How to choose potential graduate programs

Image: a Stock photograph that depicts a stressed woman in business attire holding a cardboard sign that says help. I think this photo accurately represents how many of us feel when endeavoring to do something without a map.
Applying to graduate school for the first time can be stressful. Here are the things that I wish other people told me.

While I was adapting to life after college, working part-time as a cashier, and studying for the GRE, I was also looking for graduate programs. I had no real road map as a first-generation immigrant whose family members pursued more traditional professions so I was pretty clueless. I used that time to get to know the schools to which I would apply and set a budget for applications based on my income. Applying to schools with intentionality was one of the best gifts I gave myself and contributed to my admittance to the three programs that I ultimately chose.

Here are (5) areas of focus/ guiding principles that I used when I was applying to graduate school, and how I applied these strategies during my own process.

(1) Know why you are applying.

What interests you? What are you passionate about?

Make a list of the classes that stood out to you the most during your undergraduate career and look for areas of overlap. Are there books, tv shows, podcasts, blog posts that pique your interests? Why? Could you do that for a living? What would that look like?

Taking a break after college allowed me the time and space to process four years of education. Though my undergraduate majors in Africana Studies and Geology seemed unrelated, the courses that I most enjoyed (i.e.: Government and Politics in Africa, African American Women’s History, Soils and Society, Environmental Geology) demonstrated an affinity to fields that study the past in order to understand current events. While completing courses in the two disciplines, I noticed that people of color were disproportionately affected by natural (and man-made) disasters but seldom had a seat at the table when decisions to mitigate disaster would occur (i.e.: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Sea Level Rise in the Pacific Ocean, Drought in Northern Africa, the list goes on). Global decision making is still quite Eurocentric and often favors the interests of “the west” and the global North. I wanted a seat a the table.

(2) Know where you want to go with your degree.

How would pursuing a graduate degree be an extension of your personal and career goals? Do you need a degree to pursue these goals?

While I was searching for programs, I lived in a major city where there are limited job opportunities in my field. I searched the internet for bachelors level jobs in geology with hopes of finding opportunities in environmental advocacy or policy. Many of those jobs were in other locations (particularly Washington D.C., Seattle, and Los Angeles) and required a Masters degree in a related field. Many of the bachelors level positions that were available in my city required specific certifications and were in the realm of environmental assessment. I was in the wrong location and did not have the appropriate level of education to enter into the policy/advocacy arena. Going to graduate school would help me to be a more attractive candidate for the career paths that I was most interested in pursuing.

In addition to knowing where I wanted to go location wise, I also developed a laser-like focus on where I wanted to go with my career. To me, getting a seat at the table for the marginalized would require more people of color to both a )be a part of the academy and, b) hold positions of power. I wanted to become more knowledgeable about the issue of global climate change, to learn how to generate and understand the data, and to ultimately begin to communicate with broad audiences. I wanted to make more room in the academy for voices that had historically been missing from the canon. [I, later on, learned that there are many reasons for marginalization in the academy. That’s another blog for another time.] Going to graduate school would be a great way to get to know the experts in a particular subject, and to generate your own expertise through intensive study. Going to graduate school for me would be one stepping stone to a large scale culture shift in the geosciences.

(3) Have a budget

How much will you spend on the application process?

If you are paying for graduate school applications out of pocket, it might be good to set a budget before you start searching for programs. Graduate program applications vary in cost from $0-$ 130, but applying to multiple schools can easily become very expensive. As I was only earning minimum wage in my first post-graduate job, I budgeted about $300 to cover graduate school applications. I ended up applying to three schools and came in slightly under my estimate.

The Graduate Record Examinations is the SAT of graduate school. The exam costs ~$200 and is required by many competitive programs in the geosciences. Sending GRE test scores to more than 4 schools will incur an additional $27 per institution.

(4) Know the programs

Who is publishing in the field that you are interested in? What positions, if any, are available in those labs? Ph.D. or Masters? Graduate Assistantship, Teaching Assistantship, or Research Assistantship? Will they pay you to go or will you have to pay them?

Once you are sure that graduate school is in alignment with your personal goals, research, research, research.

Once I had my goals in order, there were still THOUSANDS of schools to dig through to find the few that would allow me to gain the expertise in climatology that I hoped to gain. How could one person get through all of those options?
Much like I did when I was applying for an undergraduate degree, I used the US News rankings to whittle the list down to the top 100 schools in geoscience, and I considered programs that offered courses in Paleoclimatology (the study of past climate, often with the potential to understand current and future conditions). I also looked for articles that summarized the body of knowledge while covering scientific topics that I was most interested in. Citations in those articles made it clear that certain groups of scientists produced the research on specific topics. I followed up on authors who were cited in those articles and started looking into graduate positions at those labs.

I considered the location of the programs (would I be willing to live there for 2-6 years) and that also helped me to narrow the list down significantly. I was most interested in fully funded programs, programs that would pay my tuition along with a small stipend in exchange for lab work under the direction of an advisor or teaching undergraduates. In the geosciences that meant that I would most likely have had to have applied to Ph.D. programs, which I did, but I also found a fully funded masters opportunity which was the path that I chose.

(5) Get to know your potential advisor

Interesting subject matter and affordability were important to me, but I also wanted to get to know the people in the laboratory groups. To figure out if programs would be a good fit I looked for recorded interviews with lead scientists of major projects that seemed most interesting to me. It is amazing what one can find on platforms like Youtube, Twitter, and Linked In. I spoke to mentors from my undergraduate program about the people that they knew and I looked for labs that had a low graduate student to advisor ratio. I wanted to be in a place that had equipment and programs for analysis on site. After my preliminary research and whittling the list of potential schools down, I sent cold emails to my top 5 potential advisors to introduce myself, express my interest to apply to the graduate program, and to ask for more information about research positions. Some people did not have availability, others had limited funding, and only two were able to offer a fully supported research assistantship. Out of that list, I chose my top three schools and applied within my budget.

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