Grad School & Their Return on Investment

A sort-of continuation from my previous post “Where Are All The Chicks?” in that it is also to be filed in the category of ‘My Current Mental State During Grad School Applications’. More in the series to follow, probably…

A former work colleagues of mine had been reading over a draft of a personal statement for one of my grad school applications. He wrote back to me with the following feedback (more or less):

“Look at it this way: what [the graduate schools] are looking for is return on investment. Firstly that you will successfully complete the program (which I think you demonstrate sufficiently), secondly that you will go on to do great things…”

…Damnit, he’s right. He’s totally right.

***

What is “Return on Investment”? Why are Grad Schools looking for it?

The Scottish Government is expecting a “return on investment” for the low-interest student loan it’s been giving me for the past couple of years: in a few year’s time when I’m making a certain amount of salary it is going to ask for me to repay the full value of the loan with interest. When it comes to Graduate Schools in the USA, the investment they want returned is a lot less tangible. They DO give you money but it’s a grant, not a loan. It’s a large sum of money they’re dishing out too: it covers tuition, health insurance and adds a bit on top as a living wage. It’s a large investment, and they want assurance they didn’t just throw their precious dosh down the drain.

If you read the Twitter newsfeeds of my targeted Grad Schools then you can find plenty of examples of Return on Investment: “Scientists discovered breakthrough ___.” “Alumni __ will be __ at __.” “Another victory for school’s __ team in League.” The Grad Schools are looking for students who will contribute to the university in some form. Representing your university at competitions. Making an important advancement to your chosen field of research. Maintaining links after graduation and contributing your skills. Helping to give your university prestige, media coverage and money.

The Grad Schools don’t expect all their students to become millionaires or Nobel Laureates. But they expect SOME element of success.

What it made me realise…

The AAUW International Fellowship I mentioned previously is clearly looking for a Return on Investment – ideally by advancing female equality at a higher education level. To help make their judgement call they asked for a lot of information about my background: my hobbies, activities and societies. The things I did outside the classroom.

I realised that I have been incredibly lucky. I grew up in an environment where I had whatever I wanted at my disposal. I had the luxury of free time for hobbies. My parents chipped in for backpacking/hiking equipment so that I could do the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme aged 14 upwards (getting Bronze, Silver & Gold). They footed the bill for clarinet tuition for a good number of years, though that had an upper limit it turned out. At university I got the full student loan: I didn’t have to work late nights in a bar to make ends meet, I could compete in x-country races or take part in debating tournaments. Because I was attending a good university with first-rate lecturers I didn’t have much trouble getting a strong degree and suitable work experience.

My grad school/fellowship applications are looking strong because I’ve had all these additional, wonderful opportunities. It won’t be hard for me to return all the investment there’s been made in my education. But HOW do I want to return their investment?

After I got my Gold D of E Award I’ve been helping out as a supervisor of expeditions up until the present day. I did Debating at university: I attended the rowdy socials, enjoyed the fun weekends at competitions…then helped to run the tournaments and judge secondary school debates. Looking at all these application forms made me realise that returning investment is a continuing chain reaction. I’ve been helped: I help others. I keep on helping long after the student loan instalments have stopped.

How can you advocate for your future self?

The rest proof of future dividends is undoubtably past behaviour. I must prove to the Grad Schools (a) I’ve done a lot previously to help others: offering up my time, resources and skills (b) I’m committed to lending a hand in the future whenever I possibly can. Showing plenty of examples of past activities and demonstrating an understanding of what you’re doing and why it helps others – that’s the secret.

My colleague mentioned in his feedback the other form of return on investment – that you actually finish the program of study. Yeah, that’s a pretty major thing. Don’t drop out of your PhD. The Grad Schools are looking for committed students who will generate valuable research findings: an applicant with plenty of work experience who has already published papers will make their guess a lot more educated.

Baby Steps in the Here and Now. 

A. Extra-curricular activities and positions of responsibility. Get involved, hone your Transferable Skills, work at ‘em…BUT…It’s about more than generating points on your CV. You need to show that you’re going to go out into the world and do good for others. That you will use what you’ve got to help people in need of your skills.

B. Come up with a long-term plan. What can you do at grad school to return investment? What can you do ten years down the line? How can you tie in your ambitions to benefiting your alma mater?

C. I don’t think the grad school application statements should contain lies or over-the-top exaggerations. Use what you’ve got. Lies and insincerity can be sniffed out.  I had to put my extra-curricular activities on the back-burner to ensure I actually GOT a degree. I was away in America for a year, that curtailed my time spent in elected roles. Selection Committees understand that student life means balancing priorities. Give evidence of future commitment in what you’re writing now.

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