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Tips on Graduate School Politics: Politics & Observations (Part I)

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!


Dear MiSciNet Advisor Readers: My goal for this column is to give you a basic outline of some things you should consider as part of the graduate school process. When performing due diligence regarding graduate school, many students often forget to think about the very political process of getting a Ph.D. In fact, many students do not even realize that getting a graduate degree in a research environment involves any sort of politics at all! Certainly, this is a sad state of affairs and needs to change so that students' eyes are wide open and the entirety of the process is exposed. By making aspects of the politics and other considerations of graduate school more transparent, I hope to give you, the readers, some of the advice and guidance I never had before I started graduate school. It was all a "seat of the pants" learning process for me in terms of navigating the politics and finding out about the numerous "unwritten rules" that applied. The graduate school experience was quite painful for me at times, but very enlightening at other times. My job is to save you the trouble of learning about these realities the hard way. Please keep in mind that this advice may not pertain to your current situation at work or school, but certainly at some point in your career you may find it useful. Also, feel free to share this advice with others you feel may benefit and look for Part II next week. Happy Reading! --Dr. Clemmons

Tips on Graduate School: Politics & Observations (Part I)

Tip #1: Yes, you know what the reputation of the school and the department is, but what kind of commitment are they willing to make to YOU and your success?

So, you have your sights on going to one of the top graduate programs in the country for your field of study. Great! Now, it's time to get down to business and find out all you can about how the school, department, and potential advisors view their commitment to minority engineers and scientists. Often for minorities, gaining admission into top graduate programs is not the difficult part of graduate school. Instead, the most difficult part usually comes in after you have been admitted because that is when you find out how few resources you might really have and how little support you may get from the institution, department, and/or professors in regard to ensuring your graduate school success. And when it comes to graduate school matters, graduation is the ONLY measure of success. Graduate school is quite different from undergraduate study in that the process is very subjective and can be political. Someone has to help you navigate this process, which is where this column comes in!

There are many questions you should ask before committing to any graduate school and there are many clues that tell you whether or not you will be fully supported once you get there. A few pertinent questions to get answers to, and to ask yourself, are listed below:

  • What type of fellowships and/or financial aid was I offered to attend this graduate school?

If no fellowships were offered to you, then you can be certain that there is a lack of commitment on their behalf. No graduate school will admit promising students that they intend to graduate without offering fellowships, traineeships, or some form of financial aid that does not have to be repaid. In fact, make sure to get a commitment from the powers that be to fund you for the entire duration of your graduate school years. Let me tell you that the promise of 1 year of funding without knowing how you will make ends meet afterwards is not a very good way to go, yet a lot of students accept this arrangement instead of just asking for a full commitment.

Remember that financial security (i.e., knowing how you will be funded and for how long) during graduate school is a key element of your success. Also, it is important to know that the graduate program should show a financial commitment to you irrespective of how many minority fellowships you may be eligible for. Don't fall into the trap of letting the school and/or department use you and your ability to attract minority funds as a magnet to get more money for themselves.

  • Were the graduate institution and/or department able to send people of color to recruiting events? Was I offered interaction with other minorities when I met some of their current graduate students? Have any other students of color graduated from the department?

If you did not interact with any students of color who were current graduate students at the school, then chances are the school does not have a critical mass, or even one lone minority student to represent them. Ask yourself if you will be able to thrive in this type of environment? Your answer is crucial since you don't want to commit to a situation without understanding it beforehand. If you are going to be "the only one," you need to find that out up front. If you do decide to go this route, just realize that you will most likely need a very strong network of support from outside of the school, as well as a supportive departmental environment and mentor. These things are not easy to find, so get started ASAP!

  • Was I considered a good "minority applicant" or a good "applicant" when offered admission?"

Believe it or not, the distinction here is one of the utmost importance! It gets at the heart of how you will be perceived by the faculty and others at your new graduate institution. It is my assertion that minorities in science and engineering professions are often relegated to second-class status in the minds of others long before even submitting an application, whether it is for school or a job. You do not want to be a victim of lowered expectations due to others' perception of you.

To get to the bottom of this question, you should talk to as many of the professors as possible who were on the admissions committee and ask them why you were selected to enter the program and listen carefully. Yes, this takes guts, as well as time and effort that may be in short supply as you are finishing up your undergraduate work, however, it may be the only way you will find out how you were perceived during the application process. Some schools will let you take a look at your files, but not all schools may allow it. If allowed to look at your graduate files, take a peek to see how you were ranked and whether or not you were judged for minority status instead of academics.

The purpose of affirmative action is to enforce minority rights to equal and fair treatment regardless of race, so race as a factor in admissions is not a bad thing. However, affirmative action is NOT designed to create a reason for others to diminish your academic accomplishments in light of your race. Unfortunately, this happens and some people will do this either consciously or subconsciously. Please take the time to find out whether or not this is the case for you. You do not want to be patronized or discounted for your contributions throughout the graduate school process.

Tip #2: Picking the right research advisor is probably the single most important political move you will make as a graduate student.

Of all the advice I can give you regarding graduate school, this is probably the most important thing you will ever hear. Picking the right research advisor makes all the difference in the world in terms of your overall graduate experience and ability to graduate with your Ph.D. within a reasonable time frame. Also, your research advisor will serve as either your political ally, or foe, during critical periods of your graduate training. I cannot stress the importance of this choice enough!

Think of choosing your graduate thesis advisor as you would a marriage partner. Will you be able to tolerate "living" with this person? Do you and this person have a lot in common, or not? Do you have common beliefs and goals? Will this person stand up for you when the going gets tough? You get the picture. You have to pick your research advisor very carefully and establish a contract with him/her from the very beginning to plan your path to the Ph.D. If this relationship fails, you are in serious danger of having a bad graduate school experience, not getting your Ph.D., or both. So choose wisely.

Tip #3: Picking your dissertation committee members is the second most important political move you will ever make as a graduate student.

Keeping in mind the same ideas as stated in Tip #2, choose all of your other committee members just as carefully (qualifying exam committee, dissertation committee, etc.). The key here is to use the choice of your principal thesis advisor as your guide and find people inside and outside your department that will complement his or her skill set and political advantages. Please keep in mind that it is very important to find out the politics of the situation before assigning anyone to your committee!

Provided you have chosen your thesis advisor carefully and are comfortable asking him or her pointed questions, the easiest way to find out who to put on your committee(s) is to ask your thesis advisor who they recommend. That way, you get a short list of other professors that they like to work with. Remember, this is your Ph.D. project and you have final say over who is chosen, but why not check out the people on your advisor's short list first to see whether or not they pass your muster? It will save you a lot of time and heartache in the long run if you choose carefully and make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely.

Tip #4: Create your own open-ended research project.

Certainly, the long list of available research projects that your thesis advisor has conjured up will be attractive to peruse in order to determine what your thesis research project will be, but think about it, will you be better off having mental ownership of your work or working on something that your advisor thought up? Make a point of creating your own research project. This can be a daunting task for the novice graduate student, but it really is the only way that you will have mental ownership of the project and the ability to care about the results of the research project over the long term.

There is a world of difference in spending 5 to 7 years on a project that you care about and spending the same amount of time on something that only your advisor cares about. Therefore, you should propose your own research project to your thesis advisor as soon as you can, preferably during the first year of graduate school. There is nothing wrong with taking their research ideas and crafting them into something that you would like to see done, so still look at their list of pet projects. Just don't take for granted that all you can do is "pick" from this list. It is the smart graduate student that comes up with a research plan of their own early in their graduate school tenure.

Also, it is important to make sure that you are not afraid to go outside the expertise of your lab in crafting this project. There are always collaborations that can be put together and your advisor may thank you for coming up with something he had not thought of himself! It is also important to choose a project that is open-ended, meaning whether the results of your experiments turn out to be negative or positive, you have a good story to tell at the end of your graduate school tenure. Projects with a definitive yes-or-no answer do not make good Ph.D. dissertations. Neither do projects that are dead-ended if you get a negative result and the hypothesis turns out to be incorrect. Make sure to choose a project that is publishable and defensible regardless of what the results are.

Another way of increasing your chances of having publishable data is to have multiple ongoing projects. It's never good to have all of your eggs in one basket, so if you can multitask enough to have two or three sets of experiments, you have an edge. In addition, putting lots of thought into your thesis proposal may allow your specific aims to be presented as separate projects. Designing experiments to fit this plan of attack takes a lot of work, but discussing these issues in-depth with your advisor will be worth it in the long run.

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