University News

Graduate school application process largely self-driven

Advising for graduate school decentralized, disadvantaged students face social barriers

senior staff writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The process of applying to master’s and PhD programs is largely self-directed, which can be a benefit for some students, but it can also create barriers for others.

While around 11 percent of the class of 2015 reported pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree, only 3 percent pursued a fellowship or scholarship, according to the CareerLAB website. But students and alums noted the disparate levels of support they experienced when applying to graduate programs compared to fellowships and scholarships.

Navigating the application processes

The process of applying to master’s and PhD programs is often student-driven and individualized, according to multiple students and alums who have applied or are currently applying to graduate programs. Applicants often receive advice from multiple sources, including co-workers, professors, outside mentors and family members.

Evan Lunt ’16, who will be a doctoral candidate in inorganic chemistry at Penn next year and hopes to go into academia, said he was overwhelmed by the number of programs he was interested in. A co-worker at a lab he worked at over the summer gave him the advice to choose schools that had at least several professors whose work interested him, Lunt said. He also used rating systems that compared chemistry graduate programs to help him narrow down the list to around 10 schools, Lunt said.

The application process for master’s programs can also be daunting, said Caroline Vexler ’17, who is applying to master’s programs in economics.

“I ended up cold-calling schools at one point,” said Alexandra Sepolen ’16, who is currently in a master’s of public health program at Columbia.

“It feels like a very isolating process” because not many peers are also applying, and applicants have to do a lot of work, said Celia Ford ’17, who is applying to PhD programs in cognitive neuroscience. “It feels like you’re taking a fifth class no one knows about,” she added.

Other students noted that faculty members were also a source of advice during the process.

“One of the prerequisites for graduate school was research experience,” said Russell Shelp ’16, who is a PhD student in organic chemistry at Penn. Doing research helped put Shelp in contact with professors who acted as a support system, and the professors he worked with were natural choices as advisors because they have all attended graduate school, he added.

Additionally, because applying to PhD programs typically entails applying to work with specific faculty members, it is helpful to know other scholars in the field, as they might have connections, Shelp said.

“Doing my own thesis has prepared me to talk to larger scholars,” said Charlie Scott ’17, who applied to both master’s and PhD programs in higher education, American studies and ethnic studies and uses the pronouns they, them and their.

Assistant Professor of History Jennifer Lambe ’06 said that in her time at Brown, several faculty members were generous with their mentorship. At Brown, students are taken seriously as thinkers and interact with faculty members, allowing them to build up a “network of advisors,” she said.

Several students also received mentoring from outside sources and programs.

Mya Roberson ’16, who is pursuing a PhD in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she didn’t commit to applying to PhD programs until the summer before her senior year, which is considered late. “Fortunately, I had gone to a few conferences such as the Leadership Alliance National Symposium and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students,” which had a lot of programming about the process of applying to graduate school, Roberson said.

Scott did a four-week summer workshop organized by the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers last summer, which is when they started thinking “more concretely” about graduate school, they said.

The workshop consisted of reading and having conversations about dense theoretical texts, but it also offered Graduate Record Examination test prep, advising for graduate school and support while applying, Scott added. They heard about the workshop through an email from Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students and Vice President of Campus Life and Student Services Mary Grace Almandrez, they said, adding they felt much more prepared because they were in that program.

A mentoring program called Women’s Launch Pad, which matches women from the senior class with successful female alums, has been an “unexpected resource,” Ford said, adding that her mentor also studied neuroscience and read her applications.

Students have also used informal networking to get support, such as through family connections and friends.

Isabel van Paasschen ’17, who is applying to master’s programs in history, said she spoke with a friend’s dad who is a history professor about how to apply and what programs to look at, she said. Additionally, she said her aunt who works in graduate school admission has given her advice.

People want to go to one place to get their information, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. But “centralizing support (for graduate school admissions) doesn’t work” because applicants are choosing to specialize in a specific field when applying to graduate school, Mandel said.

In contrast, there is an office for fellowships because it’s a centralized application process, so it’s easier to give systematic advice, Mandel added.

Challenges of applying to graduate programs

Some students and alums noted that while they felt academically prepared, there was a lack of support in the logistical aspects of applying to graduate school.

While she felt adequately supported by faculty members, Roberson said she thought “Brown could do a better job of showing that graduate school — besides fifth-year master’s programs — is a viable option for a post-Brown career path.” While she organized panels in the CareerLAB about how to apply to graduate school while she was a peer advisor, she said she wishes there were more “permanent programming that helps students realize what it even means to apply to graduate school,” she added.

Scott said that the only time they heard anything about graduate school was through talking with faculty members or at graduate school events at the CareerLAB — which have only happened in the last two years.

While faculty members are essential when applying, many applied so long ago that their experience is less relevant, Roberson said. While faculty members helped her figure out where to apply and how to talk about her research, when it came to the actual application process, “I stumbled around on my own,” she said.

For example, fee waivers are available for applications, but different institutions have different processes for obtaining fee waivers, Roberson said, adding that she was not aware of the separate timelines for fee waivers before application deadlines.

Additionally, taking the GRE is expensive and sending its scores to schools costs more than doing so for the SAT, Vexler said. To get the fee waived requires a secondary application, she added.

In addition, students unfamiliar with the exam itself may not know about the timeline of applying or when to take the GRE exam, Roberson added.

PhD programs are “investing in you,” Scott said, adding that “the more acclaim you get, you are much more likely to get more opportunities,” which requires an ability to network and accrue social capital.

The University “should pay more attention to imposter syndrome when advising students interested in applying to graduate programs” — especially among students of marginalized identities — Sepolen said. Students need to be able to be confident and ask questions in order to find resources and mentoring needed to push forward, she said.

Even interacting with professors can require “untangling a lot of socializations one has,” which can be a tough barrier to building a network of support, Scott said.

Providing opportunities for students to interact with departmental faculty members in order to learn more about the research they are doing would help students tap into resources within their departments and expand their networks of support when applying to graduate school, Sepolen added.

Other applicants felt that they were adequately supported in applying to graduate programs.

“If you are applying to graduate school, you’re driving the process, so you shouldn’t have to have someone holding your hand,” Vexler said. “I’ve had a lot of ownership over this process.” Navigating this process independently has “made me more aware of my interests,” she added.

“There’s much more self-direction when it comes to the social sciences,” Lambe said, adding that the autonomy made the path both “appealing and anxiety-producing at the same time.”

“There’s a pressure to do things by yourself and be an individual,” Scott said.

Comparing student experiences

Some students applied to both fellowships and graduate programs, noting the different experiences they had with each process.

“I got more advice applying to graduate school than applying to the Fulbright (Scholar Program),” Lunt said, adding that there are fewer people who apply to research Fulbrights in the hard sciences, making that process more difficult.

For graduate school, you apply as an individual, but for fellowships, you apply as an individual affiliated with an institution, said Mike Petro ’17, who applied for a research Fulbright after receiving an email from the Fellowships at Brown letting him know about the opportunity.

Fellowships at Brown hosts workshops and information sessions about the various opportunities available to students, said Linda Dunleavy, associate dean of the college for fellowships and pre-law programs.

The University tries to advertise opportunities and do outreach to certain populations, especially considering that some students may not view themselves as potential Rhodes Scholarship or Fulbright candidates, Dunleavy said. For example, one outreach method is emailing students based off a list from the registrar of students organized by the percentage of A’s or S’s with distinction, Dunleavy added.

Fellowships at Brown “exceeded my expectations,” said Fatima Husain ’17, who applied to a master’s program and a research Fulbright. Dunleavy and Fellowship Program Coordinator Linda Sutherland were “extremely accessible” for providing feedback on her application, Husain said. In comparison, the process of applying to graduate programs is “more stressful” because the onus is on the student to find support, she added.

“There’s better advising for some fellowships than others,” Roberson said, adding that she felt well-supported when applying for the Truman Scholarship, but there wasn’t as much support for the Ford Foundation Fellowship.

Compared to the process of applying to graduate school, “there is far more support for students applying to national fellowships,” she said, adding it was a “pretty stark contrast.”

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