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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Attending a Lesser-Known Graduate School

Combating elitism regarding your graduate institution.

October 30, 2016

DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.


Those of us who research, work, and study in higher education know better than anyone else how elitist and hierarchical higher education can be.  We interact in environments where often the name of your institution means more than just about anything else.  I literally remember being on the campus of a particularly elitist, upscale, private university (which I will not name but is known for its connections to John Dewey and refusal to honor trigger warnings and safe spaces) and being ignored by a gentleman in front of me until he could make out the logo on my portfolio and discern what institution I was affiliated with.  Such a culture can weigh on us in more ways than one.


Within such an elitist culture, it is not unusual to find graduate students who do not attend Ivy League-like, Big Ten-type doctoral programs constantly answering insulting questions about program rigor, job marketability, and degree worth.  As a graduate of an institution that I am very proud of but that catches a lot of flak, I am here to provide tips on how to answer such questions and overcome skepticism on the job market about your scholarly training and ability.


1. Have confidence in your abilities.  Please understand that the name of your institution does not make you.  There are many students/graduates who are very mediocre in their research and teaching skills but ride the arrogance associated with the institution listed on their degree.  Then there are those who would have been excellent, accomplished scholars no matter where they went to school.  Do whatever you must to put yourself in the latter category.  Have the attitude that no matter where you find yourself you will be the undisputed best at what you do and only getting better with each passing day.


2. Work overtime.  Regardless of the institution or program, you will only get out of graduate school what you put into it.  If you put in average effort you will only become an average scholar.  That being said, if you find yourself at a program or school that does not top the list of US News & World Report rankings every year, you will have to be twice as sharp as everyone else.  Colleagues from other institutions will feel confident in challenging your content knowledge and research skills, and look forward to dismissing you as inferior or incompetent.  You must know almost everything there is to know about your discipline and be able to articulate your positions and claims at the highest level of excellence.  When not in class, read, research, study, think, and analyze the work of established scholars and go beyond the required work for your program.


3.  Cultivate your people skills.  You will not have the luxury of getting calls and referrals purely based on your CV.  That advantage is reserved for graduates of the Princetons, Columbias, MITs, and UPenns of the world.  Where you will need to excel, in addition to your scholarly and teaching record, is with personality.  When on the job market, institutional affiliation is important, but so is department fit.  If a dean or department chair believes you would be a good fit in terms of personality, temperament, and character you will have an upper leg on a candidate from a more well-known program for a position who may be a questionable fit.  Constantly work on being personable, pleasant, and developing emotional intelligence.  It can be the determining factor in hiring.


4.  Know your “opponent.”  Study the works of the professors at the top schools in your field.  Get an idea of what students in top programs are learning.  Sit in on these professors’ presentations at national conferences.  Read their articles, view their tweets, and listen to their commentaries.  If you can gain a glimpse of what is being discussed and taught at top programs, you can compare this information with what you are being taught in your program.  As a result, you can be better prepared when questioned by cocky students and professors from higher ranked institutions.


5.  Rep your program!  Last but not least, never shy away from representing your school/program.  People may not view your school in the same way as Harvard or Stanford, but that’s their problem.  If you feel confident in the training you received, the professors you worked with, and the research you are conducting, be unapologetically proud of where you are and where you come from.  My alma mater has literally been through hell the past 18 months.  It does not make any difference to me..  I know I can compete with any graduate from anywhere at anytime regarding any topic or issue in my field.  Represent your institution and let it be known that you have come to be great and change the world!


What are your thoughts on receiving doctorates from less popular programs?  What part of the CV carries the most weight when a student is on the job market?


[Photo by Google Images user Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license]


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