Scholar: Tanitoluwa Akinbode
Undergraduate Course and Grade: Microbiology, Second Class Upper
Undergraduate University: Bowen University
Graduate Course and University: PhD Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Illinois.
I applied for a graduate program to a lot of schools in the US and went through the usual (application fees, personal statement, references etc.). I always got stuck at the point where I had to provide evidence of funding because I knew there was no way I could raise the required tuition fees which was in hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then I found out there was something called Research Assistantships (RA) and Teaching Assistantships (TA) which offer tuition waivers and a stipend. RAs are offered directly by Professors/Faculty Members through the school based on their research grants and involves working for the Professor in research capacity in their office/lab. TAs are teaching positions offered by the academic department or faculty to graduate students to teach undergraduate courses or assist professors in the class lectures. I emailed the departmental secretaries of the schools I had applied to inquire about available TA positions and I was told it’s usually not offered to 1st year international students and only offered to 2nd year international students. (Some schools offer TA positions to 1st year international students, just ask the graduate admissions office!) So I put all my energy on getting an RA position from the faculty members. (In my case this was my only hope now). I did some research on each of them to familiarize myself with their research interests and decide which ones I was interested in and wanted to pursue. I emailed over 30 of them in different schools and got many responses ranging from “thanks for your email but no opportunities for now” to “sorry, but we are looking for specific skill sets to join our lab”. Finally, I got positive responses from 2 professors who happened to have vacant RA positions. I had Skype interviews with both of them after which they both made me an offer. I accepted one of them and the professor automatically became my academic advisor. As soon as the department received my acceptance, I was sent my I-20. I resumed school in the fall of 2017, tuition free for the entire duration of my program!
I did a lot of research on the best schools for my program. I decided to stay in the east coast for personal reasons so I focused my search on schools in those areas. (You can decide to target specific geographic areas or schools especially recognized for specific programs). Another major decision is your academic advisor/professor. Because it’s a long term graduate study this is very important. In crude terms, your advisor determines when you graduate and how smooth your journey in graduate school is. Connection and how you relate are very important here. What are the professors long term goals? Is he or she looking for a tenure position? Will he or she move away from the University after a few years? Is he or she just looking to publish papers and doesn’t care about your own academic growth and development? Does he or she care about your own long term academic plans? These are the types of questions to ask yourself. The decision to pursue a long term graduate program is not an easy one and should be thought out properly and not done in a rush. You want to make sure that you are making the right decision for yourself that will pay in the future.
Things that made you stand out
Previous relevant work is always an advantage in any graduate degree program. But if you have none it doesn’t mean you cannot be considered. My previous work and leadership experience helped a great deal and I leveraged on internship and volunteer experience a lot in my applications. In my case, my advisor was looking for a mature confident person to manage undergraduate volunteers and other graduate students in her laboratory. She was looking for someone she could delegate to and someone who could generally coordinate ongoing projects and work independently. My internship and volunteer experience was very useful in this situation and I leveraged this in my applications. Leadership exposure in your church or during youth service are other examples. It doesn’t have to be any serious. It’s all about confidence, boldness and how you present what you have.
Useful resources/Useful tips
Don’t be afraid or hesitate to ask lots of questions that you think are “stupid” or irrelevant. There is no such thing! These schools provide resources and a point person that international students can email as many times as possible or even skype with to have all their questions answered. It usually helps to itemize your questions in the emails that the admissions officer can easily respond to. Many tuition waiver opportunities are not advertised or publicized but resources and more information can be provided when you ask questions. Ask direct questions like “Are there any funding opportunities for international students?” or Are there tuition waiver opportunities?” or “Are there any work opportunities for international students in the department?”. If you are looking for an RAship, you might want to focus on the big research universities because they have more grant opportunities. They are also more likely to have TA opportunities than the smaller private universities.
Looking for an RAship is challenging. Having to email over 30 professors who are busy and might not even open the email when they see it is challenging. Your email has to stand out and should be written to catch the attention of the busy professor reading it. This was very challenging especially since they are in different fields and have different research interests. Read about the professors and their work (publications, research interests, past work, current/ongoing work etc.). Most school departmental websites have these information about their faculty members but another way is to just google them. Keep your emails brief with most of the information they need to read further in the 1st paragraph. Use a catchy subject like “Interested in research opportunities in the Psychology department”. The truth is RAs might be difficult to find because they are mostly funded by grants, so the professor must be “active” with funds coming in from different grants.
I’m not sure this is a mistake - but if I had a second chance I would apply to Ivy League schools in my field like Harvard, John Hopkins etc. I always had the impression that only 1st class students and top scholars could get into those schools but being in grad school and in the academic environment now, that’s not true. Getting into these schools is highly competitive no doubt but who knows, it’s always worth a try.
Leverage on any volunteer service or leadership experience you have as an opportunity. For example if you are a worker in your church or you participated in a youth program growing up in your community you can find a way to incorporate it in your personal statement.
There are many many opportunities out there, be inquisitive and don’t be afraid or hesitate to ask questions. Leverage on the relationship you have with anyone in the school if you know anyone. They usually have insider information. Spend time researching and stay informed. I never dreamed that I would be pursuing a graduate program in a top university in the US at absolutely no cost! So, don’t give up and keep pursuing your dreams!