“Is Grad School for Me?” Authors Reveal Secrets of Successful Applications [Episode 575]

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Show Summary

In this episode, Dr. Miroslava Chavez-Garcia and Dr. Yvette Martínez-Vu discuss the challenges faced by underrepresented groups in graduate school and provide advice for all grad school applicants. They emphasize the importance of finding a good fit in a program and building strong relationships with faculty. They also discuss the concept of imposter syndrome and its role in the admissions process for first-gen applicants. The guests highlight the benefits of taking a gap year (or more) before applying to graduate school and offer advice to their younger selves. 

Show Notes

Welcome to the 575th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. The challenge at the heart of grad school admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and are a standout in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, “Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions,” will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide at accepted.com/FISO.

Our guests today are Dr. Yvette Martínez-Vu,a grad school and productivity coach and host of the globally top-rated Grad School Femtoring Podcast. She is also the co-editor of the best-selling Chicana M(other)work Anthology, co-author of Is Grad School for Me? Demystifying the Application Process for First-Gen BIPOC Students, and founder of Grad School Femtoring, LLC, where she coaches first-gen BIPOC folks in reaching their academic and personal goals.

Dr. Miroslava Chávez-García is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently the Faculty Director of the UCSB McNair Scholars Program. She is author of Migrant Longing, States of Delinquency, and Negotiating Conquest, and co-author of Is Grad School for Me? Demystifying the Application Process for First-Gen BIPOC Students.

Dr. Chavez-Garcia and Dr. Martínez-Vu, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:08]

[MCG] Thank you for having us.

[YMV] Yes, thank you.

What I’d like to do is first discuss your advice that applies to all grad students, kind of the foundation, and then focus on the specific challenges faced by BIPOC applicants as well as your suggestions for overcoming them. And of course, I’d like to hear how you came to write Is Grad School For Me?

Let’s start with a very basic question: what are good and bad reasons for pursuing a grad degree? [2:35]

[YMV] The first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question are all the many bad reasons that sometimes individuals find themselves when they’re applying to graduate school. And when I think about bad reasons, I think about a lot of external reasons that may not be directly tied to what they need to do to pursue the career path in life they want. So I’m thinking someone who’s saying, “Oh, I’m going to apply to grad school because I want to delay my job search because the job market is terrible,” or, “I want to go to graduate school because my friend or my mom told me to do it,” or, “I want to go to graduate school because I have this romanticized view about what it looks like to have a career in academia,” and trust me, behind the scenes, it’s not always pretty.

And then of course there’s some folks who are afraid of facing reality, like post-college reality. They want to keep deferring their student loans and so they find that as another option to do that, and I don’t think those are great.

We had a son who kind of tried to go down that path and ended up not doing it. He definitely wanted to postpone adulthood. [3:47]

[YMV] Now, for the good reasons. I will say that usually when folks ask me, it’s a very personal decision, but there are two solid good reasons to apply to graduate school. The first one is if you absolutely need it to pursue the career that you want and/or to advance in your career. That’s a very good reason.

Second is an intrinsic reason, meaning you feel that sense of calling. You have someone who asks a lot of questions. You might even identify as a scholar. You know that if you don’t pursue this, you will always have that what-if in the back of your head. “What if I had gotten that advanced degree?” If you know it’s always going to bother you and going to be that thing in the back of your head, then that might be a decent reason to apply to graduate school.

Anything else, it’s hard for me to justify.

[MCG] I’ll add one other thing to that.

Something that we discussed in the book is how important it is when thinking about whether grad school is for you and the right decision, so along with wanting to use it for a career move, I think what’s really important to realize that grad school was a place where you gain knowledge in your field, there’ll be the structure for you to follow these steps to achieve your goals and your objectives, and also it’ll be great networking opportunities. You’ll get to meet people who are interested in your field, who perhaps already have connections established, and so forth. So it’s just a good place. That’s kind of a step a little bit further into what you can expect from a doctoral or a master’s program, grad school.

I noticed in your book that you discuss both the good and the bad reasons. In addition to my personal experience, I’ve been an advocate all along that you have to have a goal that justifies the cost unless one can afford to just pursue that calling or interest. Once you have that goal and you have that good reason, or you can justify the calling, how should applicants go about choosing a program and schools to apply to? [6:01]

[MCG] I think one of the important things to begin is to look at the specializations within your field. So look at, do a scan if you can of the different programs around the country or just depending on where you’re thinking you’re going to end up or where you’re willing to move to. But look at those institutions, those places, those programs, and do they offer those curriculum or experience that meet your needs and interests? So that’s really important. Is that a good fit for what I want to do?

The second thing I would say to look at is do they have faculty with whom you could see yourself forming a relationship with, faculty who look like… Perhaps you might see that for me, it’s always really important, the mirrors. Is there a potential for role models in this institution? So that’s really important.

Look at the location of the institution. Where is it? Is it rural, urban? Is it in a part of the state that you live in that is perhaps where you do not want to end up? Or what is the nature? Is it a private? Is it a public institution? What kind of costs are you looking at? Is it an HSI, Hispanic-Serving Institution, which means there’s 25% or more are of Hispanic descent, or is it what people call a PWI, primarily white institution? Or there’s other kind of markers of diversity in terms of different groups. That’s important to think about. Who do you want your peers to be?

Another one that’s really important, I think for grad school students in particular, maybe not so much with undergrads, but graduate students tend to leave the campus. They’re looking for community beyond their departments because usually in their departments, they’re the only ones or very few, maybe a few students of color, a few first-gen, a few BIPOC students. And so they’re really looking for that community. And the question is, will they find those spaces? What kinds of places can they go and have a drink or a coffee and relax? Is that important to you? Maybe not. Maybe you’re going to be in your lab 24/7 because if you’re in the STEM fields, that happens a lot.

But for the majority of people, at least I know in the social sciences and humanities, they do want to be able to go and kick up their heels or just leave the identity of the graduate student behind and have sort of another kind of experience. And so that’s important.

Of course things like housing, what does housing look like? Is it guaranteed or not? Usually they do guarantee the first year, sometimes some places are even saying, “We’re not sure we can even do that.” But that becomes, at least in California, I know that’s especially on my campus where it’s kind of touch-and-go all of the time.

And so just in short, research the school, research the environment, use the internet to talk to people, reach out to the department, see if you can contact alumni. Sometimes they’ll let you talk to alumni and so forth.

[YMV] I want to echo what Dr. Miroslava said about making sure that you can find faculty. And I want to kind of expand on that because I think that sometimes the tendency for new applicants is to go to Google or to go to the U.S. News and Report site and try to find the top institutions in their field and call it a day. And sometimes I take a look at grad school lists and it’s all the top programs and there’s no column for who they’re going to work with. And so I say, “Okay, take a look at the research that you’ve done. Take a look at what you’ve written about. Who are the overarching scholars that keep coming up over and over again? Where are they? Where did they study and get their PhD in?”

Similarly, who can you consult with in your greater network? That might be graduate students who have served as your TAs, that might be professors who have taught classes for you, and even branching outside of your current institution to contacting the faculty and grad students at the institutions you’re interested in to find out if it even makes sense to apply there. Those are all things I want to remind or let them know if they didn’t know previously that you are allowed to ask people questions, reach out to them before you apply.

And I also want to say that it’s okay if you have a regional restriction, if you have to stay within one location, but just please make sure wherever you apply that you can find faculty who are going to vouch for you, who are going to advocate for you because your advisors, your committee members, and even the folks in your department will… They could potentially make or break your experience in graduate school.

What about in terms of choosing a graduate program, looking at your own qualifications and comparing them to the class profile of the program, if that information is available? For professional schools, it tends to be available. For academic programs, it’s sometimes not so easy to find. What would you say to that? [10:35]

[YMV] That’s something to take a look at. Not every website will indicate this, which can make it difficult to find out, “Do I have a competitive GPA? Do I have a competitive GRE score?” But if you can’t find that information, there’s no one saying that you cannot reach out to find out that information.

So I always recommend that you become best friends with whoever that staff person is in that department. Usually they’re called graduate advisors, sometimes they have a different title. It’s that, “Contact us at person,” whatever email address they provide, and ask them questions because most of the time, they’re not the ones selecting you, but they also have a lot of insider knowledge about that department. So you can ask, if it’s okay to ask, what is the average GRE score? What is the average GPA for admitted students? That way, you can get a sense, “Am I within that range? Am I really off? And if not, is it realistic for me to apply here?”

[MCG] I think that’s really important, a really good way for them to know you’re interested. And a lot of faculty welcome these questions that they get from the graduate, the staff graduate advisor who… There’s just kind of a sweet spot. I mean, you don’t want to ask so many, so many questions and the faculty go, “Hmm. Will this person be… I mean, is it somebody we’re going to have to really watch and maneuver every single step, or is it somebody who’s asking very smart and the right questions?” So I think, not that there’s a dumb question, but I think it’s important to figure that out. But definitely I like that approach that Yvette suggests.

Years ago, you just had to make best friends with the person that picks up the phone. I think it’s a great suggestion, but I once had a client call me up that he got into an argument with the person who answered the phone, and then to multiply his stupidity, he called the director of the admissions office and complained about her, and then he asked me if I thought he still had a chance at that particular school. It’s a true story. And I said, “I didn’t think so, no.” I also suggested that not everything in his head has to come out of his mouth, which is a good thing to remember when you’re being evaluated. [13:07]

[YMG] Wow.

How should applicants prepare academically for grad school? Do they have to have the same major? Do they have to have done research in the area? Do they have to have competitive grades? What if the GRE is optional? [13:46]

[MCG] I think one of the very important things to sort of forefront is your research experience. So you want to put that out there, talk about what you’ve done, how you’ve contributed to an area of research or a field, an area of production of knowledge, ultimately, that’s research, producing knowledge, and how you’ve been able to do that in different ways.

Also, you might be able to talk about, and I’ll get to this point about not having this experience, but you can also talk about any kind of research experience you’ve participated in as a participant. What did that look like? So that’s something you want to talk about.

But also I think, as we discussed in the book, and I think it’s a point that Yvette has raised with me because I come from the academic side where I’m like, “Research, research, research,” we talked a lot about how you don’t always have to have that formal research experience. So in the book, we talk about how you can use your real-world experience, approximating research in terms of perhaps the questions you might ask, perhaps the methods that you invoke to answer those questions and kind of the innovative approach.

So sometimes I think in academia, we get stuck in the same four methods, “Let’s do the same method,” or, “let’s do this,” and so we can’t figure out the answer because we’re just stuck in the same rut. But I think sometimes people who come from different spaces and diverse spaces or spaces that are not represented in the academy, sometimes have new ideas or different ideas they hadn’t thought about. It’s like you say one thing, they’re like, “Huh, I hadn’t thought…” I just heard it recently, “Huh, I hadn’t thought about that.” And I thought, “What a basic thing to think about, but okay.”

So yeah, don’t discount yourself because you don’t have that formal research in the lab or digging for bones or whatever kind of thing. There’s different ways that you can position yourself, and I think-

Could you give an example of experience being relevant but surprising? [15:47]

[MCG] Well, I’ll say just one thing that we thought about was community organizing, that being a big one. When you have a goal, you want to fight against an incinerator that’s being put in your neighborhood, which I’m basing this on the Mothers of East LA who fought in Boyle Heights many decades ago to do this. The women got their information together. They got hundreds and several thousands of people organized. All of that work takes a lot of effort and ingenuity. What’s difficult is how to communicate and how to draw people together. That’s something to be said for what they were able to do.

So I think that using those kinds of experiences do speak well. I mean, have you done that kind of work in different… I’m not saying just going out and trying to change the world or revolution, but when have you tackled these big problems and how have you done that and what were the outcomes? I think that’s important as well.

I hate to use that word in academia. We love outcomes and assessment. I was like, “Oh.” Essentially, people want to know now if they’re investing in you, this is how they look at it, are they getting their return? That’s the way it’s now been corporatized.

It sounds like business. [16:52]

[MCG] Yeah. I mean, it is. Or they’re not going to invest in you. That’s the way it goes.

But lastly, I will say we don’t recommend trying to cram for grad school, rather present what you have and be ready to absorb this new information. And certainly there are resources to help you do that because it is… I’ll just speak from my personal experience. The first year was a hard transition, like any new place, but yeah.

[YMV] I feel like that was a really thorough answer that she gave, but I do want to add, again, another nod to the importance of developing solid relationships with faculty because that was one of the things that came up for me that was a struggle when I was in undergrad, is that I had no idea that by the time I was applying to graduate school, I would be required to have three letters of rec. And up to that point, I was that student who thought that I was bothering professors. I didn’t know that office hours were for me. I thought they were hours for them to work on their work, and as a result, I probably didn’t have the strongest letters, just to be frank.

And so I just want to remind students to start thinking about that early on. If you’re a freshman, if you’re a sophomore, if you’re a junior, for sure, who are the three people that I want to intentionally form a strong relationship with so that hopefully they will be able to write you a letter for graduate school and perhaps for other opportunities?

[MCG] One more thing just in relationship to letters of recommendation, a lot of the folks that we’re speaking to in the book aren’t necessarily coming straight from undergrad. They’re non-traditional students. So then the question happens or comes up, “What do I do? I haven’t been in school for years. Where do I find those letters of rec?”

So for that, I would say, and maybe Yvette has another idea as well, is to check with the campus, the institution or the program you’re going to apply to. Would they be willing to accept one, maybe two from a professional, somebody who’s not in academia? Sometimes they allow for that, or they’ll allow you to bring those as additional. It just depends. I mean, I don’t know if Yvette has some other ideas because that does get difficult.

[YMV] I also encourage them not to be afraid to reach out to contacts that they haven’t been in touch with for a while. And if you’re going to make that ask, to check in with them to schedule meetings so that they will remember you or so that they have some familiarity on who you are and what you’ve been up to. And a lot of times, if you did well in a class or if you worked with them previously, even if it was many years ago, many professors would be more than willing to support you in that way.

You can also remind them what they did, and also realize that it depends a little bit on the degree you’re pursuing. If you’re pursuing a degree in academia, then they really do want an academic rec. But if you’re going for an MBA, they don’t want academic recs. So keep that in mind. They specifically don’t want them. They want the boss, they want the supervisor, somebody that you’ve worked with, so you have to know those requirements also. But certainly for most graduate programs, they are going to want at least one academic rec, and many will want exclusively academic recs. [19:23]

[MCG] Right. And usually the PhD, sometimes grad students, you’re the closest to a graduate student, but it could be you ask the grad student to work with faculty member to write a letter for you. We say a lot in the book about letters of recommendation. We can maybe come to this later, but yeah.

Now, more and more programs, especially in the US, want the student to have had good grades especially if you’re going to research-oriented programs, but how are they supposed to prepare experientially? Let’s look first at professional terminal degrees, like the MBA, the JD, the MD. And I realize that in listing those three degrees, they’re very different degrees, but they’re very different requirements. But what is the experiential component there? And then we’ll get to academic masters and academic PhDs. [20:18]

[YMV] I want just to mention a quick caveat that the book is written particularly for preparing for master’s and PhD programs, and these are more academic master’s and PhD programs. However, I’m happy to talk about the MBA-JD-MD option because I have worked with those types of applicants.

And so when you’re applying to these professional-type programs, it is important to have work experience. And in medical settings, it’s important to have clinical experience. And so this might look like having an internship at some sort of legal office. That would be for the JD. It might look like volunteering at a hospital if you know that you want to go for the MD. It might look like securing a part-time job, working at a pharmacy if you know you want to go to pharmacy school because you want to show that you have familiarity and experience in the field. You don’t want to make it seem like it’s just this dream and all you did was just go to school, take classes.

Also, I don’t want to discount the fact that some of these professional programs have a research component. There are medical schools that have that research emphasis, and so if that’s the case… There are even joint degree programs, JD-PhD programs. So if you know there’s a research component or if it’s a joint program, I would also make sure to stress the research that we mentioned earlier, making sure that you have it or that you develop that research experience in some way, shape, or form.

I didn’t mention specific MBA examples, but you get what I mean in terms of having direct experience and also having letter-writers that can prove that you have that experience as well.

For MBA, basically the applicant has to have at least two, preferably three years of full-time work experience for the traditional full-time MBA program. Otherwise, they’re not really competitive until they get it. There are some deferred MBA programs, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Let’s focus on the academics since the book is what triggered this podcast. [23:05]

[MCG] It varies by fields and so forth. But definitely I think the first thing in thinking about a master’s program because as we know, those are generally two to three years, there’s a lot of teaching programs that are one year or 15, 16 months. Those are teacher education programs, but those are a little bit different. So I would say to look at the programs and look at the major milestones of the program and when generally students achieve those points, and then thinking about what you can bring to the program.

So for instance, master’s programs, sometimes they require to get the master’s to do an exam or sometimes they require a master’s thesis, so actually a written document that can be anywhere from 50 to 150 pages. So thinking about those different kinds of programs and what might work best for you and where your strengths are.

And I think the same thing would be for the PhD to look at the timelines and how people sort of get through those timelines. What are the major milestones through those programs, whether it’s coursework, different kinds of exams, putting together a proposal for your thesis, your dissertation, and so all that stuff, and how long that would take. Also thinking about funding and how important that is. So those are also things to look at in terms of how you will be able to move through the program.

I’m not sure if I’m answering the experience that you need to bring because I kind of think we addressed that a little bit before.

I don’t know. Yeah, I think the only other thing I would just say, when thinking about your experience, to think beforehand before you’re going into these programs and applying, what is your idea? Do you plan to go into industry or do you plan to stay with the academic track? Do you want to teach at a university or a college? And so I think it’s important to have an idea about that.

Some of the latest research, the latest studies show that nearly half of PhDs go into non-academic jobs, like 48, 49% do not. So it’s increased over the years, which is nothing new, I think, for us to hear, but to see those numbers increase, to tick up that fewer and fewer people are going into academia is just the reality. So it’s difficult to land those jobs.

But there are opportunities, I would say particularly for first-gen BIPOC students, when institutions are looking to bring in fresh ideas and fresh faces into these largely, as I said earlier, homogeneous spaces. I think there’s more wiggle room and more space for that.

Okay, great. Let’s move on to the application itself. What are your top tips for the most common writing components of the application, which for grad school would be the statement of purpose, increasingly a diversity statement, and some graduate programs want both a statement of purpose and a personal statement. [26:17]

[MCG] So I think for grad programs, it’s primarily the statement of purpose and the personal statement. The diversity statement, I haven’t seen it too often perhaps, but I think it’s more like when you get an academic job or a job like a lecturer or academic job. But the first thing I would want to say is to make sure these documents, whatever you end up to write, are separate statements. Make sure to keep them separate, avoid repetition, and take full advantage of the space that you have been given because sometimes it’s also very limited. They’ll say, “500 words, 700 words.” So use that to your advantage. Try not to replicate as much as possible.

And the second thing I would say is to launch into your pieces with a bold statement. It doesn’t have to be something crazy, but I think an argument of sorts that you will then support with evidence is really important. Don’t wander, don’t be shy, don’t just muddle. It’s important to say something strong. Also, be careful of not being overconfident and then not have anything to show for it. You don’t want to do that either.

So it’s important to realize that reviewers or whoever your audience is, they don’t want to search for something, what you’re trying to say. It’s not a guessing game. They’re going to give up very easily, or I know because I’ve reviewed lots of applications, so I’m just going to assume that you don’t know what you want, or you’re not really being serious because you’re wasting our time because you’re not telling us exactly what you want.

The statement of purpose, first of all, is focused on your research goals and what you plan to contribute to what we don’t know. So what are you bringing that’s new to the table? What do you hope to bring to the table? So that is what the statement of purpose is about, what you’re going to do.

Sometimes you might want to weave in the research experience. Some places will ask you for a separate document on research experience, but mostly you want to say in a statement of purpose, “This is what I’ve done,” or, “this is what I hope to do. This is the kind of research I’ve done, and this is my new contribution I hope to make in the future.” It doesn’t have to be set in stone. You’re not going to be held to this document if you get in. Year two, “Where are you?” It’s just can you craft a statement that shows that you know what these components look like?

And then I’ll move on to this personal statement. That talks about your personal experience and how that shaped your research interests or your research trajectory, perhaps something happened when you were a child, a formative event, then sort led you to look at the ingredients in, I don’t know, baby shampoo or something like that, maybe something happened to you. Those kinds of things. So it’s really asking you about making that connection between the personal and your research and how that bridge is logical and how you got there.

And lastly, I’ll say the diversity statement for those who need to write them, those talk about your commitment to diversity and how you have done that. So showing specifically how you have contributed to diversifying academia, how you’ve created pipelines for elementary students. You’ve created pathways for non-traditional students. Have you tutored? Have you worked in these different spaces? Just how have you done that? How has that shown?

I know in my diversity statements, I will actually talk about my research, how that contributes to diversity, how my teaching contributes to diversity, and my service, which is, I’m not making these things up, it’s all in the name of diversifying the professoriate. As a professor, that’s my mission, really. Yvette’s an expert on this, so let her.

[YMV] I’m happy to add a couple of things. I’ll keep it brief.

So going back to the statement of purpose, echoing what Miros just mentioned, I do think it’s important to start with an overarching thread or some sort of hook. Nowadays, folks have really short attention spans. You don’t know how many dozens, if not hundreds of applications someone is combing through. So it’s important for you to be able to pinpoint how you’re making sense of your trajectory and what came up for you that helped you to make sense of getting from point A, where you started, wherever that was, to point B, you getting to the point of applying. So storytelling is an often under-emphasized aspect that’s important for these statements, not just a statement of purpose.

I would also say, in addition to prioritizing and emphasizing, mentioning your previous research and/or work experience, also to make sure that you do your research to indicate why this is the right program for you. That might include mentioning faculty, that might include mentioning specializations. Is there a special internship? Is there field work? Are there resources on that campus or in that greater community that make this the right program for you?

And then for the personal statement, don’t forget to figure out what are your greater values, greater mission? What are the overarching themes again in your life that might come from formative experiences? And if you struggle to name this, talk it out with a friend or someone who can help you to name them, and make sure to highlight other ways that you have prepared for graduate school that you didn’t get to highlight in your statement of purpose.

And it’s also a great opportunity if you need to identify and justify a gap on your application. You have low, I don’t know, low GPA score or a low GRE score. There was one semester or a quarter that you really struggled. It could be a great place for you to mention what was going on, what you did to overcome that, or how you’re actively working towards overcoming that obstacle.

And then lastly, diversity statement. I was going to say the same thing that Miros said about make sure that you can highlight how you are diversifying spaces through either your identity, through your research, through your teaching, through your service work because a lot of times, the folks that we work with, they think, “Just look at me. Of course I’m going to diversify a space.” And it’s not as simple as that. Or sometimes folks don’t see themselves represented in that. They’re like, “How am I going to diversify this space?” Or they feel like they haven’t actively worked towards diversifying these spaces. And in that case, I would say think broadly about how you define diversity. And two, if you haven’t done the work, talk about how you plan to do that in the future. And that’s it.

[MCG] Yeah, I would add one other thing. Definitely no statement of purpose looks… There are no two alike. There shouldn’t be. Certainly there’s key elements to those that need to go in, but it is good to look at sample ones, of course, to get an inspiration, to see. And also, I think by field, I do think in the STEM fields, they do look differently in terms of the language. It’s not always… I mean, I love narrative. I’m a historian. Narrative can be an asset that you bring to the STEM fields, of course. I mean, that would be… That’s if it’s you though. I mean, ultimately it’s you on the paper and you want to make sure you want to be true to yourself at the same time because if you’re trying to pretend you’re somebody else, why would you want to be at that institution?

So look at a sample, I think it’s really important, in your field just to get a sense of what the range is.

Turning to your book, can you tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced in applying to graduate school? [33:39]

[YMV] I think that we have nodded a little bit to some of the challenges that we experienced, which is what motivated, inspired us to write this book.

So one of the things that Miros and I have both said time and time again is that both of us felt, in undergrad as we were preparing for graduate school, that we were stumbling along the way, that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and that we were just barely trying to figure things out. And for me, I often felt like I was figuring things out and often at the last minute. So that was really, really hard. It was just constantly feeling like I just didn’t know what was coming next.

The next thing that came up for me, which I mentioned earlier, is that I didn’t have strong ties with faculty. And it’s one of those things that if I could go back in time and change that, I really would have. I just didn’t know any better and I was very introverted and kept to myself.

I also struggled with selecting the program that I ultimately went to because I ended up working with an advisor, my first advisor, that just wasn’t the right fit for me. And I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet the people that I was considering working with before saying yes. That would’ve helped me a lot, helped me to avoid a lot of heartache and turmoil.

And then another thing just to put it out there because I know this is something that can come up, especially for low-income first-gen students, is that I completely bombed my GRE. I did. I have never had a record of performing well on standardized tests. I didn’t have the financial support to take a test prep course or even hire a tutor. And as a result, that led to me not getting the best score. Ultimately, it didn’t get in the way of me pursuing a PhD, but it certainly didn’t help me.

It might’ve caused a little bit of stress along the way. [35:42]

[MCG] It was awful, the GRE. Back in my day, we did paper and pencil and it was like, “Stop, go, stop.” You couldn’t even put your pencil down and you were like having a heart attack.

I’m dating myself but when I was going to college and grad school, courses were not a thing. I took one math class in college and I remember I got a book to review before taking the GMAT. The courses existed, like Kaplan existed, Princeton Review existed, but the common wisdom at the time was that they were really for people who are desperate. By the time I had kids applying, it had changed entirely. [36:02]

[MCG] Yeah. I remember when I was interested in getting one of those courses, because I was in the early ’90s, at the time, it cost like $8 or $900, and I think it’s still not actually gone up that much more than that. But I called and I said, “Do you guys provide some sort of assistance or something?” They said that it was reverse discrimination or something like that. I thought, “Who has $900? I can’t even…” So, yeah, yeah, that was tough. That was awful.

By the way, I am first-generation. My parents are both immigrants and neither one went to college. They were refugees. So I can relate to some of the challenges that you’re mentioning here. 

One of the more interesting phrases I’ve come across in the last 10 years ago or so is imposter syndrome. I don’t remember reading about it before then, but what is imposter syndrome and what is its role in the admissions process for first-gen applicants in your opinion? [36:02]

[MCG] We talk about imposter syndrome as sort of imposter phenomenon and that sort of helps depersonalize it and make it more structural, looking at it within a bird’s eye within an institutional focus. But it’s just that belief or this idea that you don’t belong, that somehow you’ve sort of faked your way or that you fooled people into letting you into these spaces that are not meant for you. And so it’s this sort of constant belief that you’re going to be found out. And then once they find out that you don’t really belong, that somehow you got there not on your own merits, that you’re going to be rejected, that you’re going to be told to leave and so forth.

It’s not just a feeling, actually. I would say it’s more than just this idea that it’s in your head. And that’s why I think people now, when we talk about it as phenomenon, that actually it’s very real, especially when you enter these spaces and these rooms and no one looks like you or talks like you, or not necessarily acts like you, but there’s a certain even… So the culture is very different. And sometimes you step into a room and you have to say like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I enter the wrong room?” When it’s in your head, you’re thinking, “Is this the place? Is this the right space for me?” So I think that that’s something that happens.

And certainly when we’re… I think it stops a lot of us from applying to graduate school in the first place, or sometimes in my experience, it wasn’t so much there where it sort of jumped out at me. It’s being seated around people and thinking or going to the admissions, the preview day, looking at others, people sizing each other up.

And certainly on the first days of the seminars, there’s people using these big words. Somebody said in my first year of an intro course to the PhD program with a very well-known, established historian at UCLA, and somebody said, “Oh, it’s such a Hegelian,” whatever example. I was like, “Whoa, that sounds impressive.” No.

So she called him on it, which was cool. So yeah, I think that it’s very real. It’s something that continues to plague, I’ll say, myself, even at this point, and I always wonder… One of my former undergrad students who now has a PhD, an African American student who also comes from a low-income neighborhood. So he said, “Dr. Miros, do you experience it?” I’m like, “No, no, I don’t have an imposter phenomenon.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute, why did I kill myself?” I literally put myself in the hospital after wanting to get these books out and wanting to do all this work because I feel I still need to prove it to the powers that be, and even myself perhaps, that I belong.

And so, yeah, the studies show that women of color, in particular in academia, have horrible rates in terms of health concerns and all these issues.

Okay. When I first read imposter syndrome, and you call it imposter phenomenon, I read about it in terms of syndrome, it was by, I can’t remember the author’s name, but he was basically saying that that’s a feeling that indicates you’re trying to grow and improve yourself. In other words, there is a positive side to that. I don’t know if celebrate might be too strong a word, but maybe the feeling should be embraced and acknowledged as a sign of, “I’m trying to change myself, I’m trying to grow, I’m trying to do better.” [40:29]

[MCG] Right. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I would agree. But it can also be a little bit of deficit thinking. But I guess it depends on the person because I really drive myself hard. Also, immigrant. I lost both my parents when I was young, so it’s myself, and I’m like, “I’m here to prove it to my parents and to all these people.” And so I always see myself as not good enough. And even in… I was in sports in college too, and our coach was always pushing us hard, pushing. We won, we won Pac-10 Champions and all this and went to nationals, but it really broke some people. Not everybody survived that. People have different spirits.

And so it just depends on who you are. Some people thrive off competition in your face, kind of like I do. I love competition. I love, “I’m going to beat you.” But some people don’t work under those conditions. I think the majority of people do not. So it’s really important to know the working styles.

[YMV] Actually one thing, one, if you were to say one positive about the imposter syndrome, is that I would not want to fall under the umbrella of the opposite of imposter syndrome, the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s quite literally overestimating your abilities.

You’re not having a sense of self-awareness and thinking that you are the best, when in actuality, you might need a little bit more humility. I’m sure we’ve all met individuals like this.

Life sometimes teaches them something, though. I mean, along the way, they might learn some humility. How does a gap year or more help or hurt applicants? [42:25]

[YMV] I do want to remind people that it’s becoming more common for folks to get gap years across many different life stages, many different ages. There are folks who take gap years between high school and college, college and grad school, even in the middle of the career.

I just had a conversation with someone this morning who took a gap year, went to college, had a career in industry for 13 years, took a gap year in her 40s, and is now starting a graduate program. So it’s super interesting to hear about these gap years.

And it really… I think what matters is how are you using this time intentionally and strategically to prepare for the next step? And this might mean that you decide, “Okay, I’m going to use this time to gain some additional experience to fill a gap. Maybe it’s volunteer experience, maybe it’s work experience. Maybe you need to take a couple of classes to maybe round out some of your skillsets. You may want to use this time to study abroad, to immerse yourself and learn a new language that will help you with the foreign language requirement for a graduate program.

All of this to say that it’s really about how you use your time and also how you frame the way that you use that time when you apply to those programs.

[MCG] It’s so funny because I’ve been thinking and breathing and dreaming maybe about gap years. It’s something that’s come up in the program where I work. And so recently, so in the McNair Scholars Program, one of the mandates… That’s a federally funded, nationally recognized program to prepare undergrads, first-gen, low-income, and underrepresented students for grad study, ideally doctoral programs. We want them to go… The program requires/asks people to go straight from undergrad to grad school. So that is always our mandate in trying to get our students to go.

So they conducted a study, the McNair Fast Facts came out from 2019 to 2020, just got released or very recently, and this is what they found. They found that if you take a gap year between one and three years, you’re more than likely to get your PhD within 10 years than if you did not take a gap year.

So if people do not take a gap year, they found that 14% of people get their PhDs within 10 years. People who took a gap year between one and three years, it’s 28% percent or a little bit, something like that, it’s higher. And then people who took a gap year more than three years, it’s 7%. So it really drops. I mean, not to discourage non-traditional people, but it gets harder. I mean, the fact is that it gets much, much harder.

And then in the cohorts of the McNair Scholars, they also found that in terms of gap years, that 50% of people take gap years, of the students. And I just was like, “Here we were beating ourselves up. The fact that so many students want to take gap years…” And actually, their faculty mentors will tell them, “If you want to go into clinical psych, you need this research.” It’s just they tell them, “Do this route, get a master’s degree, and then go into the PhD.”

So definitely the gap year is something that is very real. And I think Yvette made a really good point on how you need to just explain how that fits into your trajectory, how that makes sense for you.

What advice today would you give to yourselves for when you were applying to graduate school? [46:30]

[YMV] Well, if this book existed, I would say go and read the book. There’s the plug. So that they know how to apply every step of the way.

But in terms of advice, if I were thinking about my former self or any young applicant today, or new applicant or non-traditional, you name it, anyone who’s thinking about applying, this is what I wish somebody would’ve told me. I wish somebody would’ve told me, “Know what it is that you stand for, know what your strengths are and lean into your strengths. Build community of all types across all kinds of areas, industries, and know, at the end of the day, that you have options, that even if you’re on one career path, the skills that you learn in college and in programs are often transferable.”

And I know that because I’m living proof of it. I have pivoted multiple times in my career. I wouldn’t be surprised if I continue to pivot because I lean into those things of strengths, community building. And really what’s becoming more common, I want to mention, today among the career development world is folks crafting what you call portfolio careers, which is where you are selecting different things that are part of your work or part of your income sources and not relying solely on one source of income or one full-time job. That’s becoming more common now.

And what’s also becoming more common is pivoting. It’s rare to find someone… I don’t know the numbers, but it’s something like 75% of people who major in one thing in college end up in a career path that’s different from that major. So it’s not realistic to expect that the 18-year-old you is going to have the same interests as the 40 or even 60-year-old you.

Those are a couple of things I would say. I feel like I have a lot to say, but I’ll keep it brief with that.

[MCG] I hadn’t thought about those things, so thank you for that, Yvette.

I was just thinking very, very narrowly, like I would apply to more schools, and the other ones to think about, whether I want to teach or not. So teaching is… They don’t teach you how to teach in grad school. It’s something that takes up 80% of your time, even though it’s only counted as a smaller portion supposedly. And you would be, maybe not Linda, but you would be surprised at how many faculty members try to get out of teaching. It’s just the teaching portion. It’s not easy. There’s some gifted teachers. I have worked really hard at teaching and it takes up a lot of time. So think about that.

But I think though and our conversation helped me think about how key the relationships with faculty are. And I was trying to remember back to my undergrad days, and I had a small research experience, two small ones that helped me get into grad school. And I realized had I developed those more, maybe I would’ve learned whether I wanted to do it or not. I would’ve learned about my strengths. I didn’t know what my strengths were at that time. I think the strengths… So everything Yvette’s saying about learning your strength or understanding your strengths or trying to map those is really important.

But yeah, it’s kind of a blur. But I don’t know. I think the fumbling in the dark is still a good metaphor for me. I’m just grateful to have those supportive people.

I’ll answer my own question. I am the child of immigrants, as I mentioned, and my parents were very supportive of my sister and me pursuing higher education, but they really wanted us to go into a profession. You became a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, et cetera. And it was only when I got out of school, even after I got my MBA, that I realized there’s an infinite number of ways that you can support yourself through that. You can contribute to society. There are so many different ways you can go. You mentioned that in terms of pivoting, and of course it’s not a life sentence either. I think that was your point. You can start on one path and then pivot. You can change. [50:05]

[MCG] I always tell students, “There’s different means to similar ends.” So maybe a lot of us believe in social justice. How can that be done? It can be done in many different ways, and I remember in grad school in particular, we always had this sort of… Because we weren’t activists in the streets, that we’re like, “I need to go pick up a picket sign.” And I remember listening to Cornel West back many years ago, and one of the things he said was like, “We need a division of labor to get this work done.” He’s like, “Do you think Toni Morrison wrote her book by marching out there? No. She needed time to write.” I’m not saying I’m going to be a Toni Morrison or something, but he made a really good point about division of labor.

I don’t know if that was myself compromising in what space I should be in, but I knew I needed to be doing the research, doing the writing to get that research out there into the hands of the community that I wanted to know about themselves, know their history. But it is an internal thing that becomes difficult sometimes in thinking about where should I be and where should I locate myself?

What do you wish I would’ve asked you? [51:48]

[MCG] Yeah. I can’t think of anything off-hand. I’ve had fun talking to you. 

[YMV] Your list of questions were so thorough. I really enjoyed it. I am at a loss for words because I don’t have any other questions to answer.

Well, thank you very much for the feedback. Dr. Chavez-Garcia and Dr. Martínez-Vu, thank you so much for joining me today. Where can listeners learn more about or purchase Is Grad School For Me?: Demystifying the Application Process for First-Gen BIPOC Students? [52:11]

[YMV] They can get their copy today if they want to at isgradschoolforme.com. And then we also have a 30% off discount code. It is UCPSAVE30. If you go to the UC Press website or just Google “UC Press Is Grad School For Me?” and use that code, you’ll get 30% off on as many copies as you want to order. If you want to place a bulk order, reach out to us. We’ll get you bigger discounts.

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