practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

A lot of social science departments have goals to diversify their graduate student bodies by recruiting more people of color applicants.  It is a worthy goal, but also one raises questions, such as where are these potential people of color applicants and how do we get them to apply?  Even at universities with diverse undergraduate bodies, the question of “how do we get them to apply?” is still unanswered, as students who demonstrate the kinds of skills and thinking faculty associate with strong graduate students are often planning on terminal MA programs like MSWs and JDs.  I may be an Assistant Professor today, but even I thought I was going to stop at a terminal MA until a mentor pushed my thinking.

I went to a large university for undergrad where I majored in a small, interdisciplinary major.  The department was literally 2 faculty members who predominately did administrative work, so I graduated after 4 years with zero exposure to research and the assumption that college professors just taught.  It wasn’t until three years after graduating that I realized a PhD prepared people for careers in research.  At that time, I had started my first career job as a Research Assistant at a social policy evaluation nonprofit, where many of my supervisors had PhDs.  I hadn’t taken much notice of that at that particular point, but I knew my assigned mentor had a PhD.  While I was focused on an MPP or an MPA and trying to sort out the differences between those options, my mentor’s response to my educational goals during our goal setting meeting was “why just a MA?”

The question totally threw me.  My mother, a college-educated public school teacher, had ingrained in my brain from an early age that “a Master’s is a minimum,” as she watched the standards for hiring for her position change.  So I left my BS program knowing that I would come back for another degree at some point, but not wanting to waste my time and money before knowing what I wanted that MA to be in exactly.  When my mentor asked “why just a MA?,” I really didn’t have an answer.  I didn’t know what a PhD was or what someone might do with one, so just posing the question sent me on a path to figure out what I didn’t know.  Learning more about how my supervisors were trained for research through a PhD program became my motivation to pursue that option.  I was that RA who read everything I could about research methods, who loved doing literature reviews, and couldn’t get enough of qualitative or quantitative coding and analysis.  If it wasn’t for that little push to explore the options, I might have gotten an MA in Geography and a job in mapping or stopped my educational career with the MPA program I did complete when I was considering PhD programs in Policy (which require an MA).

It is that experience that informs my answer to the question, how do we get them to apply?  Many of the students who definitively state they are going to get a JD or an MSW probably don’t know about the full spectrum of options they have for higher degrees.  They probably don’t know what their professors do on a day-to-day basis.  And they have probably not had exposure to conducting research.  

So what can we do to get them to apply?  Give them information about what a PhD program entails and what you can do with a PhD when you’re done.  Tell them why you think they would be a great fit for a PhD program.  Expose them to research not just in class readings, but through opportunities to get some hands on experience to see if they like it.  At the end of the day, they won’t all apply to PhD programs for one reason or another, but they will have considered the option and some of them, like me, will submit an application.

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