Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

It was a long time ago, but I remember applying to graduate school. It was my senior year at SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and I knew I wanted to continue science in my MaleDominatedField. That meant applying to graduate school. The task was daunting. I was very worried I would not get in anywhere.

Looking back and understanding the psychology of it, I realize I was suffering from major StereotypeThreat. I knew that my field was male dominated, so I felt like I could not make it into graduate school because I was a woman. Further, StereotypeThreat played a significant role in my ability on the required SubjectGRE exam required by almost all graduate schools in my field. I knew women did not do well on the SubjectGRE in my field. I knew that LiberalArts Students also did poorly (male or female), so I had a double whammy. (I was also at a special SmallLiberalArtsCollege that was women-only – sheesh!). The protective and nurturing environment of the Women’sCollege was actually harmful because I knew it would ultimately hurt me on this exam, and so many schools straight out use that number to decide your ability to do well in graduate school. JUst as a matter of record, I did really poorly on the SubjectGREs. The typical cut-off is the 50th percentile, and I am pretty such I hit the 30th. I was pretty bummed about my prospects of getting into graduate school anywhere.

As far as the rest of my packet – I have no idea what I wrote. I am sure it was stupid. I did have a 4.0 in all my MajorCourses and I think I had good letters from my professors. One benefit of SmallLiberalArtsSchools is that many professors know you very well. I had three letters from professors who knew me, and my abilities in class and in research first hand.

I submitted 8 applications to schools that were mostly in the top 20 in my field. When I got my first acceptance, I was so happy and grateful I could fly. It wasn’t even a safety school. In the end, I was rejected from 2 schools. These 2 are well-known weed-out schools, so I might not have survived anyway. I got into 2 other top 10 schools, and they became my focus to try to decide where to go.

Deciding where to go was another issue. One thing that was very important to me was how the graduate students felt and acted. I visited one school where the students were just depressed. They were so down trodden and defeated that I couldn’t imagine going there. Other places, the students were happy and positive about their work and future. Other than that, and the ranking, I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about what to look for. I was pretty naive.

In the end, the awful SubjectGRE didn’t matter once I got in. I acted like it didn’t exist and didn’t let it drag me down in grad school. I saw that it was only one test that lasted for 3 hours of my life, and I majorly failed it. Luckily, plenty of schools decided it didn’t matter as much as the other parts of my application. Being able to put it behind me and having confidence in my abilities in class and in research allowed me to excel in actual graduate school, which is nothing like the SubjectGRE. Even though a couple schools didn’t want to give me a chance, the ones that did were smart, and the one I went to is lucky I accepted. I was very successful in grad school and after, and that success reflects back on them and their forethought in letting me in and educating me well. Looking back, I still feel anxiety about big tests where I know I won’t do well. Luckily, I don’t have to take those anymore.

Any other stories out there on their experience in applying to graduate school? If so, comment or post. We would love to hear you share your story.

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