Making the decision to attend graduate school is an important one. Given the importance of upskilling to remain competitive in today’s economy, getting an advanced degree has implications for increasing one’s socioeconomic status and overall career satisfaction. According to the Federal Reserve, graduate degree holders make 30% more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Careers in teaching, research, law, and medicine all require some form of education beyond undergrad. With the dearth of racial minorities in these career fields, students of color have additional considerations when considering whether to pursue a graduate program. Experiences of racism and microaggressions, the lack of diverse graduate staff and faculty, and less access to generational wealth are all barriers to entry and success for graduate students of color. If you’re a student of color thinking about attending graduate school, here are eight questions you should ask.
1. What type of institution do you want to attend?
The availability of funding, class size, and the competitiveness of your degree will vary greatly depending on school type. Beyond public vs. private, students of color have the added consideration of attending a minority-serving institution or a predominately White institution. Students of color are underrepresented at predominantly White colleges and universities, while minority-serving institutions are more racially and ethnically diverse. Minority-serving institutions include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges & Universities, and Asian American & Pacific Islander–Serving Institutions.
At these institutions, you’ll find a greater diversity of staff and faculty as well as academic and cocurricular opportunities that support POC needs. HBCUs prepare and send more Black students to graduate and professional schools than non-HBCUs. Students at minority-serving colleges and universities experience a less racially hostile climate, more support from faculty and staff, and more opportunities to engage in culturally relevant research and teaching opportunities. There are plenty of factors that may govern what grad school you attend—location, size, and cost, to name a few—but it’s also important to ask how important cultural and social climate are to your success.
2. What type of funding opportunities are available?
Grad school is costly, and because graduate students don’t qualify for federal grants, attending a school that offers diverse funding opportunities such as scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships is important. Much of our federal legislation focuses on college affordability at the undergraduate level; the total tuition for some two-and four-year graduate programs can cost more than $100,000, and doctoral or professional programs can cost even more. Most graduate students opt for fellowships or assistantships where they can work for the college in exchange for a stipend and a tuition scholarship.
Some graduate schools have acknowledged the need to recruit and retain more graduate students of color and support this effort by providing specialized and unique funding opportunities for racial minorities. For example, Amherst College offers funding for graduate students of color pursuing STEM and law degrees, while the University of Cincinnati awards fellowships to 25 master's and doctoral students of color on an annual basis. You don’t want to be saddled with debt, so as you search for graduate schools, ask admission counselors what funding is available for students of color as well as how many students of color have been fully funded in the past five years.
3. What is the average time to degree completion for students of color?
Graduate studies take a lot of time and investment, and many students opt to put other life events like purchasing a home, traveling, and starting a family on hold to pursue their degree. Most master’s degree programs take one to three years to complete, while doctoral programs can take five to seven. Once you’ve decided on a field of study to pursue and some programs you’re interested in, call the departments at your respective schools of interest and ask them what the average time to degree completion is for students of color, including what barriers these students encounter in finishing their studies.
4. How many students of color are admitted and graduate?
Racial and cultural diversity in a graduate program has numerous benefits. Research shows that classroom diversity improves learning outcomes for everyone, with many students reporting higher self-confidence. Diversity also leads to better classroom discussions and engagement due to the unique perspectives students of color bring to the classroom. For liberal arts programs like Sociology or History, a focus on racial diversity in student representation and curriculum may be highly attractive to students of color. Some schools may post the average number of students they admit and students who graduate each year on their website. As you’re researching graduate schools, be sure to ask questions about the number of students of color who’ve been admitted and successfully completed their degree. It’s wise to ask for longitudinal data so you can see these rates over time.
5. What cocurricular opportunities are available?
The quality of cocurricular opportunities at a school is just as important as the quality of academic studies. It can be challenging to make friends in grad school, which can intensify feelings of isolation. Through extracurricular activities, students can build their social network, strengthen their self-confidence, and learn leadership skills. Graduate students of color report experiencing high stress and anxiety as they navigate racism and feelings of exclusion, so finding spaces where they can seek respite is critical. Some schools offer clubs and organizations solely for graduate students of color. For example, the University of Utah has a Black Graduate Student Association that hosts social events and professional development workshops. Some schools have diversity organizations for students in specific disciplines (e.g., the Black Law Society) or more general Black student organizations across diverse disciplines. Check out your school’s graduate studies website and see what you can find on diverse organizations.
6. How does the school handle reports of discrimination?
Hate crimes can be very common on college campuses—Princeton University reported 13 hate crimes on campus in 2021 alone. The fears students of color hold regarding hate crimes are very real and need to be supported. When you’re researching a graduate school, consider doing a Google Search of local news to see what students are experiencing at the school and in the surrounding community. You can also check the school’s Title IX website to learn how hate crimes and bias incidents are reported. Schools that have multiple modalities to report crimes and do their best to ensure anonymity in reporting demonstrate their care and concern for student safety.
7. Where are students placed after graduation?
Job placement after graduation should be of critical importance to any graduate student. The time and dedication you put into your studies should be rewarded with a good-paying job. Most schools will indicate on their websites the type of companies where their graduate students are placed, what positions they’re placed in, and the average pay for these jobs. If this information isn’t advertised on the website, consider making a call to your graduate programs of interest and ask where students have been placed in the last five to 10 years. Additionally, you also may want to ask if there are career fairs or other opportunities for graduate students to network with employers.
8. Do my interests align with faculty in the department?
The racial makeup, research, and teaching interests of faculty are even more important in graduate programs than undergraduate school. If a thesis or dissertation is part of your program, you’ll work with faculty extensively, so it’s important to choose a program with faculty who align with your teaching and research interests. For some graduate school applications, you have to indicate which faculty member you want to work with, so candidates need to do their research in advance. Many faculty end up serving as mentors, friends, and confidantes—and they can be extremely important to your progression in your programs. For students of color, mentors can help build confidence and provide guidance on how to navigate your studies successfully. Make sure you take an honest assessment of what your interests are in your program, then research faculty who’ve pursued research projects that align with these goals. You may want to consider doing an informational interview with a faculty member of interest before applying to get a feel for their personality.
Graduate school is no easy feat—especially for students of color. There are many factors to consider, but asking these questions in advance will ensure that you’re applying to programs that will yield the most personal and professional success. Good luck!
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