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From Practitioner to Doctoral Student: Five Prep Strategies

As an undergraduate, I remember sitting in the office of one of my mentors and saying, “I don’t know what I want to do after graduation. I wish I can stay in college forever!”

She laughed and asked, “Have you considered pursuing a career in higher education?”

And, just like that, it clicked.

I spent the rest of my junior year looking up different student affairs programs, conducting informative interviews with my mentors and reaching out to graduate programs to learn more. As a product of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), I knew that my persistence at Cornell was tied to the support and guidance I received by the administrators of that office. Their commitment to my success inspired me to consider a similar career, and I finally felt like I knew my calling.

After receiving a master’s of education in higher education administration, I returned to my alma mater as an assistant dean of students. In this role, I advised diversity-related student organizations, coordinated a peer mentorship program for men of color and distributed funding for departments, individual students and student groups who wanted to put on cultural events on campus.

However, as you may have heard from other student affairs practitioners, “other duties as assigned” takes up a lot of time, too. Beyond my primary roles, I was accustomed to responding to reported bias incidents, one-on-one advising with students and simply being present at the communities I was hired to support. I loved my job, but I knew I wanted a Ph.D. in the near future and had to figure out how I could adequately prepare to not only apply to programs, but also transition back to being a graduate student.

Here are some of the strategies I used that I recommend:

Be honest with your supervisor about your long-term goals.

Of course, this is situational. Ideally, you are in a supportive environment in which your development as a professional is a priority to your immediate supervisor. I was fortunate to have a supervisor that was one of my mentors when I was an undergraduate. We had a very open relationship and she knew I would be applying to a Ph.D. program within three to five years.

Knowing that I did not have to tiptoe around applying to graduate programs alleviated a lot of unnecessary stress. I was able to talk to her about the pros and cons of the different programs I was considering, and she became a great resource in helping me learn more about Ph.D. programs.

Take classes as an administrator.  

Depending on your institution, you may qualify for tuition benefits and be able to take a class even if you are not enrolled in a particular program. Anticipating that some programs required a writing sample within their application, I looked into graduate courses that were both interesting to me and related to education so that one of the assignments could become a sample of my work.

After one year at my job, I began taking one class every semester. This kept me in the habit of reading scholarly work and writing papers. I took courses in sociology, ethnic studies and education — all fields that were relevant to the work I was doing on campus and aligned with my research interests. Furthermore, I looked at these classes as opportunities to demonstrate my ability to do well in graduate-level courses beyond the ones I had passed to earn my master’s degree.

Use professional development opportunities to network with faculty.

I was able to attend National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) annual conferences and the National Conference of Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) during my tenure as an Assistant Dean. These conferences were both transformational in the ways I approached my work and useful in making connections with faculty at different graduate programs I was interested in.

I would suggest attending conferences of interest to you and trying to present at these conferences, if possible. Doing so will give you a platform to meet others interested in your work and may lead to future collaborations. These conferences are also a great opportunity to meet faculty at different programs. When it came to the application process, it was reassuring to hear from faculty that I connected with at conferences that they were excited to see me apply.

Embrace your curiosity. 

It is not expected for you to have a dissertation topic before applying. When I was applying to graduate school, I had convinced myself that I had to know exactly what I wanted to study. Although having specific research interests and being aware of faculty who would support that work is definitely helpful, you do not have to be wedded to a specific research question.

Learning is a life-long experience and your interests will evolve during your time in graduate school. While I do not encourage having several broad research agendas, you don’t need to know what your dissertation will be about when you are applying.

Begin saving for the transition.

This piece of advice is something I regret not doing. Although there are programs that provide full funding, even with that, my monthly take-home income was cut in half. I did not realize how much money I was wasting until I could no longer spend as much.

Beginning or returning to graduate school requires a change in lifestyle, especially around spending habits. Take advantage now to put some money aside each month. It is also important to consider long-term planning through contributions to a retirement savings account that you can keep contributing toward even during graduate school.

Depending on how long it has been since you were in the classroom, transitioning to graduate school will come with its challenges. However, there are tons of ways to prepare now to ease this transition. No matter what, do not let this transition scare you. Graduate school provides more opportunities than the challenges it may present.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle.

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