Back in January I received an email from a young woman with [a version] of the above title (of course it made me smile, and I had to use it again here). Being the email delinquent that I am, I just now managed to write her back with a coherent response. Given that it contained a lot of the advice I find myself giving people about graduate school quite frequently, I thought I would share [a version] of that letter here.
Please keep in mind that I am no-one’s admission/graduate school success expert. However, after seven years in graduate school and watching a lot of folks come and go, I’d like to think I have some things to share that are at least moderately useful.
Dear [younger self],
how are you? I hope this email finds you well. Please accept my apologies for taking so long to get back to you, these last two months have truly been hectic.
About applying to graduate school:
I found it interesting that your adviser recommended that you choose graduate programs based on location, as opposed to ranking. Do you have a sense of why they gave you that advice? Is there something particular to your goals, or your familial needs that require you to limit your search to a particular geographic area? In general, if there is a particular sub field of your discipline that you are interested in, I would start researching which scholars also do that work, and figuring out what institutions they are at.
In general, I always warn students to never go to a school where there is only one person that they could work with. That person could leave, go on sabbatical, or you two could simply not get along. In general, it is better to choose a program with at least 2-3 people you could imagine yourself working with. One, because it provides you with options, but two because it also shows a commitment from that program to a particular set of intellectual interests that are in line with your own.
Of course the next most important thing is the ranking of your school. As much as I hate to say it, the ranking of your school/department matters, however not in the way that you might think. While generally, the ivy league schools tend to have top departments, that is not always the case. So you need to find the American professional organization for your discipline, and look up their rankings of the top graduate programs in your interest areas. Look up their admissions criteria and try and figure out if your application to those programs would be competitive. Competitiveness is not just about good grades, it is about exceptionally strong letters of recommendation from TENURED faculty members, evidence of having done research in the past (research assistantships are ideal), and a great writing sample (ideally an honors thesis, or something of that caliber).
I always recommend that students sign up for a letter reference service (like interfolio) and get letters of recommendation from faculty before they graduate [if you choose to do this, make sure that you maintain the letter’s confidentiality. 2-5 years after you graduate faculty may move, you could lose contact or they may forget important details. If you get a letter now, you could use the old letter, or resend the old letter to your faculty mentors to get them to write an updated one. Either way, maintaining contact with at least 3-4 faculty members post graduation is of the utmost importance if you plan to one day apply to graduate school.
You didn’t mention what you hope to do with your Ph.D. I would be remiss that if I didn’t mention that job placement for new Ph.D’s is pretty low for tenure track positions. So if your goal is to go into academia, start reading now about job placement rates to tenure-track positions in your field (a lot of the writing online is dominated by folks in the humanities, which is different from the social sciences, so keep that in mind). For any of the programs that your planning to submit an application to, you should find out what their job placement rates are in academic jobs and non-academic jobs. If they can’t tell you how many of their students get jobs (if any), that is a bad sign. Again, this is why being in a top program matters. However, there are a number of fantastic non-academic options that could be available to you post-Ph.D. So if you are interested in doing non-profit work and/or policy work, I think a degree could potentially be a great option.
The thing that most folks (especially myself), are generally not prepared for, is just how difficult graduate school is. I’m so glad that you are taking some time off before you go to graduate school, because I believe that is absolutely critical to success. Although I don’t regret anything, if I were going to change something about my grad school experience, I would of taken time off after undergrad. I think it is important to get used to going to a 9-5, budgeting your money, dating and just being out in the world for awhile. It also helps clarify for you why and if you really want to go to grad school. This is important because, like I said, graduate school is difficult, and it helps to be certain when times are especially rough.
I could go on and on about why graduate school is hard (lol), but I should also say that it can be very fulfilling. These last three years working on my own project, collecting data and writing my first book length project (the dissertation), has genuinely been soul-fulfilling work. That has been in large part facilitated by having a dissertation committee filled with faculty members who are the best at what they do, and who are fully confident in my ability to be the best at what I want to do. That has meant a lot. I should also note, as others have before, that while many may scream about the “uselessness” of graduate degrees, for minorities, they matter… a lot.
OK, per your request, my five tips on being a black girl in political science:
1. Treat graduate school like a 9-5 job while you are in your first 2-3 years of course work. Start studying/reading/writing notes at 9am every morning after exercise and a decent breakfast. Go to class, in business casual wear, take notes, participate actively in class, and build a relationship with every faculty member you possibly can. Be professional at all times, remember that you are always being evaluated. Worry less about being best friends with your cohort, and more about building professional relationships that will hopefully last the rest of your academic career. These are your work colleagues, not your close friends (with some of exceptions of course).
2. Have interests, hobbies and friends outside of your graduate school life. This is key to being balanced, and to not being totally emotionally dependent on the various ups and downs of graduate school. Despite what people tell you, you can, and you should, have a life outside of your graduate work.
3. Be as methodologically diverse as possible, take stats classes, take ethnography classes, take computer classes. The best political scientists have a huge toolkit that they can pick from. Even if you have no intention of ever crunching a number (or doing an interview), in your life. You are better off being able to make choices about your project based on the question you are asking, as opposed to being limited by only having one methodological option… does that make sense? The bottom line is: take every kind of methods class you can, this is really important whether you plan to be an academic or not. The people who can do stats have a lot more job options academically and non-academically.
4. Don’t take criticism personally. People will critique your work, some might even tear it apart. That is the name of the game and the nature of the beast (so to speak). I am an extremely sensitive person, I once lost three months of working time because I was so paralyzed after a particularly harsh workshop session of my work. The reality is though that people come to the table with their own “stuff.” If you want to succeed in graduate school, the most important skill to gain, is the ability to take the useful criticism to make your work better, and to ignore the rest without letting your feelings be hurt. The reality is though, that your not a robot, so eventually your feelings will be hurt. When that happens, remember that every scholar that you most respect in the world has been through the same thing. The reality is that EVERYONE has cried at least once over a paper that just wasn’t received well.
5. My last piece of advice is to follow your heart. You may get to graduate school and love it, or you may get halfway through the program and hate it. If you want to push through it and finish that degree, you have my full support. If you decide you want to quit and do something else, I support you in that to. Some folks may try to push you one way or the other, but the reality is that only you know what is best for your life. Don’t act out of fear. The only way to do that is to stay in touch with your spirit. Pray, run, meditate, punch a boxing bag, whatever keeps you in touch with you. It is important to stay centered during this time in your life, so that you know how to behave in such a way that honors the person and scholar you eventually want to become.
Once again, please accept my apologies for taking so long to get back to you. I hope this helps in one way or another. Please don’t hesitate to write me again if you have any additional questions.
are any of these suggestions helpful to you? what would you add? what do you disagree with? let me know in the comment section of this post.