Back to Blog
A Minority Student's Tale
Alyne Rodrigues & Nicole Ellerbeck
Without realizing how I got there, I found myself sitting across the table from my advisor in her dining room, discussing this mysterious “erb”. Also in the dining room were my mother, step-father, brother, half-brother, step-sister, and cousin. I already know what you must be wondering: 1) What’s an “erb”? and 2) Why is her entire family casually hanging out at her advisor’s house? I wish I had the time to answer both questions, but for the purposes of this post, I will attempt to answer the first one.
My family moved to the United States when I was in elementary school. My mother’s biggest goal for my twin brother and I was for us to graduate high school in America and find good jobs; she wanted us to have the life that she never had the chance to have. Sure enough, elementary school came and went, as did middle school, and soon after, high school.
All of my high school friends were applying to colleges, so I decided to go to my guidance counselor and told her that I wanted to apply to colleges too. She informed me that my Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores weren’t the best, so my school options were very limited. I was shocked! My SAT scores aren’t good enough? And then I wondered, “Wait a second . . . What’s the SAT?” Come to find out, it was that long exam that everyone’s parents had been prepping them for with extensive after school tutoring. No wonder I walked into my SAT cool as a cucumber; I had no idea what the SAT was or what its significance was to college applications.
The following fall, I started my first semester as a college undergrad and before I knew it, it was the fall semester of my senior year. Keep in mind that at this point, I am now 21 years old, swamped with loans until the end of eternity, and about to get my Bachelor of the Arts (B.A.) in Psychology. Now you tell me - what lucrative job was I about to get with my degree?
No wonder I walked into my SAT cool as a cucumber; I had no idea what the SAT was or what its significance was to college applications.
I, of course, began to panic and headed straight down the psychology department hallway. My primary advisor was not available, so I told myself that I would ask for advice from any psychology faculty member who had their door open. After two faculty members dismissed me (because I most likely looked manic and was definitely not their advisee), I came across the last open door. And by open, I mean it was slightly cracked and evident that whoever was inside did not want to be disturbed. Two hours later, I had run out of questions, and the poor professor had likely run out of patience.
The following week, I was accepted to work as a volunteer research assistant at Yale School of Medicine. This was way out of my league. But I was determined to surround myself with successful, ambitious people so that I could learn from them. After one year of volunteering, the Primary Investigator (PI) of the research project I had been volunteering for offered me a project coordinator position.
This was way out of my league. But I was determined to surround myself with successful, ambitious people so that I could learn from them.
A year after that, the same PI suggested something that seemed absurd; that I should apply to graduate school. As you can probably tell, impostor syndrome kicked in early for me. I considered many different types of programs, and this PI was able to connect me with a variety of people with many different occupations (e.g., social workers, LCSWs, PsyDs, Clinical Psychology PhDs). This was also when I learned about the dreaded Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Come to find out, it was distressingly similar to the SAT; the exam that everyone had received extensive tutoring for in high school. After a few practice tests, I felt defeated. I thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? This isn’t for me. I’m not meant for this. How can I even hope to compete with others who have been planning for this for years?”
My cubicle neighbor (and co-author of this post), Nicole, offered to help me study for my next GRE . . . which was in one week. I was well aware that GRE scores remain relatively stable across a short period of time, so I didn’t have any expectations of actually improving my scores in one week. Believe it or not, a week later, my scores significantly improved and one year after that, it was exactly one month before my first semester as a clinical psychology doctoral student. That is when I found myself sitting across the table from my advisor, in her dining room, discussing this mysterious “erb”. My advisor and I began discussing our enthusiasm to get our studies up and running at our new university, and our need to familiarize ourselves with our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Throughout the entire dinner conversation, my mother shared a great amount of empathy despite (understandably) having no clue what this seemingly complex “erb” was. Ah, the wonders of having immigrant parents.
That is when I found myself sitting across the table from my advisor, in her dining room, discussing this mysterious “erb”.
Today, as a second-year clinical psychology PhD student, I am excited to share important pieces of advice that not only helped get me through my first year, but into a PhD program. These tips are for those who are currently in a PhD program and also for those who are still contemplating whether or not they “have it in them” to get into a PhD program.
For those considering graduate school:
1. Change your perception of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
Remember that this is not a measure of your intelligence. Rather, it is a measure of how hard you are willing to study about how to take the test. It’s all about learning how to take the test, not necessarily learning the content itself. Unfortunately, GRE scores are generally weighed heavily when programs consider applicants; so get ready to do some math problems (that you’ve definitely learned but have definitely forgotten)! There are multiple ways you can study for the exam; apps on your phone, free, (Magoosh), online courses (e.g., Magoosh & Princeton), and in-person tutoring. For me personally, my scores significantly increased after just one week of non-stop Magoosh-ing (i.e., using the Magoosh app to review vocabulary words) and asking a friend teach me skills that could be used to solve specific types of questions. Of course, multiple things need to be considered when choosing the best approach for you; for example, your learning style, budget, and goals. Check out this post (https://www.prepscholar.com/gre/blog/best-gre-prep-course/) on how to choose the best GRE prep course for you. Also, keep in mind that test scores tend to increase with repeated test administrations (e.g., Hausknecht, Halpert, Di Paolo, & Moriarty Gerrard, 2006); buy a few books (e.g., Kaplan or Barron’s) that contain lots of practice questions and practice away! Even 10 minutes a day is better than nothing.
2. Get to networking, friends!
Network, network, network. This can be as easy as googling potential topics that you are interested in and finding out who in your area is researching that. Offer to volunteer your time (in my experience, at least 5-10 hours/week is typical); your hard work will open doors of opportunities like attending lab meetings, presenting at conferences, and getting a feel for the ins and outs of running a research study.
For those who are currently in graduate school:
1. STOP comparing yourself to others, and recognize your strengths.
Okay, so it takes you twice as long to complete the typical reading or writing assignment. Who cares? Let’s take a step back and reframe this; you’re a minority, English is your second language, and you’re frustrated with the amount of time that it takes you to complete the reading assignments for your PSY 847 course in your doctoral program. A doctoral program! Give yourself some credit! Although reading and writing scientific articles may be more challenging for you, remind yourself that you can read and write in multiple languages. Having a variety of minority experiences has encouraged your growth as an open-minded and culturally sensitive person. Research suggests that minority students have generally been at a disadvantage relative to their non-minority peers since childhood. For example, findings have shown that minority students lack academic support at home, which interferes with the development of skills related to math or reading (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002).
Have I reminded you of the challenges of being a minority? Great. Now stop comparing yourself to your colleagues.
2. No excuses. Practice and perfect your time management skills.
English is your second language and you did not have the same opportunities as your colleagues . . . I get it, it has been challenging for you. But no excuses. If you know it’s going to take you longer than your classmates to read a chapter, write a paper, or write up an assessment report, then plan accordingly. Plan for that extra two hours it may take you to do the reading assignment, or the extra two hours it’ll take you to make sure you used the right “has” or “have” or “is” or “are” (yes, after all of these years, I still struggle with them).
Be creative with your time management skills. Schedule a rewarding activity for yourself after each task so that you have something to look forward to. This can range from getting 2-for-1 Sangrias on Thursday nights with your labmates to raiding on World of Warcraft; in the wise words of a certain blog admin, “you do you!” If you’re like me, you may really enjoy using a fancy planner (e.g., https://www.erincondren.com) that comes with stickers for specific activities. Make your planning a fun, little hobby; buy a bunch of different colored pens and color code different activities. Trust me, it feels great to get things done, cross them out on your list, and enjoy your free time without feeling the pains of guilt that academics so often experience. If you prefer to have an electronic calendar to keep track of your productivity, google calendar is a convenient choice because you can download the app onto your smartphone and have it available whenever, wherever. Regardless of your choice, remember to do what works for you. You do you!
A sneak peak of how my labmates and I like to be creative with our time management planning. And, believe it or not, those “crayons” are actually erasers. [original photo]
3. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
Impostor syndrome is real, regardless of whether or not you are a minority. Hardly anyone believes that they actually deserve to be in a PhD, and everyone wonders, “How on earth did I get past my interviewers? Must have really fooled them.” So don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. Chances are, everyone else is wondering the same question.
I know it can be difficult to put yourself out there, but keep in mind that you are here for a reason. And that reason is to learn. What would be the point of going to graduate school if you have no questions? You are still a student, after all. Remind yourself that your interviewers didn’t accept you into their program simply because they think you’re a lovely person or because they believe you deserve it; their decision for you come here was one that was weighed very heavily, with very high stakes. Before extending you an offer, they asked themselves, “What can this applicant offer our program that other applicants cannot?” Accepting an applicant is a huge decision, and faculty don’t want to waste their (or your) time and resources. So give yourself your due credit.
4. Learn to take constructive criticism; view it as a step closer to success.
There is, of course, a difference between constructive and unconstructive criticism; you will likely receive both forms at some point in graduate school, and both may upset you. Criticism doesn’t have to be a blow to your ego, however. We are all human beings and perfectly imperfect. There will never exist a “perfect” paper, because we are not (and never will be) completely objective. We are not meant to be. Your subjective experiences and the lens through which you view the world is what makes you unique, as a person and a budding professional. Don’t let others’ feedback discourage you; rather, think of constructive criticism as a necessary part of the learning process. Another person’s feedback reflects his or her unique perspective, and these perspectives can be useful . . . or not. You decide.
Tomorrow is to be determined, as our journeys remain works in progress. Graduate school is meant to be difficult, and everyone struggles. Don’t give up, and don’t afraid to be different or unique.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 371–399. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135233
Hausknecht, J. P., Halpert, J. A., Di Paolo, N. T., & Moriarty Gerrard, M. O. (2007). Retesting in selection: a meta-analysis of coaching and practice effects for tests of cognitive ability. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), 373–385. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.92.2.373