During my career services tenure, I heard countless students discuss graduate school as a means of avoiding “the real world.”
*Insert laughs from graduate students everywhere, here*. Though I would ask tough reflective questions to students who mentioned this in one-on-one settings, I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that there are people in this world who think: 1) graduate school is an extension of undergrad, 2) graduate school is easy, and 3) that all graduate programs are created equal. This is certainly not the case. In fact, if I had a dollar for nearly every person who’s made some kind of a joke about doctoral students “evading the real world,” I’d be rich enough to pay off any student loans my #SisterPhD colleagues and I have and still buy a Birkin!
The decision to attend graduate school, and to pursue a PhD/EdD more specifically, should not be taken lightly.
Doctoral programs are hard. It is indeed a fact that graduate school has pushed me to my limits despite the ease with which I draw connections among course material. Rather than simply being a challenge of wit and intellect, my graduate journey has been most difficult due to the ways in strains my social and personal lives and the seemingly negative traits we cultivate in doctoral study (e.g. overworking).
A recent study suggested nearly half of all doctoral students experience psychological distress. If you think these numbers are scary, imagine what they look like for women of color in predominantly white spaces and at historically white institutions. In my own journey, this process has broken me down and built me up in more ways than I can share in one post. This is why I understand doctoral study as a space that requires more than intelligence and view it as a place that plenty of brilliant people will never enter and one where many others who’ll begin may never finish what they’ve started. I understand this process as one inextricably tied to a wherewithal to endure, connections, nepotism, & finding someone to be in your corner rather than sheer academic capabilities.
If you’re still reading and haven’t run for the hills, here are my 15 things to consider before deciding on and committing to a doctoral program:
1. The Application Process
Choose carefully the programs you want to attend. While you can absolutely use the same general set up for you application materials, each school is different. It’s much harder to use a one size fits all (think common application) type essay for graduate school because there’s an expectation that you be specific. Many graduate students report applying to more than 5 programs, this worries me. In my OWN opinion, anything more than five signals you’re not sure who you want to work with and why.
2. Program Fit
Fit is often a form of coded language. I’ve discussed this in other places and will explicate in another post here later. For the purposes of this context, I encourage you all to think about faculty make-up and areas of expertise when deciding on a program. If you want to do work around identity issues as they relate specifically to afro-Caribbean women, you probably want to connect with scholars and a program where these things are happening rather than a program that more explicitly focuses on Blackness and whiteness.
3. Areas of Study
Decide whether this program allows you to study what it is you want to do. While I’m in a college student affairs program, I spend more time and research writing about the people who work with college students than students themselves. This works in my experience and for my doctoral program. Not all schools allow this flexibility be it in the structure of the curriculum or because of program fit.
4. Program Values
Choosing a program that aligns with your values will always be important. If you know social justice is significant, make sure this is something your program speaks to. If you value coming from a named program with a long history, examine that when trying to decide what programs to apply to and when. Be sure to make sure these values align with the actions of the program(s) too rather than standing alone as a statement.
5. Institutional Values
For many of us, graduate school is an island. Nevertheless, our programs are still very much impacted by institutional (and state and federal) culture. If you think diversity, for example, is important but you know the State of Tennesse legislature has strong-armed UTK, you may want to reevaluate if that campus location would be a good fit due to outside factors. Or, perhaps this makes you want to attend even more because you can do more of the work and have a greater impact. Whatever the reasons, examine the ways in which non-program culture conflicts and aligns with your program(s) of choice.
We often like to pretend that we can live anywhere. Tell the truth. Sure UGA, Iowa, Miami (OH), Bowling Green, etc. sound like great places until you’ve seen three Black and brown faces max in two days. This may not be the actual case for these programs, but the point still remains: examine how much you’re willing sacrifice by choosing a city or a more rural area. What do you give up with a residential campus that maybe you have in a more urban environment? How far are you willing to be from an airport? A major airport? These things matter.
7. Support (Emotional)
Having emotional support during the doctoral journey is critical to one’s success. When looking at graduate programs, it is imperative to find out what the advising and support styles are for the faculty who make up the program to make sure they will meet your specific needs. It is equally important to find out if there are support structures in place for unpacking the emotional nature of graduate study beyond the advisor/advisee and mentor/mentee roles. An example would be a graduate student group, women’s empowerment or sister circles, etc.
8. Support (Financial)
Money and financial support for graduate study can be a blog post in and of itself (and probably will be). As you think about a doctoral degree, I cannot stress this enough: Do. Not. Pay. For. It. Pursuing a doctoral degree, especially as a Black woman or woman of color is something YOU should be paid to do. Your programs will certainly capitalize on what you bring, be sure to have your needs met before agreeing to attend a program through graduate assistantships, scholarships, housing, and other opportunities for funding and support.
9. Completion Ratios
Something we don’t talk about enough in the doctoral journey and as we consider doctoral programs is not the number of people who begin, but who are the folks completing and why. As you decide on programs, find out what the completion ratios are for a specific demographics of students are folks who look like you completing the program, did they feel supported to get to that finish line, as folks finish up at what cost and to what degree are they doing so? These things are critical as you think about starting a program because honestly, life happens. Relationships end, parents pass on, we say goodbye to grandparents and more. Ensuring you will have what you need to complete the program when these things arise is critical.
10. Conferences (& support)
A large part of graduate study is thinking about completion. It’s not just about surviving in your program, but thriving and gaining preparation for the next step. Along the way, you’ll need to present at and engage with people at national and local levels. Be sure to discuss your opportunities for financial support and repayment for attending and presenting at conferences. Not only do you strengthen your CV and help solidify your place in the field earlier on, but you expand what, when, and how you’re learning beyond the perspectives of your program faculty.
11. Opportunities to Publish
The degree to which publications and experience matter varies by field and certainly by the type of position you hope to take on upon dissertation completion. In our field (Higher Education & Student Affairs) this can look like working towards a Dean/ leadership position or working towards a faculty role. This will dictate how much you need to focus and where. In this situation, you’ll want to examine your long-term goals, see how that aligns with the program, and make sure you’ll have those opportunities there for you.
Mentorship goes hand in hand with nearly everything identified in this post. Make sure you’re truly able to build a relationship with people who can serve as your advisor or mentor for the duration of and upon completion of your program. Having good mentors will help minimize your missteps and give you someone to bounce ideas off.
13. Alumni Network(s)
Something we rarely talk about and like to admit is the significance of a program’s alumni network. In a perfect world, everyone would have had equal access and opportunities but given the way capitalism functions and the hidden job market, joining a program with a strong history, track record, and alumni network that can support you can certainly help to minimize stress related to these issues.
14. Opportunities to Partner
For the single folks looking for a partner, where you to graduate school WILL impact your dating life. We often think, go to the best program or the program that’s producing what I do but if you’re interested in dating a particular kind of person, e.g. QPOC or individual of color you, must consider if those people are even near/ in/ and accessible to your graduate program. Yes, school is a priority. Yes, you’ll find the right person at the right time. But there’s also something to be said about not torturing yourself for 3-7 years.
15. School/Life balance & Self Care
The last but certainly not least piece that is critical to one’s success in graduate school is the ability to have balance and take care of self. I knew, for example, that I would NOT go to a graduate program that had a high cost of living. Part of my sanity rests upon my ability to maintain a certain level of comfort and lifestyle when I’m home because I grew up working poor and in a small space. This meant taking into consideration the types of apartments I could call home as well as available income to pay for those places to live and to do other things to care for myself such as working out and occasional massages.
While this is a lengthy list and covers many things to think about in the graduate school search, this list is not exhaustive. Add and remove pieces of this advice as you see fit and remember your search is about you. Not anyone else.
Until next time, Sisters!