Musings on Life: Graduate School Applications

In the last two weeks, I’ve had a crisis of purpose. I am a person who is given to single-mindedness. When I set my sights on a goal, I work toward it until it is accomplished. Well, for the last year and a half, my goal was to get into a Master’s program for International Relations with emphasis on sustainable development in Africa. However, after some research on different schools and programs, it just was not lining up. On one hand, my interests are both defined and broad. I have an interest in the continent of Africa as a whole, and in part. I also have an interest in poverty-reduction measures, particularly for women farmers in rural areas. I also have a strong interest in anti-trafficking initiatives to address poverty, lack of opportunity and vulnerability to exploitation among women and children on the continent of Africa. Lately, I have become rather passionate about land rights on the continent, and I just completed a content package on the global land grab that is taking place today.

In preparation for graduate school, I took the GRE (Graduate Register Exam) and scored well in the quantitative and analytical sections. Before I took the test, I borrowed test prep books from the local library and used online materials to prepare. I studied up to the hour before the exam, practicing my analytical writing by writing practice essays based on excerpts from one of my favorite books (Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness“). I also reviewed some mathematical concepts (which, thankfully, were recent in my mind because I took the LSAT the year before.)

studying before the GRE

After that, I moved onto more intensive research into graduate programs and faculty in the field of international relations and development. In March 2010, I visited Washington D.C., and visited schools in the area (Georgetown, George Washington University, Howard University…). I really enjoyed the trip,

me at Georgetown

Between March 2010 and now, I have been actively seeking employment, doing freelance writing and editing, and researching graduate programs. I practiced writing on current events rather than a historical perspective. I all but abandoned my historical research and writing in my work toward this goal.

Fast forward to August 2011, and I’m at a crossroads. I don’t know what I want to do anymore because the programs I was interested in (Columbia SIPA, Johns Hopkins SIS, American SAIS, Tufts Fletcher, etc) aren’t necessarily a good fit. And I had an upcoming trip to New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania to visit some of these schools. There were other factors to my anxiety, but the most prominent ones were 1) the lack of a good “fit” 2) a dearth of funding for Masters students. Now, I know loans are an option, but I have a goal of being debt-free by 30. And if I’m going to attend a school in a metropolitan area, I need to take the cost of living into account.

Days before my flight to the East Coast, I realized that I wanted to get my PhD in History- with emphasis on land rights and gendered poverty on the continent of Africa. I don’t have a defined research topic, but I know what I want to focus on. Researching programs, I realized that I was far more excited about history than I ever was in International Relations, and that I simply had more options that were a better fit for me. Also, there is more funding available for history PhD candidates. I know of several programs that offer full funding, plus a living stipend (usually attached to a teaching assistant position), plus funding for research costs. At that moment, I was all but certain that a PhD in History is the best use of my skillsets and passions.

The funny thing is that once I decided on a PhD in History, rather than a MA in International Relations, I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders. I had been chasing someone else’s dream and disregarding my first intellectual love: history. Thing is, I can do the same work- research and write for a thinktank or teach. Changing the graduate program isn’t necessarily changing my path or purpose. I lost sight of that, and clung to an ill-fitting dream for that reason.

On the 22nd of August, I flew into Newark, New Jersey. The first glimpse of the New York City skyline would be all that I would see of the city, thanks to Hurricane Irene. But at the time, I was impressed by the size of “the Big Apple” and momentarily imagined myself living, working and attending school there. I had the same daydreams when I visited the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and later at Princeton University.

The best visit was at Princeton University’s graduate History department. I talked to the department administrator about admissions and asked her questions about the program in general. She gave me a list of faculty members whose interests overlapped with mine, and advised me to email them. She also gave me great information about the opportunities that graduate history students have at Princeton. I walked out of that office excited and optimistic about my goal to become Dr. ______.

I’m getting there. The letters of recommendation are ready, the test scores and transcripts are also ready, and all I need to do is start the application form itself. I have a few drafts of my personal statements for each school I plan to apply to (list pending). In general, I feel confident about this process.


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