Truths To Be Told: Entering Graduate School

Terri E. Givens describes the joys and satisfactions of her first year of graduate school.

June 16, 2017

“When will you be done with school?” When I decided to go back to graduate school after six years of working, many family members and friends asked me this question. The answer, of course, was never.

Couldn’t I just get a good job, the question implied, and move on with my life? But I knew I had to take another step. I fully expected to finish my Ph.D. and go on to become a professor and researcher at a college or university, not knowing many of the challenges I would face on this path. As a first-generation college goer, I didn’t have any preconceptions about graduate school. I did know that it was a good idea to identify someone I could work with at the department I was headed to, and that I needed to know what I wanted to study.

Based on my study-abroad experience in France while at Stanford University, I knew I wanted to study European politics and that this choice, focusing on immigration and anti-immigration politics, would be unconventional for an African-American woman. (This issue would come up regularly throughout my career.) However, I reminded myself that the African diaspora was everywhere, and my French (and eventually German) language skills shouldn’t go to waste just to meet the expectations of a discipline that expected me to study American race and politics.

The real reason I decided to go back to school when I did was that I had fallen in love. I was working for a lobbyist in Sacramento when an old friend from college came back into my life. After a whirlwind courtship, we needed to figure out where we would live if we were going to live together. He was living and working in Southern California, and I was in Northern California, so I applied to the University of California, Berkeley, where I didn’t get in, and the University of California, Davis, which was a good university but not ranked as highly as my ultimate choice, the University of California, Los Angeles. I knew there were several top-notch professors in European politics at UCLA, and it wouldn’t hurt my future job prospects to be at one of the top public universities in the country

The year was 1993, and back then I don’t recall hearing the term “microaggressions.” However, looking back, I experienced quite a few. When I was applying to UCLA, I was told that if I got at least a 1900 on the GRE I would be able to get a fellowship. I scored 1890, which was enough to obtain a fellowship targeted for minority students. Since I was a fellowship recipient, I was invited to visit the UCLA campus that spring along with other poli-sci recruits. When I got to the recruitment meeting, I was the only black student in the room. The professor talking to us recruits noted that we had all scored above 2000 on the GRE (of course, I hadn’t) and were top students and so on. Despite my lower scores, I tried not to let myself feel out of place, but it did make an impression on me that I was getting a great opportunity -- and I was going to make the most of it.

During that trip, I also met with some current students, one who said that he was hoping to get “younger” students into the program. I didn’t bother to tell him that I was an older student who had been out of college for six years. In the end, I met many other students in the program who would become close friends, so over all it was a pleasant experience. Those of us who accepted our offers would later learn that we were part of a cohort of 32 students, most of whom were left to compete for teaching assistant positions and other types of funding. That was an unusually large graduate cohort, and most of us who started did not go on to complete the program.

Despite the rocky start, I was thrilled to be back in school. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was finally living in the same place as my future husband. I had a huge smile on my face every day that I walked onto the UCLA campus that first semester. I loved my classes and couldn’t believe that I was being paid to go to school. It was the opposite of my undergraduate experience. I had time to focus on my studies, and my favorite class was statistics. I even helped my classmates through the class and got an A-plus on my first paper. I knew I had made the right decision to go back to school, and UCLA was like a dream.

For the first year and a half I lived far from the campus in Seal Beach with my future husband, who worked near Irvine as a hardware engineer. We moved to Redondo Beach and got married after my second year in graduate school. Being with someone who worked an engineer’s schedule helped to keep me focused, and I generally worked the same hours he did so we had time to spend together in the evenings and on weekends. It was also nice to have someone around who could help me through some of my more difficult calculus and probability classes.

My stats professor invited me to be his research assistant during my second semester, and I learned about academic publishing as I helped him edit his book. All in all, my first year of graduate school went well. I made friends, and since I was living relatively far from the campus, I spent a lot of time in the grad lounge, where I connected with older graduate students -- including one who would be instrumental in helping me get my first job five years later.

The transition from the working world to grad school was much smoother than the transition from high school to my freshman year of college. Obviously, maturity played a huge role, but graduate school was still somewhat unknown terrain for me. I had done some part-time course work in the master’s program at San Francisco State University, but that was more like a continuation of my undergrad studies. From the beginning, my Ph.D. courses at UCLA were very challenging, but -- at least during my first year -- I felt I had the bandwidth to handle the work required. A major difference from undergrad was financial security and the fact that I didn’t need to work so many hours outside my classes to keep my head above water financially.

Graduate programs seem to be paying more attention to issues that first-generation graduate students face today. Those issues go beyond the financial and often have to do with the social isolation that comes with the dissertation research and writing stage. As I discussed in my previous post, the work habits I had developed during my undergrad years made at least the first year of graduate school seem relatively manageable. That would change as I headed into the uncharted waters of comprehensive exams and ultimately the dissertation. Hard work can get you far, but it can’t always prepare you for the emotional roller coaster that can come with unforeseen challenges. I will discuss those experiences in my next installment.


Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.


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