By Dr. Derek Rovaris Sr.
Can I Go To Graduate School?
As you consider this question, the answer becomes fairly obvious once you have answered several underlying questions. Why go to graduate school? What does graduate school entail? How do I apply? When should I get started and what else do I need to know?
Why Go to Graduate School?
Graduate school training is fast becoming an entry-level requirement for many of the more desirable academic and other professional positions. Further, the critical shortage of African-Americans with advanced degrees, especially the Ph.D., is requiring that an immediate remedy be found to correct this situation. The need for African-American lawyers and MBAs is crucial. However, the necessity for African-American Ph.D.’s to provide research and instruction in all academic areas is at the critical stage. Without their presence, education will take on a much different look. Their absence will be felt in all segments of society. Noticing this dearth of Black faculty, William Grant IV, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, adds “I remember being a sophomore at Xavier University and it became clear (that) I had to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” You too can be a part of the solution by pursuing doctoral study.
When asked why she chose to pursue a doctoral degree, Tasha Inniss, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, responded, “A Ph.D. in mathematics is a perfect idea for me. Obtaining a Ph.D. allows for tremendous flexibility and increased opportunities in anyone’s professional career path. My choice to pursue a doctorate in mathematics affords me the opportunity to conduct research, to develop curricula and programs, and to teach math in an engaging style to facilitate better understanding. I’ve made a great choice.” Dr. Jillandra Rovaris, a psychologist with Tulane University agrees that “Graduate school has opened many doors and has provided meaningful opportunities.” Not only does graduate training “open doors” with which we are familiar, but according to Grant, it can help identify “a lot of doors that prior to this journey, I never imagined existed.” These are but a few of the many good reasons to pursue graduate study, not the least of which is your success in the future.
What Does Graduate School Entail?
It is not a process that can be taken lightly, and like anything else that is worth having, it will require a great deal of work. Graduate study typically refers to programs that award a masters degree and/or a doctorate. Masters degrees usually involve one to two years of coursework, a comprehensive examination over that coursework, and in some cases, a thesis. Unlike undergraduate programs, your graduate coursework will take place nearly exclusively in your major area of study. Doctoral programs can require anywhere from two to four years of coursework, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. The comprehensive exams are much like senior comps and require a great deal of preparation. Typically a three hour written exam based upon your major coursework, comprehensives also may have an oral component covering your proposed research. The thesis or dissertation is your original research written with the guidance of a group of faculty known as your committee. Many people worry about the ability to produce a thesis, but with your committee’s support and your academic training, you will find that like coursework and comprehensives, writing a dissertation also can be accomplished.
How Do I Apply?
Once you have decided to pursue a graduate degree and have figured out which specific field you will study the steps in the application process are as follows:
1. create a list of potential schools
2. register, practice, and then take the GRE;
3. ask faculty members for letters of recommendation;
4. write a statement of purpose and have it critiqued;
5. complete and mail your applications for admission and financial/fellowship support
1. Create a list of potential schools – In order to maximize your opportunities you will need to apply to several schools or more. The more schools to which you apply, the more chances you have for admission. By consulting a guidebook such as Peterson’s Guides (they can be found online or at your college library), you will uncover a comprehensive listing of graduate opportunities in your respective area. The listings include descriptions of each discipline and their sub-fields. It will also include a wealth of data about the various institutions in those disciplines (location, entrance requirements, acceptance rates, tuition costs, funding options, enrollment demographics, etc.).
To create your list of schools you should first consider factors like quality of the program, strength of the university, reputation of faculty in your area, availability of funding, institutional support, and commitment to minority students. Other factors that may play a part include geographic region, size of enrollment, racial make-up of student body, community in which the school is located, and campus facilities and activities. After weighing these factors, you should compile a list of ten or more institutions.
Start by asking faculty members to recommend institutions. (Be careful; they almost always will think their alma mater is the best choice for you. This may, or may not be the case.) Check to see who are the leading experts in your chosen field. Find out what schools they attended and where they are currently working. Either school would be good to have on your list. Check to see where recent graduates from your academic department have gone to graduate school. If they have had positive experiences, that institution might also be good for you.
After creating your list of choices you should contact each school. Wherever possible you should make a personal visit to the campus. Campus visits can sometimes make all the difference. In any case, you should request application materials and any other information that will help you with the admissions process. Ultimately, you want to be able to select the university that will give you your best opportunity for success.
* Study help and FAQs can be obtained directly fromwww.gre.org
* For some test-takers whose native language is not English (ESL), ETS also advises taking theTest of English as a Foreign Language(TOEFL) and Test of Written English (TWE) atwww.ets.org/toefl/
2. Register, practice, and then take the GRE – The Graduate Records Examination. The GRE is the entrance exam most often required for graduate admission. It has assumed a greater role of importance in the admissions process than was ever intended. The GRE has assumed this role of importance primarily because most applicants will have good GPA’s, decent statements of purpose, and glowing letters of recommendation. What usually distinguishes one applicant from another is the score received on this nationally normed and standardized test. Therefore make performing well on this test of major importance. Make sure you practice using a review course or study manual. Make sure you register early (since the test is computerized you may register at your convenience at a test site near you). Make sure that you schedule your exam at least nine months, but preferably a year and a half before you start graduate school. Finally, make sure you do well on the test.
Few schools will post cutoff scores, but there seems to be some “magic” in obtaining a combined GRE score of 1,000-1,100 or better. This combined score is obtained by adding the quantitative score to the verbal reasoning score. Many schools will not only expect a minimum total score, but will have minimum scores established for these individual sections of the test. Finally, many departments will require a minimum score on a Subject Test. The Subject Tests (covering material unique to your graduate discipline) are administered separately and require preparation and practice much the same as the general test. Study material for the Subject Tests can be obtained directly from ETS.
3. Ask faculty members for letters of recommendations – Often applicants will try to impress admission committees with letters from a local politician, a high ranking university official, or even their pastor. While these people may be able to say nice things about the applicant, the admissions committee is more interested in what are the academic abilities of the applicant. This usually requires the evaluator to be someone who has taught the applicant and who can speak favorably about the applicant’s ability to perform graduate level work. Faculty members from whom you have earned at least two grades of “B” or higher (preferably two or more “A”s) are ideal candidates to write strong letters of recommendation for you.
When requesting these letters, always remember that it is just that–a request. It should therefore be requested in a courteous and thoughtful manner. This means that you approach your faculty members early and that you provide them with enough information so that they may effectively write about your potential. Provide them with a half-page abstract that includes the courses taken and grades received from that instructor; a concise description of your graduate plans and plans beyond graduate school (i.e. “I plan to pursue my Ph.D. in higher education administration and later work as a student service administrator…); the mailing address for the particular schools to which you are applying (most schools will provide special envelopes for these letters); and the deadline for mailing the letters of recommendation.
4. Write a statement of purpose and have it critiqued – The statement of purpose often distinguishes between the winners and the losers. Those that get accepted almost always have better statements of purpose than those that do not. What sets a good statement apart is its overall quality and its ability to clearly articulate your potential for graduate study. A good statement will be:
a. concise – say what you have to as efficiently as possible; most are limited to 1 – 1 1/2 pages
b. organized – your essay should be well thought out and structured; work from an outline
c. clear – it should say exactly what you want it to say; no ambiguity
d. honest – do not pretend to be who you are not; but, do not sell yourself short, either
e. personal – this is uniquely yours, it is a statement about you; write about you
f. positive – sell yourself using positive attributes; do not dwell on negatives like low grades
What is included in a statement of purpose varies from school to school. Be sure to read each application carefully and provide the specific information requested. Typically you are asked to include most of the following:
* why do you want to get a graduate degree?
* what are your specific goals for graduate study?
* how have you been academically prepared for these goals?
* what are your goals beyond graduate study?
* what tangible experiences helped prepare you (research projects, internships, professional and volunteer experiences, publications, exchange programs, etc?)
* why should you be admitted?
Upon completion of your statement, show it to a friend and have them critique it. Make corrections and then share it with a faculty member. Ask the same questions. Inquire about punctuation and grammar. Make the necessary revisions and then have it proofed one last time. If you are satisfied you may then include it with the rest of your application. This may seem like a tedious process for a one- page statement. It’s necessary however, since you will seldom be asked to write a more important statement. Take a look at this excerpt from an actual statement of purpose. Although it is not perfect, it is an example of what a good statement might contain:
…As an aspiring astronaut, attempting to follow in the footsteps of the late Dr. Ronald McNair, I see graduate school as being the key to my success. It will give me the opportunity to conduct my own research which is a priceless asset to learning. Having already conducted research in many different areas, from the university level to NASA, has taught me a lesson that cannot be learned in any classroom. It has taught me how to think. The ability to think analytically is the most important aspect of research and graduate school gives you the opportunity to further this skill. As a future research scientist this is something that I cannot do without…I finalized my decision to go to graduate school and pursue my Ph.D. in Space Sciences (Astrophysics). After seeing how much knowledge is out there and how much is yet to be acquired, I realized I wanted to be a part of that ‘information age’…
Graduate School Channel Tip
* There are several reference publications listing contact and deadline information for graduate admissions offices.
* For the universities profiled on this Channel, you can also immediately ask to have admissions information sent to you using the “Request Materials” links on theGraduate Schools & Fellowships Search Page
5. Complete and mail your applications for admission and financial/fellowship support. This is in fact a very important process and you do not want to leave anything to chance. Complete your application making sure it is neatly typed. Make copies of everything! It should look nice and should be legible. Use the original application materials provided (no photocopies) including any return addressed envelopes. MAIL ALL MATERIALS WELL IN ADVANCE OF ANY STATED DEADLINE! Institutions receive hundreds of applications and most have no room for late or incomplete applications. Order transcripts and test scores early enough to be mailed in a timely fashion to the appropriate institutions. Further remember, a completed, clean, and on-time application will not by itself gain you admission, but you can rest assured that an incomplete, sloppy, or late application will ensure rejection.
Also complete all financial aid forms (some are separate) and fellowship/assistantship requests (most are included in the application) in a similar manner. While most students receive funding from their graduate institution, it is always advantageous to have outside funding. This funding may come from major corporations, professional organizations, special interest programs, or other sources. They often have Fall application deadlines and they typically require good grades and test scores. Contact these funding sources directly or check with your school for other sources. These funding sources can be found in reference journals at your library or on-line at web sites such aswww.black-collegian.com and fastweb.com.. It must be noted that due to the under-representation of certain groups at the graduate level, there is plenty of funding to go around. You should not have to pay for a Ph.D. given the number of funding opportunities available. It is up to you to find your financial support.
Can I Pursue Graduate Study?
Am I ready? Yes, because you have (or will have) successfully completed an undergraduate program that prepared you for the rigors of graduate school. You have the intelligence. The question is, do you have the discipline and persistence? What about grades? Usually a 3.0 GPA is a minimum but there have been numerous graduate degrees awarded to people with averages that were lower. Good test scores and a strong statement can make the difference if your grades are not as strong as you would like. What about going later? Why put off until tomorrow what you should be doing today? People who wait often do not ever pursue graduate study because of professional, financial, or personal commitments. Others who wait and eventually enroll will typically state that they wish they had started graduate work sooner. Go now while there are plenty of funding opportunities, while you are still academically sharp and while you are not overly encumbered.
Your career, in whatever field you have chosen, can only be enhanced by the acquisition of a Master’s or a Ph.D. degree. Your marketability and promotability will increase, as will your prospects for major contributions to your field and for leadership responsibilities. Dr. Jillandra Rovaris concurs, “As a result of obtaining a Ph.D., my career opportunities have expanded and my expertise has been recognized. Furthermore, as a Black woman, my Ph.D. offers instant credibility in a world that often marginalizes Black women.” These and other intangibles point to the many benefits of advanced study. You owe it to yourself and the world around you to make the most of your education and your life. Preparing today for an advanced degree will enable you to make a significant impact on our world.