage yourself as you prepare your application. Speak to mentors, faculty members, others in your field about your decision. Extra affirmation is always a good thing. It’s simple. If you really see yourself conducting research, diving deep into areas of interest and informing the work in that field, go for it!
I’m entering my 7^th (hopefully final) year at Indiana University. It’s been an amazing journey in graduate education for me. I entered in 2009, aiming to get my Ph.D. in Mathematics. Coming from a university where I was involved in math club, student government, voluntarily tutored, and started a discussion group (HIGH ACTIVITY LEVEL), I was really interested in continuing to have a range of activities in graduate school. However, those dreams were immediately slashed to pieces. I quickly found that the demands of graduate school far exceeded my expectations and that almost all my waking minutes were spent reading about hard topics and attending study groups. Before I knew it, my first couple of years of graduate school were over and I had only participated in one summer REU, which I call an extra curricular activity so that there’s at least one to add to the list. Although I knew quite a bit about my discipline, it was a treacherous road of sacrifice to get to that point. I was un happy and left the program.
Before leaving, I made the decision to be more active in my next endeavor. I had a mild interest in psychology so I attended a few lab meetings in the department. IT WAS AWESOME! In 2012, I joined the department. To avoid falling into the same spiral of all work and no play, I made a commitment to go bowling once a week and attend game nights once a month. Being engaged in secondary activities and having a social life was/ is crucial for happiness and success in graduate studies!
Last year, my sixth year, I made the biggest leap of faith thus far. . . I actually committed to an organization! The Emissaries for Graduate Student Diversity were looking for new students to “broaden the participation of underrepresented students; and, to build a more inclusive IU Bloomington graduate student community.” Joining this group has been one of the BEST decisions I’ve ever made for 1. my academic life, and 2. fulfilling my personal goals. It gave/ gives me a sense of personal achievement, and has exposed me to a number of different research topics and personalities outside of my discipline. In the spring of 2015, I visited my alma mater, Morgan State University on a recruitment mission for the program. While there, I found that there was a such a gap between the HBCU experience and Indiana University. Going back opened my eyes to the vast amount of research that happens at HBCU’s (something that is not always apparent as a undergraduate at a predominantly black campus. . . perhaps another topic) and I realized that they are accomplishing their goals on sometimes half the budget that an Indiana University institution operates on. Such an experience gives a breadth of perspective on not only the type of research being done in one’s field, but also perspective on career environments, resource allotment, coworker dedication, and how my life as a graduate student is going to funnel into these areas. WoW. It only took 6 years to get here, but being engaged in non-research oriented goals adds so much to the graduate student experience.