Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Here is another WomanOfScience’s story of her process of applying to graduate school.

My experience applying to graduate school probably has more examples of what not to do than what to do. The story starts the during the summer before my senior year of undergrad. I was on my way to Germany to participate in a “Research Internships in Science and Engineering” program sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service. I planned on using some of my time outside of lab to look into graduate programs online. When I arrived at my little apartment for the summer, I discovered there was no internet service. I would have to go to to internet cafe a few blocks down the street. I thought this would be only a slight change of plans. As soon as I got over my jet-lag, I realized that exploring a new country and watching soccer were much more interesting than looking into graduate programs.

Ten weeks later I returned to the U.S. to start my senior year of undergrad with no more inclination about where to go to graduate school, or even in what field. Some days, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go. Was going to grad school something that was just expected of me because I was a strong student? I suppose I did want to go based on a lack of interest in teaching high school (I didn’t want to deal with parents) and my lack of interest in a lab tech position (I wanted to be in charge). As far as what field, I had been considering three or four different ones, all STEM and somewhat related to each other, but this didn’t give me a lot of confidence in my ability to make this big a decision about my career. I felt like I was all over the place and casting my net too wide. Have you heard of the paradox of choice? Too many options makes a decision harder, rather than easier. That sums up the fall semester of my senior year pretty well. I told myself if I just dedicated a few minutes each day to looking at programs, I’d have a list of things I’d like to apply to in no time. On the days did manage to dedicate some time to looking at programs, those few minutes ended up being just before bed when I was already exhausted and stressed. Looking at yet another program’s website and becoming more confused quickly led me to believe I should just go to bed; I’d see something different, something that would make this decision easier if I only had fresh eyes. I went to bed, but often couldn’t sleep since I had gotten myself so stressed out.

At some point I decided this couldn’t go on. My first decision when it came to applying to graduate school was that I was only going to choose programs whose deadline was after January 1st so that I could work on application materials over winter break and not have to worry about them at the same time as final exams for the semester. I went through the programs I had bookmarked and just checked the application date. I was able to narrow them from who knows how many to about ten programs in three different fields. I also started sleeping a bit better, when I made time for that.

At home on Christmas break, at some point between singing carols and wrapping presents for my younger cousins I took out my list of ten schools and my dad’s atlas that guided all of the family road trips we took growing up. I looked at the likely outdated population suggestions and eliminated two schools because I couldn’t picture myself living in a big city. I actually thought I would have eliminated more programs this way.

Finally, once all the presents had been unwrapped and we said goodbye to family members, I was relaxed and had some time to think about the actual research and science in the programs remaining on my list. Only at this point was I able to take the advice from my professors and choose programs where I thought there were a few different faculty I would be interested in working for. Doing this for a list of eight was much more manageable than doing this from a list all of the programs out there. I chose five to apply to (there were still three different fields represented in my list), writing my personal essay about how my experience in Germany working with a graduate student mentor who was not confident in his English (generally, I understood him just fine) helped me realize the important role communication has in science and for this reason I was interested in pursuing a career in science policy. It’s now my fifth year of graduate school and I still have the same interest and career goals.

I emailed my undergraduate professors while they were also on break and asked for letters of recommendation just a week before the first deadline (really, don’t do this. Give your letter writers a lot more time than I did.) Before I left for winter break, I had warned them this would likely be the case, but couldn’t give them any details at that time. I started submitting my materials in mid January and sent in my last application just a few days into the spring semester.

By March I had found out that I was accepted into all five programs. Some people may tell you this is a sign that I didn’t push myself. Those “reach” schools were probably in bigger cities or had earlier application deadlines and were among those I had eliminated in my early rounds of decision making. Also by March, I had finally realized that one of the three fields had risen to the top, so I visited only the two programs in that field. After my visits, I took all the time I could deciding between them. Reputation, H-index, alumni employment, even time to graduation weren’t factors that I considered strongly. I chose the program where the faculty I met were more excited about their work and where the students I met seemed genuinely happier.

While I doubt it’s highly recommended, I view my path as a success. Given the chance, I would choose the same program again, just maybe not in the same way.

Have advise for someone else applying to graduate school, undergraduate, postdocs, or tenure track positions? Comment or post here!

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