lessons on matriculation, upon graduation
I began this post as my partner and I were driving through the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky on the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, a town I called home for four years. In July 2019, I defended my dissertation and ended doctoral training. Now, I’m Dr. Patterson (PhD). Since August 2019, I’ve extended my training at The Ohio State University as a Post Doctoral Fellow in their T32 Cancer Prevention and Control program. Life is excellent. Fall has focused on writing manuscripts from the last chapter of my dissertation, wrapping up collaborative projects from Tennessee, finding new collaborations in Ohio and across the country, and building a new program of cancer prevention and control research.
Attaining a PhD is now a memory that, five years ago, I could only dream of. Traveling through the Kentucky mountains, I was reminded of my initial visit to Knoxville in Spring 2015 and all the steps it took to get me there. I first began considering returning to school for a PhD in 2010. I took the GRE. I scored well. But, I didn’t apply for programs. I hadn’t considered the type of program I was looking for. I hadn’t spoken with researchers and faculty about my interests and their experiences. My partner (at the time) wasn’t fully on board with living my PhD training dream. It just wasn’t the right time to apply (or move). It took another four years (and the threat of expiring GRE scores) to apply to doctoral training programs. First lesson learned: Consider the resources you need to begin applying. Do you have information about the programs you’re interested in? Is your family supportive? Do you have the finances to pay for the GRE and applications? Think about what might need to change if you’re accepted to a PhD program. Are you willing and able to move cross country? Make a plan that includes where you’re willing to apply to (and move), what resources you need to get there, and the steps you need to take to garner those resources.
In 2014, I began seeking information about doctoral programs in public health. I compared DrPH and PhD programs. I spoke with local colleagues and those across the country. I was introduced to my now mentor by a former colleague at Boston University. Before that introduction, I was only considering applying to the country’s top programs. After one call with my mentor, I added an application to the University of Tennessee to the four “top 10” PhD programs I was applying to. Lesson 2: Look, listen, learn. Opportunities arise in the most unexpected places, but most often through our existing networks.
In Spring 2015, I was accepted to my two first choice programs: I’ll call one “Top 10er” (it was highly ranked in the country’s top 10 programs) and the second “Alma Mater” (University of Tennessee, Knoxville). My Boston work colleagues were thrilled, and I was strongly encouraged to attend Top 10er. For those of you not familiar with Public Health PhD programs, Top 10er and my Alma Mater offered vastly different academic experiences. Ultimately, I chose Alma Mater, arguably the underdog program.
I chose Alma Mater because my prospective mentor was engaged in LGBTQ minority stress and cancer prevention research. Her research paradigm was grounded in social justice and intersectional feminism. She was working in sociopolitically conservative Southern and rural communities. She was enigmatic and enthusiastic but, most importantly, she was honest. She promised I’d have hands-on experience with multiple research projects. I did. She promised she’d be a guide, an advocate, and an involved mentor. She was (and is).
I also chose Alma Mater because I connected with a second professor, a senior mentor. She had worked at Top 10er. She was also enigmatic, enthusiastic, and extremely honest. She spoke to me about the risks and benefits of both programs. But, she promised me that if I chose Alma Mater she’d make sure I received strong classroom training in research methods. She did. She also promised me I’d be ready for a postdoc upon dissertating. I was. Lesson 3: People and promises matter. Find mentors who want to invest in you. Be sure that they can offer you research and didactic training experience. Ask specific questions about projects you can coordinate, run analyses for, and (co)author from. Be sure there are advanced interdisciplinary courses available to you in theory, substantive content, and methods.
I chose Alma Mater because it was mostly affordable. I received a GRA stipend, which gave me a minimal income. In years 1 and 2, I received additional fellowships. In years 2 and 4, I received varied smaller awards. Each of these gave my GRA stipend a financial supplement. Classes were paid for, as was health insurance. I was promised at least one paid for conference annually. Once I landed at Alma Mater, I applied for and was awarded a month-long NCI summer fellowship. Before applying, I asked my department chair for his support and what financial resources would be available to me upon acceptance. The department was able to cover paid travel and lodging, and I received cancer prevention training that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. Over my four years of training, I still ended up taking considerable living loans for personal, health, and living expenses. BUT, they were fewer than if funding had not been made available to me.
Aside from paying for coursework and healthcare, Top 10er didn’t offer those benefits as part of my acceptance and training package. Choosing to go to Top 10er would require me to front living expenses while taking classes for the first year. Outside of the dissertation, there was no guarantee that I would conduct research in my area of interest. This would be the price of Top 10er training. When I tried contacting my prospective Top 10er mentor, I didn’t get a return call or email for weeks. When I asked about resources for fellowships or assistantships, I was told I could only apply for a research position in Year 2 to supplement my income and gain research experience. No promises. Few initial supports.
Still, I knew that joining any team at Top 10er would result in my having multiple publications (even if not exactly in my area of interest). I knew I’d make high-level academic connections. And, I was sure that having their name on my CV would increase my likelihood of getting a second look (if not a screening interview) for postdoc or faculty positions. Lesson 4: You will make difficult decisions about your training priorities. Some of those decisions will seem ridiculous to others. You are the expert of your needs. For me, this meant that money, resources, and mentor engagement ALL mattered. I was 33 years old when I began doctoral training. I was a cancer survivor. I had established bills, debts, and healthcare needs. I was making a significant change from a decade-long career in social work/intimate partner violence prevention and intervention to research in LGBTQ health disparities. I needed to engage in my research areas of interest immediately, so I could build my expertise in the field.
Before making my final decision, I visited Alma Mater. Their department chair had reached out and invited me for a site visit. Over two days, I met with multiple faculty and administrators. I was taken out to dinner. I asked difficult questions about money, benefits, research, and coursework opportunities. I negotiated a potential GRA salary to a slightly higher number. I toured the local area. And then I returned home to Boston to think it all through.
During the same time frame, I’d reached out to Top 10er to inquire about visiting. There was little interest from Top 10er about coordinating a site visit. Now, being courted by a program (as I experienced with Alma Mater) is not the sole indication that you should choose that program. However, site visits and meetings with faculty ARE essential for making informed decisions about whether a program fits your training needs. For me, the inability to arrange a formal visit with Top 10er sent a strong message about my importance as a potential trainee.
When I imagined attending Alma Mater, I instinctively lit up. My gut said, “Yes!” Still, I was challenged to say “No” to Top 10er. Throughout my academic career I’ve worked hard to be #1. The top. Grade A. Excellent. I thought that if I said “No” to Top 10er that I was phoning it in. Throwing away an opportunity to be the best-of-the-best. Top of the class. Lesson 5: Give your gut credit. It’s easy to talk ourselves into and out of opportunities. Once you have as much data as you can gather about each program, let your brain AND your body process. Then, go with your gut.
It’s been 5 years since I sent out applications. Four years since matriculating to Alma Mater. Five months since graduating. I graduated from Alma Mater with first- and co-authored publications, an emerging program of research, and varied teaching expriences. I graduated with two postdoc offers and another two considerations. I graduated happy, healthy, and sure that I made all the right choices.
As you send off your doctoral program applications, and anticipate matriculating to a training program in 2020, I hope you can find something helpful in my lessons learned. Remember, this is your journey. It’s meant to be about you.
- Consider what it will take to begin a doctoral training program (e.g., application process, resources).
- Meet with colleagues prior to sending in your applications. These conversations can help you decide what type of program and institution is right for you.
- Meet with your mentors. Ask about their research. Tell them about your research interests. Ask specific questions about the projects, manuscripts, and courses you will be involved in.
- If you’re interested in a teaching position, ask about teaching. What courses will you be able to design and deliver as Teaching Assistant and Instructor of Record.
- You are the expert of your own needs. Consider what you need to make doctoral training accessible to you (e.g., geographic location, funding, healthcare, mentorship style, research labs, teaching opportunities).
- Trust your gut. Gather data about the programs you’re interested in. Weigh the pros and cons. Choose the program that lights you up.