Graduate Program: how to choose?

I have been asked this question so many times and some of us have had open debates on what is most important when it comes to choosing a graduate program. What is important to me is not going to necessarily be the same things that are important to you. But I would like to attempt to share some thoughts on what I now think I should have considered and why.

  1. Funding
  2. Advisor
  3. Program Rank (Accreditation)
  4. Location/Cost of Living
  5. Diversity

1)  Funding: This should be one of the top items considered when costing a program. A graduate program is rigorous without having to worry about where your tuition and stipend sources are going to come from. In any program you choose, ensure that you have at least the first year FULLY funded (without having to become a teaching assistant). This will allow you time to acclimate to your new environment. Finding funding is challenging but there are many untapped resources. As a woman and a minority, it is a proud moment and platform to display diverse excellence.

2) Advisor: Finding an advisor was the next important thing for me. Although in the program I chose you don’t choose a professor till  the end of your first semester, it was important for me to have the options and opportunity. Having options on which advisors are accepting students also means having possible funding options. The last thing you want to do is show up to a school with no advisor in mind.

3) Program Rank: This one I think is self explanatory but I will say that if you are able to chose a professor you can relate to and who understands your vision (which is not always the case), you can have a groundbreaking PhD. At the end of the day you can go to the number one school in your program but if you do not get the support that you need (Funding/Professor), your work will suffer. Any institution you attend, ensure that it is accredited. Also become familiar with their transfer policies in case anything should happen.

4) Location and Cost of Living: For me these two were equally important because I wanted to be in a place where I could get to my family if there was an emergency. Especially since I would be flying out of the country. It was important that the location was also affordable because student stipends are just that: A stipend. Just enough for you to get by per month but not too much to get comfortable where you feel the need to become a “professional” student.

5) School Diversity: Looking back now, ESPECIALLY as a black women, I feel as if I should have spent more time looking into this factor. This would have determined how small or large my support system would have been. If you have a strong support system in your undergraduate institution or home support system, you can use these relationships to give you strength. Honestly, wherever you go fora  tertiary education, as a minority you are going to be one of few. If not in your school then in your field. But do not let this define your experience.

Tell us, what were your most important considerations? Feel free to share items not on the list. Let’s help each other out!

xoxo

“What I wish I knew” – Jasmine Dillon

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You will learn many things by word of mouth – learn to connect with experienced colleagues.

  1. For example, knowing where and how to get funding for your graduate program, which conferences to attend, how to conduct yourself at conferences, parsing through your hypotheses and perspectives, and learning to improve your oral and written communication can all be things you accomplish simply by having relationships with people in your department. Of course, since graduate school is a highly competitive and high-pressure environment, it is important to choose wisely.

As a species, we humans run our mouths a lot. Much of what comes out of them is bullshit, especially when you’re in a high pressure, competitive environment like graduate school.

  1. Learn to discern bullshit from the real and try to stop comparing yourself to the things they say. Learn to be self-motivated. Gauge your performance in graduate school by your individual benchmarks and your progress towards them. There will be times when you’re ahead and times when you’re behind, and that’s NORMAL. Develop a plan for getting to the finish line and always re-evaluate your progress and adjust accordingly to stay on track.

Make friends with people who reach out to mentor you.

  1. These are typically people who understand the process, know a lot more about the resources available to you, and see something in you that compels them to support you on your journey. Set your pride aside and be open to their feedback. These people are on your team. Ask for help with school, life, navigating difficult circumstances, etc. To this day, these people are still friends and mentors of mine who have helped me navigate new and tough situations in work and in life. I’ve learned that graduate school and life are a lot easier when you are able to set your pride aside and ask for help. Your mentors are typically ready and willing to give advice.

Life doesn’t begin after you graduate. Life is happening now and as far as we know, you only get one. What are the implications of this?

  1. You don’t have to wait for graduation to become the “you” that you want to be. Contrary to popular belief, you can be a good graduate student and have hobbies outside of graduate school. In fact, I’ve found that my work performance is improved when I partake in fulfilling hobbies outside of work. Most recently, this has been powerlifting and body building with a close friend of mine (shoutout to my SWOLEMate!) who is also “part of my tribe”, as Jessica Gibbs put it.
  2. That said, you don’t have to do everything NOW. Pick and choose carefully what you decide to involve yourself in. You only have so much time, energy, and focus. Choose wisely and take care of yourself.
  3. Be yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to learn institutional norms to succeed in graduate school. That said, once you’ve learned to navigate these norms, I think that the academy is also a place for your individuality to flourish. It is your unique perspective and approach to problem solving that enables you to make novel contributions to your research area. A professor once told me that as I proceeded through my career, I would have insights and inclinations about the systems that I was studying. She told me to hold on to those and to let them guide my work. To accomplish this, I had to stop trying to conform and assimilate and at times let my freak flag fly – with well-thought out logical arguments and defenses, of course 😉.
  4. Live your life. Work hard. Rest hard. Repeat. Take that trip. Get that tattoo. Start that relationship. End that relationship. Always wanted to learn to play an instrument? Take lessons. Get fit? Learn to paint? Make music? Become a competitive slam poet? Pursue these hobbies. It will give you something to think about other than graduate school and can become an outlet for relieving stress.

Finally, life is about growth in my opinion. During graduate school, you have an opportunity for accelerated growth. Figure out how you work best and become your own manager. This will serve you well whether you continue in academia or go on to do something else.

My mantra: “[Insert some motivational quote that resonates with you here.] Hahaha. But seriously, just BE!”

“What I wish I knew” – Indira Turney

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Grad school has been pivotal to the woman I am growing into. I am now at a place of peace, happiness, and continued growth. Here are my main take-homes:

Change is inevitable
Most of my most adult years to date have been spent in grad school. Our early adult years come with many major life changes and adding the stress of grad school created a lot of uncertainty in my life. I used to hate uncertainty, so when it became an everyday thing, it began to wear me down. I eventually realized that one thing that was certain in life was change. The end result is always for the best, so I have come to accept change and try to enjoy life’s moments instead of worrying about what comes next. It’s going to be great, right? So why worry? Don’t miss life’s amazing moments by worrying what’s next because there will always be another uncertain thing around the corner. Leave that up to God.

Consistent self-care is vital
Self-care (e.g., gym, sleep, quality time with family and friends etc.) was always the first to go when work became too much. However, within the last year I realized that once I put my self- care first and was consistent with it, it positively affected all aspects of my life. Make time for yourself and learn to say no to things that prevent you from doing so. I also realized that having a self-care accountability buddy helped me be more consistent, especially when it was someone who did some of my self-care activities with me (i.e. gym partner/swolemate).

A support system is crucial
Grad school is tough. In undergrad, you can get away with being a loner, but in grad school, if you want to be mentally stable, it’s important to have a selective group of friends that you can vent to (about personal and academic struggles), celebrate milestones, cry and learn life lessons. I have a small group of people I rely on for support. I must also say that having my dog, Buddy, has been a great support for my mental health. From a slightly different perspective, networking is also essential. This includes connecting with a mentor or life coach (someone independent of your academic advisor), which will make a world of difference. As I mentioned before, many important life decisions are made during this time and it’s helpful to have someone who’s already gone through it, help you navigate.

It takes more than intelligence
During undergrad, your intelligence is very valuable. In graduate school it’s important, but really you typically only know a whole lot about a very specific topic. Perseverance is more important here. It’s about being able to get back up when you didn’t get that award or publication or when that experiment doesn’t work. It’s about continuing the fight and not doubting your ability to succeed.

It’s a place of growth
Again, because of the battles you face in grad school, your morals and values will be
challenged, and your worldview will change. You will learn who you are and what you truly value in this life. It will break you down and build you back up, and in the process, you will learn valuable life lessons that make you a better version of yourself.

My Mantra: “Focus on the now; you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

“What I wish I knew” – Brittani Halliburton

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As a young African American female professional, I wish I knew that I would learn tons of things I did not like to do before I learned or found anything I actually like to do.

In law school, we were taught to go out for internships at large firms or companies and make great impressions in hopes to be offered the opportunity to return the following year and so forth until you are ultimately offered a job after passing the bar. Hearing this constantly could easily sway you to believe that is the only way to become a successful attorney. When in fact that is not true at all, it is not the only way. But in the spirit of following the “rules”, I found myself applying for internships and working in certain areas of law because I thought those were the areas that I wanted to practice, and I thought I was doing what was right.

However,  I wish I knew I would learn things I don’t like before I ever learned anything I did like because I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself during the process of school, interning and entry-level jobs. I allowed the dislike for things I went through at internships and on jobs to negatively impact my confidence, and I allowed self-doubt to rise inside of me.

Had someone sat me down and simply explained that I would learn things I did not like before I found anything I did…it would have helped me to see that it was not that I was doing a bad job or that I wasn’t good at the work assigned but that it just wasn’t where my heart or interested lied.

I would have also looked for the silver lining more often. I would have worked to find things I could take from those internships and jobs instead of just beating myself up.

So as someone that has learned what I love by first learning what I disliked I encourage you to stand firm and hold your head up even if you are doing something you dislike. Don’t beat yourself up, thinking you aren’t good at the job or knock your self-confidence as a first resort. It’s possible that you are just learning what you dislike and that’s ok.

My Mantra: “First believe that you can and then accept that you will” 

What I wish I knew – KayLa Allen

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I wish I knew that no matter what I could overcome every struggle that came my way, from the beginning. I faced adversity, discrimination, abuse, and depression all at once for years, and I struggled deeply until I realized that everything that I needed was already inside of me. No matter what you deal with, it is not the end-all-be-all. You can move beyond your circumstances.
I wish I knew that there are people out there who are great mentors and advisors, who are the great counsel that God said He would send forth. I kept finding myself following my heart instead of my mind and spirit. I thought I knew what I wanted and it took  what I perceived as failure before I was able to see that I needed to use the gifts and talents that God gave me. I needed to take those exact qualities and values and build a brand and career for myself that incorporated my passion for global health, helping others, epidemiology and psychology.
Lastly, I wish I knew that there were so many scholarship and grant opportunities out there. I did not grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, nor did I live in the suburbs. I grew up in a 1 bedroom apartment with my single mother; it was tough. The counselors/advisors at my high school were not exactly helpful, so at first I did struggle in college. After a year, I learned the power that I had right at my fingertips. Use the internet to search for scholarships that are specific to you and your ambitions. Join organizations that are related to your career goals and make connections. You do have the power, do not be afraid to ask for help! The only questions that are stupid are the ones that you do not ask.
Now, my journey in college is not over, but I am proud to say that I am a 4.0 GPA Master’s Candidate in a great Public Health Program; next year I will begin my doctoral program and study Epidemiology.
Your education is power, use your knowledge as pearls of wisdom and never stop reaching for higher levels.
Her Mantra: “Whatever you want to do, if you want to be great at it, you have to love it and be able to make sacrifices for it.” -Maya Angelou

“What I wish I knew” – Kirsten Williams

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What I wish I knew prior to beginning this journey is that self-care and positive mental health are incredibly important to have a grasp on prior to embarking upon a journey that will literally test everything you know about yourself and those important to you. Pursuing a degree of higher learning truly requires genuine self-reflection and much understanding of who you are and what you’re made of.  For me, that journey required a deep and intimate inspection of my passion(s), my goals, my family relationships, and my personal relationships. I needed to understand choices that I made, decisions that were apart of cycles of learned behavior, and how to overcome and forgive myself and others for the things that truly held a lot of weight on who I was as a woman. I also had to align my newfound understandings with my What, Why, and How to make sure that I sought clarity and spiritual guidance that was consistent; and that all of it made as much sense as it could.

Life isn’t perfect, and it certainly is not easy. However, sometimes we must examine the rolls we play in where we are in life and constantly engage in self-care and self-reflection to become a version of ourselves that is stronger than our strongest excuse. As a Black woman, I understand the strength that I am made of. However, as Black women, we also must know when to protect that strength and focus on nurturing ourselves before other people. Embarking on this journey of self-care and positive mental health opened my mind to abilities that I either knew I possessed but initially had trouble tapping into or abilities that I didn’t even know I possessed. This made me a better student and person, and opened my life up to new, positive experiences. It’s scary to confront things and people that have been a significant part of your “routine” or thought processes for so many years – or for your entire life. Ultimately, I made the decision to be fearless in the pursuit of what I needed to do for my soul – for my future self. I remember always seeing quotes on social media about walking confidently in the direction of your dreams, and that is exactly what life, and grad school, are all about.

Her Mantra: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”                                                                                                       ― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

 

Kirsten Williams
Juris Doctorate Candidate

“What I wish I knew” – Felicia Wenah

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As a current Doctor of physiotherapy student, I entered this profession due to my love for physical medicine and assisting patients to alleviate pain and improve their mobility. I still have that main mission and driving force in mind in addition to showing others that they can pursue a profession/passion even if they don’t noticed others that look like them within that profession and the importance of enjoying the journey. My profession currently consists of the majority being women and then within that subcategory a small percentage of women are of African descent. There are numerous reasons that one can suggest why this is an occurrence. For me, instead of solely focusing the “why” I focused on the “how”. How can I expose others of diverse backgrounds to my profession if it is of interest to them. I didn’t want to wait until after I graduated to help with this cause, so as a current doctor of physiotherapy student I spend some of my time mentoring and sharing advice to others of diverse backgrounds that may be interested in the field of physiotherapy.

In my young adulthood, I have realized that one’s exposure can have powerful effect on their state of mind and the possibilities they see for their future. Another thing that I share with others is to not worry about the destination. Yes, those that came before us in our profession that paved the way may have thought about the destination.  But, I am sure they took time to honor their journey with the moments of victory and achievements they received. I wish that I knew that even though I may not see a diverse representation of those in my profession doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. I also wish that I knew to just honor the current journey that I am experiencing and not to focus solely on the destination. School  will go by quickly, (even though it may not seem like it) so being present in the moment and enjoying the journey is a necessity.

Her mantra: “They journey of a thousand steps, starts with one” …so get going.

Felicia Wenah, Doctor of Physiotherapy Candidate

University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences

“What I wish I knew” – Ziara S.

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I really wish I knew that pursuing an advanced degree would expose your character and commitment! It has been a challenge, not because I’m unintelligent, not because I am incompetent… but because I felt as though I was indebted to everyone who came before me, and that load was a heavy one to carry. Being “the one” in the family can lead to imposter syndrome, unrealistic expectations and unnecessary stress. But this process has taught me more about myself than any other experience thus far.

Working a full time teaching position during the day and classes at night have taken a toll, but I have become intentional about, as Erykah Badu would say, “packing light”. I’ve learned to prioritize my expectations of myself over anyone else’s. I have included mental health checkpoints for myself to ensure I am well during demanding times, while also establishing boundaries and actually enjoying the journey to my end goal. I never want to be so focused on the finish line, that I do not celebrate those in between “wins” that occur during the journey. This has been a transformative experience, and I’m thankful for it all.

My Mantra:  “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” -Tupac Shakur 

Ziara S.

Masters of Arts in Education Degree candidate, May 2018

 

 

“What I Wish I Knew” – Tylisha Villaruel

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What I wish I knew going into the master’s program for Public Health is such a long list. But the one thing that stands out to me is knowing how to handle course work because it was so much material that I needed to know and understand. The master’s program for Public Health was very hard, especially epidemiology. I say epidemiology because there’s a lot of research that you need to do in order for you to know the work.

Epidemiology was challenging because the many diseases that you have heard throughout the years is something that you will get to know and read about once you were in the subject. For instance, the Black Plague was one of the killers in the 1920’s and 1930’s due to the fact of contaminated water, dust, Etc but there were no vaccinations. After doing more research on particular diseases out here, I have grown to appreciate subject matter as it comes along and in this particular case, I truly appreciated the work epidemiologists do. Learning about them got me one step closer to my Masters Degree.

My Mantra:

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again” – Sojourner Truth

“What I Wish I knew” – Symone Alexander

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As a chemical engineer and polymer scientist, I was blessed to have an amazing graduate advisor who is also a black woman and has been extremely successful in her career. However, I was always afraid I would mess up or disappoint everyone who believed in me. I wish I knew that it was okay to not have all the answers and to be vulnerable with trusted mentors. Chances are they have had similar experiences and can offer great advice on how to move forward.

I also wish I knew that it is okay to say “no” or “not right now” to extra responsibility. As black women in the academy, we are often called upon to do more because we represent gender and racial minority groups.  Looking back, saying no to unnecessary responsibility would have allowed me to put more energy into causes I am passionate about, and would have prevented some of the “burn outs” I experienced.

We have made so much progress and are knocking down racial, gender, and class barriers left and right! I’m so proud of and encouraged by all the brilliant black women I encounter in communities like Black Girls Guide to Grad School. I have hope that if we continue to connect with and support one another, there’s nothing we can’t do!

My Mantra: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anaïs Nin

Symone Alexander, PhD Candidate
NSF Graduate Research Fellow