By Brandon D. Edwards
The spring semester of my junior year in college was the first time I heard the words graduate school and my name in the same sentence. Graduate school was not originally in my plans. However, that changed due to a suggestion made by Dr. Carl P. Johnson of the Chemistry Department at Southern University at New Orleans where I attended as an undergraduate student. He first insisted that I apply for an undergraduate research fellowship at other universities. He insisted my experience there would emulate future graduate studies and he was correct. That following summer, I attended the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. For a period of eight weeks, I worked independently on a research project with my summer advisor. That summer was productive and enjoyable, and I thought graduate school would ultimately be the right choice for me after graduating in the spring.
In the following fall semester, Dr. Johnson took the initiative and gave me applications from various universities. This was my graduation year and I was worried about getting out of undergraduate school rather than getting into grad school. I completed the applications and sent them to the respective institutions. I received both rejections and invitations. The invitations came with a chance to visit the university sponsored by the departments for which I was applying. How was I going to pick a university? I knew that any university I attended would require me being there for two or more years, so certain factors had to be considered.
The factors I used to determine my graduate program included the quality of the specific academic department, the university overall and surrounding area, level of minority enrollment, available funding and the graduate advisor. On the whole, the department you are joining is the most important consideration. Unlike varied undergraduate course work, in graduate school you concentrate on one subject area. This is where you’ll spend practically all of your time (including free time). Talk to current and former students of the department that you will be entering. It would be best to acquire and thoroughly review a departmental brochure. It usually is included with your application. Read it carefully. If you are entering an inter-disciplinary program, try to visit both of the departments.
The overall environment of the university is another key factor. Walk around the campus to get a feel if that’s the place for you. Visit the library, recreational center and other places that were important to you during your undergraduate career. The universities that I applied to were located in small cities so I obtained as much vital information about the areas as possible. I wanted to pursue graduate study away from home so the selected community had to be satisfactory.
Again, the level of minority enrollment was a major factor for me. I knew that in my field, which is chemistry, minorities were scarce so I examined the university-wide minority enrollment instead of focusing on the small number of minorities in my department. My personal adjustment was significant in that my predominately Black undergraduate alma mater in New Orleans enrolled about 5,000 students yet the student enrollment at my graduate school, the University of Missouri, is about 22,000 with a Black enrollment of only around six percent. Graduate programs and large universities overall tend to have smaller numbers of minority students, but I didn’t let that discourage me in the least.
So how was I going to pay for my graduate school education? Most graduate programs offer fellowships, teaching assistantship positions and research assistantship opportunities which are often readily available for qualified minorities such as myself. Of course, an important factor crucial to your search for a quality graduate school is the graduate advisor (Your Boss). Most graduate work requires a thesis or dissertation based on research that is approved first by your advisor. This is where the departmental brochure comes in handy. It lists professors and their specific research interests. It’s a good idea to develop a list of professors whom you’d like to talk with during your initial campus visit. You should talk to their current and former students along with other students in the department, who’re not affiliated with your future graduate advisor. They will more than likely be non-biased.
After your first campus visit, send an e-mail of appreciation to the professors you met. A rapid response from them will indicate that they probably communicate well with their students. The display of a hard work ethic, coupled with knowledgeable and sincere advice from your graduate advisor, are the keys to obtaining your advanced degree. Choosing, but most importantly, finishing a graduate program can lead to desirable post-graduate work, better jobs with higher salaries, and greater self-fulfillment.
Brandon D. Edwards is a graduate student majoring in chemistry at the University of Missouri-Columbia.