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Recommending Graduate School

I can sometimes be pretty good at selling graduate school to impressionable young undergrads. When I was faculty-in-residence for a dormitory at Duke University, one of my residents told me that she was playfully advised to avoid chatting with me about prospective majors. “He’ll convince you to be an anthropologist,” they said. “He makes it sound much cooler than it is.”

I laughed pretty hard at that one. And I never forgot the discussion, which I took as a kind of compliment, even if a somewhat backhanded one.

I do think that graduate school—and professional life as an academician—can be pretty cool. And those Duke students might have been right. Maybe I do oversell it. But I totally believe my own propaganda on the matter. And I think it shows.

This week, I braved debilitating rush-hour traffic in Philadelphia to drive down to Lincoln University on Tuesday evening to take part in a panel discussion for undergrads, a discussion aimed at those undergrads pondering the idea of pursuing a graduate degree. These were all Communications majors, and one of their professors, Murali Balaji, had convened a group of local professors from graduate programs in the area (Penn, Temple, West Chester University, Villanova, and the University of Delaware) to make a case for why these students should seriously consider graduate school as a very real post-graduation option and to clarify what our respective schools were looking for in prospective applicants.

I was excited to be talking to these undergraduates, mostly because I can still remember when I sat where they were sitting that evening. The school was a different HBCU, Howard instead of Lincoln, and the time was the early 1990s, but I was also a Communication Major thinking about graduate school, and I remember attending an assortment of panels throughout my junior and senior year that were supposed to demystify graduate education and the application process.

This week, I talked with the Lincoln students about some of my own professional journey, about how I went from wanting to be Spike Lee (having focused on film production as a student at Howard) to drinking the Kool Aid about all the endless opportunities that graduate school affords.

Panelists discussed (i) how students should approach researching graduate programs (including trying to read faculty work and even reaching out to them via email), (ii) the difference between research-based graduate programs and more applied options like those in, say, broadcast journalism, (iii) the importance of the GRE scores, which included Emory Woodard, head of graduate studies in Villanova’s Communication program, explaining to students how the GRE’s will change in 2011, and (iv) the pros and cons of applying directly to Ph.D. programs vs. starting with a terminal masters program instead.

The other panelists were engaged, even inspiring. And the students more than met us halfway. Milling about after the event, I was able to learn a little bit more about the individual interests of several of the Lincoln students who attended the event. They promised to read the materials I brought with me about Annenberg’s program and to email me with any lingering questions. Most of those students probably won’t apply to Annenberg, but maybe a few of them will.  I can’t help but hope that our relatively brief discussion that night will translate into even a few more of those young people considering the idea of going to graduate school—at Penn or anyplace else.

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