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Graduate School Tip of the Week

Similar to the undergraduate tip of the week, which posts on Wednesdays, we will also be launching graduate school tips of the week. While right now, because the season of applications are upon us, the focus is primarily on applications. However, around the year we will also be providing various tips around mental health and self-care, identifying counseling support, financial aid, building relationships with professors, and a wide range of other topics.


Tuesdays are designated days for tips on graduate school. Because we are in June, graduate school applications are not quite due yet, but we know many of you are preparing and gearing up to begin those applications. Graduate school applications are a unique process, not dissimilar from the undergraduate applications, yet also very distinct. Depending on what your field of study is will determine the best route to take, but we do want to encourage you to take a step back before you begin submitting every single application you possibly can, and the reason has a lot to do with culture of the department and school itself.


Woman wearing green hijab and science glasses smiling near microscope

The unfortunate reality is that higher education can be extremely toxic and quite frankly traumatic. This is not a new phenomena, nor is it surprising to countless other graduate school students to graduates. In an industry that touts equity, it should not seem farfetched that one that values itself on elitism and competition would remain still toxic today. There have been countless times that I have had graduate students tell me that they were told, for instance, they should not apply to a program because they are not cut out for graduate studies, or they faced tremendous ableism or racial microaggressions, only to finish their schooling with publications or doing amazing community work.


Meanwhile, the concept of "Publish or Perish", coined in 1932 - 91 years ago - is still rampant in institutions that seemingly value impact factors over actual innovation and contributions. Meanwhile, classroom teachers are having insults hurled at them, criticized by society, and academics do the same in their next publication. The level of elitism that is rampant in higher education is something that one truly should consider when applying to graduate school.


Typewriter typed Ready to Get Published on white paper

This is not to deter you from applying to graduate school - in fact, this is more of the reason why I believe we need people truly aware of this, driven to make change, should continue applying, but within reason, and with this knowledge at hand. I (Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk) went into graduate school naïve and excited, only to have had my spirits crushed time and time again, where somebody I had been close with refused me a letter of recommendation for what felt like a seemingly resentful stance of needing to switch, other moments where I had to hold onto classes to teach while watching injustice unfold in front of me, questioning how to approach this for fear of having my course load reduced and in turn, less money to care for my children. No, this is not to worry you, but rather, leads me to my first tip for this process.


After you've narrowed down your field of study, for instance, I majored in history in undergrad, but then went on to get my master's in sociology, it's time for you to find schools that you may be interested in. Realistically, you may not have an "in" yet to ask students attending or who have attended what their experiences are, but there are a plethora of resources out there, including random public forums, Reddit, and Twitter (especially academic Twitter.) Do not just reach out to random people, but instead follow the threads the best you can. I suggest this merely as one strategy.


Some questions you might want to ask, if put into a position to do so, are, "What is the culture like?" Or, "How does the school support you right now?' Asking questions about how current students feel they are support as humans versus solely students is a solid foundation because you want to know if you will be humanized in your process. Then of course ask about academic preparation. This is applicable for both master's and PhD applications as both will require you to work closely with different people across a department.


Three story library with opening window up top and rails

This is not something that I had considered. While I feel extremely fortunate to have taken the paths that I have, I have witnessed many "equity researchers" perpetuate inequitable interactions that tear a person down simply becuase they, themselves, had the same experiences and somehow encourage the normalization of this. It's unfortunate, but something that I believe aspiring graduate students should be aware of. And at minimum, it at least allows you to how to navigate that interaction and perhaps, if that program is still your number one, ways to identify other professors with whom you'd prefer to work.


This is not a technical tip around graduate school applications, but as many folks are beginning to identify schools where they want to apply and are beginning to develop timelines now, it's important to consider this through the process. Why spend application fees, mental capacity, and precious time on applications for colleges or programs that will break you down? You shouldn't. I respect the drive to go to a "dream college" 100%, so at minimum, being prepared for some of the more contentious interpersonal interactions is a must for going into higher education. Because, while toxicity exists in every field of study, higher education is one that is unique, in that it has so many layers of interactions and parades itself as champions for equity and equality. Meanwhile, the same people publishing on equity are the ones reproducing some of the most dehumanizing experiences for our students.


Dr. Antonia Darder said in a lecture she gave at San Diego State University in April 2023, "Just because you read it, doesn't mean you know it" in reference to academics and research, and this is absolutely true. Find out what programs you want to attend, of course, as you will spend valuable time and money learning and training in a field where you are passion, but then, dig deeper into the culture of the program, of the school, and the faculty. While working with folks who align with your research interest(s) is vital, how they treat you as a human is just as so, and whether they simply read "it" or know "it".

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