As you may know another unarmed black man was shot dead in the street here in America and yet again another community has been set ablaze last night. It’s like a broken record that you just keep playing without doing anything about it, despite how bad it sounds. But wait, that’s not true, people are trying to do something about it. There is a movement happening here, African Americans are trying to remind America of the value of the lives that are being taken without repercussions. I understand the movement, I also understand everybody has their own way of participating in the movement. Some people want to be in the streets rioting, I get it, you’re mad, people tear up cities for less: just don’t look for that convenience store in the morning when you need some eggs (they burnt it down last night). Some folks become Facebook activists and politicians and that’s cool too, that’s another outlet but it’s just not a platform for me.
Instead, I believe there are strategic developmental roles in the movement that folks in academia can support. Knowledge is power, many people of color have learned how to thrive in an educational system that wasn’t designed for them. Through pursuing an education some of them have made it to be Presidents of universities, Provosts and Deans of colleges. There may not be many of us there right now but you have to remember, when most of these universities were founded black people were still slaves so that was a bit of a hindrance to our progress. Any who, these are all positions of influence that can help make changes to benefit people of color from the top-down. I’m in the business of increasing the number of people of color at the top, so we can reconstruct the system from the top-down. No, I am not at the top but I still have a purpose and it’s not to be a Facebook activist (much love to all my Facebook activists though, we need you).
So here is my contribution to the movement. There are plenty of other barriers in the way of people of color achieving greatness but money to fund our education does not have to be one of them. I am working on my second fully paid for degree (Masters and PhD). I don’t know everything but here’s what I do know:
Everybody thinks you just apply to grad school, right? NO! This isn’t true in the sciences, actually I don’t think it’s true in any field if you are trying to go for “the Free”. Communication is KEY, it’s not WHAT you know but WHO you know, closed mouths DON'T get fed. All those cliché phrases are applicable.
First, you have to think about a couple of things. Think about what you want to do with your life for the next 3+ or 5+ years. These are honestly the amount of years you will be working on either a Masters or PhD. Think about how this degree is going to advance your career. Look up the career you see yourself having after this degree, does it require the degree or experience?!
Now that you have some idea of what you want to do in the next five or so years start looking at Job boards. Yup, I said job boards, a lot of times offices or labs aren’t really looking to give you 60g’s straight out of undergrad but they are looking for someone to help work on a project or complete some tasks for a half as much. The trade off is they end up paying for your schooling to get an advanced degree so that you can gain more experience and make more money in the future (this does not always apply, scientists will always be broke, I have come to terms with this). Example, I am in Fisheries Science so I looked on the AFS Job board and the Texas A&M Job board for graduate assistant-ships or graduate research opportunities in my field. This is actually where I found the opportunity for my masters.
The other way to find an opportunity is to put your network to work. If you didn’t build one in undergrad through internships, workshops or other opportunities, you probably should have (that’s another post for another day). These are people who are in the field you are interested in, ask them if they know someone looking for a Masters or PhD student with your skills, heck ask them if they are looking for a student! Don’t be ashamed to ask, tell them what you need, but you also have to know a bit about what you want. This is where “closed mouths don’t get fed” comes into play, along with a little bit of “WHO you know, not WHAT you know”. Example, I did an independent study project with a government lab, wasn’t paid or anything I just wanted some experience. I had a great advisor for the project we often had talks with me about my next steps. Come to find out, he knew a professor who was looking for a student.
Another approach would be to look up schools you may want to go to, and people you may want to work with, and EMAIL YOUR LIFE AWAY. Heck call them if need be! Before you do this though, you need to do some research. You need to really think about why you want to work with this person. Are you familiar with their work or their position in the department? How do you think you can fit into their lab or office? What can you offer the lab? What can you gain from them (besides a degree and a stipend)? These are all things to think about and put in your email. You should also include your CV/Resume to back up the things you are saying in your email. After sending this email you might not get a response. You also might get a response but it will most likely be one along the lines of “you sound like a great fit for the lab/position unfortunately we do not have money right now to fund a student”. THAT’S ALL RIGHT! Keep looking.
You should always have a couple of places you are looking into to cushion that harsh blow of rejection. Here is another point where “WHO you know” comes into play. Ask someone in your network to set up the initial correspondence for you. Chances are, if in real life you are the person you claim to be on paper, people will have no problem referring you to others. This is how I got my current opportunity to pursue my PhD, again fully funded. I was at a conference where a professor I had communicated with at conferences before asked me what was next. I told him I wanted to do my PhD and was debating on staying at my current school or leaving. I also told him I had been looking into coming to his school and working with some people there. He introduced me to another professor at the conference, we had lunch, we exchanged emails, we spoke on skype, she saw me present some research and one year later I was starting the PhD with her as my advisor.
If you stuck have with me this long I have to let you in on a little secret, I didn’t get into grad school the first time I applied. I didn’t talk to a soul, I didn’t realize how important it was. The institution I am at RIGHT NOW, even rejected me the first time I applied back in 2010. It’s crazy that a couple of years later all it took was one guy to say “hey let me introduce you to so and so” and here I am, footloose and grad school debt free!
But hey, fight the power however you see fit, these are just my two cents!
P.S. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors, I'll come back to that later ... you get the point!