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Advice in picking a grad program


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But I guess we can start at the beginning.


About me: I'm 30, with a troubled academic background.  I went to a state school for undergrad, where I got horrible grades, resulting in a 2.9 GPA.  I dropped out twice, and had been put on academic probation a couple of times.  My grades mostly consist of A's or Ds, with little in between - the D's were mostly classes where I did well and didn't show up to the final or never handed in a final paper. I was battling issues of depression and family problems, but none of my "problems" really seem compelling or serious enough to warrant my bad academic performance.  I never saw a psychiatrist, and I really have no documentation to "explain" my bad performance.


I had kept changing majors, and have coursework in biochemistry and economics (I got good and bad grades in both), but finally I decided to get the hell out of school, and doubled up on humanities classes.  I took a shitload of English and Philosophy classes, and graduated with a double major in English and Philosophy, six years after starting college, at the age of 24.


Since leaving school, I've been happy, but dead broke.  I worked in social services, working with young people with emotional and behavioral disorders.  I worked in several nonprofits geared toward youth with low income families, and also had dead end jobs like part time reception and bartending and yoga instruction.   Unsurprisingly, I'm a (failed) writer, working on a novel that hasn't been finished yet, and occasionally perform stand up in local comedy clubs. I also love open mic nights and theater, and perform certain personas or characters I've made up.  I occasionally publish smallish articles in local publications.  


Two years ago, I started work in political campaigns, and though I never had an interest in politics, I've loved it.  I took to it naturally, and worked my butt off, and kept getting promoted until I was even higher up than people who had graduate degree and more years of experience in politics.  I worked in a successful campaign until November 2012, after which I faced  a few months of unemployment while being a full time volunteer for an organization working for immigration reform.  Right now, I'm working a temporary, three month gig for a start up that pays shit, but the project is high profile and getting national attention.


So, I'd like to go back to grad school in the fall of 2014.  There was a time, back when I was 22, that I had everything figured out, but right now, at the age of 30, I know even less about what I want to do.  I know what kind of work environments I like, and I know what I *don't* like, but that's about it.  I'm a general "do-gooder" and want to do something that helps others and contribute to society, but of course, there are lots of things you can do that qualifies.  I miss math and science - I took it it very naturally as a child, but haven't taken any math since getting a 5 on AP Calc in high school.  I want a grad degree that


1. Gives me a knowledge that I haven't developed enough, preferably in math or science, and


2.  Will generally make me more employable and give me more options in the job market.  I'm still not ready to pick a single "career," but I imagine a degree that demonstrates that I have decent quant skills  would be helpful in anything that I do.  Even though I have done pretty well considering what I've had to work with, I do see that people with more education than me who also happen to be hardworking and smart and clearly getting better and more job offers.



So, have at it - any advice whatsoever.  I'm new to this board, and I don't know the culture yet, but if it's normal to mock and insult me a little before giving me advice, I'll be a good sport.   :) I know I've fucked up in my life, and I accept it.


There was a time when prestige of a school meant a lot, but at this point, I just want to be in an enriching environment (anything better than the shitty state school I went to).   I've thought about public policy degrees, economics degrees, and MBA programs.  Not sure what sort of programs I can get into with my shitty academic background, but I'll do my best.   I can start by taking coursework to prove my quant skills this summer, and study to rock a standardized test, and see what my options are after that.


FYI, I have no debt, and my family will pay for my grad degree.



Edited by wendella
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Ultimately you will figure out what you want to do that suits your tastes best. But here is what I feel, reading your post above.


You come across as an extremely talented and creative person, with multidimensional abilities, who is trying to express in many different ways, but unsure what suits you the best.


And you are not the only one who is in this state of flux. Many creative people are made this way.


I myself was, for a long time, in a state of not knowing what suited me best out of a myriad interests I had, in which I usually excelled. I spent most of my Undergraduate and Grad years trying to figure my way out. I found my way out eventually, ended up getting some good publications and also teaching my subject. However, the number of years I took to figure my way around cost me the degree of success of my career graph - I could have gone much higher if I had been more focused since high school years and had known what I really wanted to do best.   


That's because Grad School is not made to accept highly creative, multidimensional people who don't have a single focus marked out clearly. They usually expect that you should have a clear focus of what exactly you want to do in Grad School and why.


This is one question you need to think about - you'll spend a lot of time explaining it to people in your application as well as in Grad School.


Looking at your post I get the feeling that perhaps you can go into some kind of policy analysis jobs, where you can use your mathematical skills and political campaign experience.


For this, you need to decide what kind of policy analysis suits your interests - cultural policy - since you have majored in English and are into performances, policy related to governance, since you have been engaged with political campaigning, health policy, global policy, or what.


If this interests you, then you need to take Undergrad courses in economics, statistics and in the field related to the form of policy you want to work with - culture, political, global policy etc.


This is only one route I am suggesting based on your profile above. There may be many other ways to combine your past experience and present interest to arrive at a discipline, in which you can take undergrad courses.


But I feel that perhaps you will do best in the field of Communication - again based on what you have written above. Again, you'll need to take some courses in Communication before applying to Grad School. And Communication too has many branches - you need to decide what suits you best and take courses in that branch.


Whatever you choose, make sure that this field will hold your interest for several years to come. It doesn't usually pay to change disciplines at Grad level.


The best part of your situation is that you don't have debts and your family is there to support you.


With your determination, I'm sure you'll arrive at the choice of a discipline and will do well in it.


Good luck with your journey towards Grad School. 

Edited by Seeking
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Hi Seeking,


Thank you so much for your kind words and your thoughtful response.


"That's because Grad School is not made to accept highly creative, multidimensional people who don't have a single focus marked out clearly. They usually expect that you should have a clear focus of what exactly you want to do in Grad School and why."


Yes, this is true, and it worries me.  I think this personality trait (or defect) definitely contributed to my failure in undergrad.  I'm assuming because I'm a happy person now without the problems I was weighted with in undergrad, that I'll do well in grad school.  Who knows?  


I know for sure that I want to go, but I don't know how clear a career focus I can develop any time soon.  I do think the public policy route seems like the best route for me so far, and I see myself being in government and policy work work for many years, so it does seem like the best choice - *generally*.


So do I come up with something and fake it for the applications?  It seems like many people enter grad school with a clear idea, and very few of them actually go through with the career path they planned.  


The fact is, I'm actually quite particular about the sort of work environments I thrive in; I like situations where a manager gives me a goal and say "go figure it out," allowing me as much leeway as I'd like and creative judgment in order to achieve it.  I like organizations with strict ideas about how to measure performance and reward it, and who allocate resources according to how thrifty and effective employees have been, and who reward initiative and certain amount of "rule breaking."


This seems pretty common sense, but few organizations actually have this sort of culture.  As someone who has worked in nonprofits, I can tell you that it's *extremely* hard to find a nonprofit with this sort of culture.  There is very little accountability, goals are set either low or are impossibly vague, and resources are allocated to the employees who are struggling the most. 


The thing is, there are so many causes and fields that are worth working in.  And I'm more willing to work for an organization that has an ideal I don't give a shit about, and the right culture, than an organization that has every issue close to my heart but has a shitty work culture where creativity is ignored and each day feels like the last.  And of course, having the opportunity to start my own business/initiative is great too.


So given that, how on earth do I pick a focus?  The truth is, I don't even care about the actual field.  I just want a career where I'm working my ass off, growing intellectually, develop as a leader, and contribute to society in a meaningful way.  The fact is that I have about another hundred interests that I haven't even mentioned yet.  I could specialize in any of them and be happy.  


But do I have to come up with some sort of bullshit niche interest to be attractive to grad programs?

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Unfortunately, yes.


You have to show you are interested in one chosen field of yours, have prepared yourself for it and at least know at this stage what you're going to do with this field after you come out of Grad school.


I too am interested in a myriad fields. (I'll always have the regret I didn't become an Astrophysicist at NASA for example. :) ) But finally I have found a field I can stick to for my academic lifespan and that's how the Grad School wants it.


Of course, once you establish yourself, you can always diversify into several other fields of your interest if you have the time and money, but at entry level you need to show you are focused on one particular field of research.


In fact, if all you're looking for is a paying job linked to a Grad Program, then the most pragmatic route may be to complete whatever Biochemistry courses you couldn't finish or do well in Undergrad and apply for an MS or PhD in Biochemistry.


Amongst all the subjects you've mentioned, Biochem has the maximum potential of getting you a Grad-Program linked job. 


But be sure you can stick to Biochem for a few years at least. If you don't like the subject, you'll be wasting some crucial years of your life.


As for Public Policy, you don't have to "fake it." Just link it to the kind of politics-related work you have done and say that you want to develop further in the field of Public Policy by getting a Grad degree, using skills in courses A, B, C etc (mention the courses the school is offering). Show how these courses will be relevant for you. You don't have to mention the exact job you will be doing, but the field - academic teaching in Public Policy, join an organization and work in the area of Public Policy related to politics, work as a researcher in a think tank related to Public Policy etc.


If you're taking the Public Policy route, you'll need some training in Political Science and/or Public Administration and if possible Public Policy courses. 


Essentially, you have to show 1) you are strongly motivated in this one field (Biochem/Public Policy/any other), 2) You have prepared yourself for Grad School work in this field by getting coursework credits and 3) you have an idea where you'll go after completing this degree - teaching/research/Industry/Organization etc.


I know it sounds quite formatted and not what a creative person likes, but Grad level education is about clearly and logically organizing oneself in one's field of interest.


So, you need to decide first about one subject that you can hang on to for a few years at least, then begin the spade work.

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  That's because Grad School is not made to accept highly creative, multidimensional people who don't have a single focus marked out clearly. They usually expect that you should have a clear focus of what exactly you want to do in Grad School and why. 
Oh wow. Tread lightly there, mate! I think that is a rather naive viewpoint about grad schools and creative people.
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Thank you Seeking.


The way you describe it, I'm not so sure that it sounds too narrow for what I'd like to do.  I think when I said "niche" I meant like picking a sub specialty in grad school - like Near Eastern policy, or Education policy.  But a general link to what Iv'e done and what I'd like to do sounds do-able.


heartshapedcookie, I don't think she meant that grad school isn't or creative people, but that grad programs aren't for people who aren't focused.

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FYI, I'm also wondering if a degree in stats combined with a degree in a strong interest like middle eastern studies or government might serve a similar purpose.

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Yes, you need to show focus in one particular area of Public Policy.


Since you have worked in the area of Politics, you can easily argue for an interest in Politics-related Public Policy. That's why a background in Political Science etc will help. If you go for say Science Policy, an Undergraduate Major/Minor in one of the Science subjects would help, with some courses in Liberal Arts.


Now you seem to be zeroing on your focus area.


If Middle-East is your interest, you'll need Undergraduate credits in that area, along with some Statistics courses.


One option for you can be to go for Masters in Global Studies and write your thesis on an issue related to the Middle-East. Later, you can follow it up with a PhD in an issue related to the US policy for the Middle-East, or go directly for Global Policy-related jobs after Masters. For this, you need some Undergraduate credits in Global Studies - and Statistics.


You can explore which of the two leads to more jobs that you'd want to do - a Middle-Eastern Program or a Global Studies Program. 

Edited by Seeking
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  , I don't think she meant that grad school isn't or creative people, but that grad programs aren't for people who aren't focused.
You really identified one key factor to grad school. Not only do you have to show that you have a focus on what you want to study but I tihnk you have to show a desire of why you want to go to XYZ school, research the program, research and read some of the work by the faculty. You will find something that interests you in the faculty. Talk to the faculty about their previous work with some paper they wrote etc. I might say that you have to clearly identify what your career goals are or research topics are for the program and how it fits perfectly with the school (good reason why to read about the faculty). I know this may seem daunting to do but if you start early enough reading about the program and faculty work and sending focused emails to the staff of your interest it will make you stand out when you finally apply to grad school. You mention that you struggled in undergrad school, but now your older and probably haver matured? If so, then in your application you can point this out by giving strong examples of successes professional or academic. Yu say you fucked up your life, but really your only 30. I am 36 and I am just applying for grad school. Late bloomer? No, I just chose to live my life the way I wanted by traveling and working in areas most people won't ever get to experience. So we all have different priorities. :) I would encourage you though on number 2 employability. Study something tht is employable that you can directly apply to what you are passionate about ( cliche I know but it's true) just don't get a degree home ec (just cause its easy), know what and how you are going to apply it when you graduate, better to line a job up before you even graduate!! Thoughts? :)
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Your undergrad degree is 6 years behind you.  You have a successful job history behind you as well.  Your undergrad grades won't matter as much, especially if you can take and do well in the quant classes you will need to prepare you for a quant degree.  I think any quant road you take is going to require at least the calculus sequence (cal I-III) and linear algebra, so you may want to get started taking that.  The supplemental classes you take will depend on what you want to do.


Here are some quant fields you could enter/get a master's in


-statistics (this is a growing field, so many applied stats programs are admitting students with just three semesters of calculus and linear algebra)

-biostatistics (same as above, just applied to biological and health sciences work)

-actuarial science

-(quantitative) finance

-operations research

-computer science (will also require some CS/technical classes)

-bioinformatics (it's like CS + biological science)

-information technology (less technical than CS)


-public policy analysis (there are some public policy programs that have a focus on statistical and policy analysis)

-educational measurement and statistics

-quantitative psychology



Now to your individual dilemma - I really, really don't think you need a PhD.  Most people out there doing policy analysis don't have PhDs; you can do that with a master's.

If you don't care what field you want to go into, but you want to use statistical/quantitative analysis, work in a flexible environment in which you are given targets and asked to meet them with little oversight, and want to be creative and have some flexibility - I'll put a plug in for statistics.  If you work as a statistician, you'll often have a lot autonomy because you may be the only one or one of few on the team who understands what you're doing.  You have to use the "best" method for the dataset and problem you are given, and if none exists, sometimes you have to invent it.  It involves creativity and not just mindless plugging in of numbers, because there's no right answer and a lot of different ways you can do it.  And since you're working with people who don't understand what you're doing, you need to learn to translate statistics into regular English.  And with a degree in statistics, you can go a variety of ways.  You can take business classes and specialize in business data; you can take biostatistics classes and do health & life sciences research; you can take some computer science classes and become a computational data scientist (like writing computer programs to do data mining or something like that); you can specialize educational measurement and go work for ACT or ETS designing standardized tests...you can take policy classes and do analysis...there's a lot you can do.  Statistics is a flexible and useful field, and it can be really fascinating and beautiful if you're a math nerd, lol.
There are also MPP and MPA programs that have strengths/emphases in policy analysis and quantitative methods of analysis.  For example, Princeton's MPP program has strengths in quantitative and policy analysis.  An economics degree is good for that too - you can go to a program with a really strong econometrics focus.




Here, I want to counteract the idea that graduate school is not made for creative multidimensional people.  Yes, you do need a focus - for now.  But the myth, I think, is that all grad students are interested in one thing that they want to do.  I've found that to be untrue; most grad students were just very good at making it look like they were focused in one particular area, and are very good at working at one particular area for a couple of years.  For example, I have wide and varied research interests within public health - interests that span several lifetime research agendas, lol.  I could never do them all.  And then I have interests in things that aren't research-related, per se.  I think there are several careers I could've been happy in!


The point is, narrow yourself down to one area that you can do for 2-7 years.  The working world is a lot more flexible than academia.  You can start your career analyzing economic policy and slowly move yourself into educational policy if you get bored.  It just depends on you and the skills you have and learn.

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  • 4 weeks later...

FYI, I'm also wondering if a degree in stats combined with a degree in a strong interest like middle eastern studies or government might serve a similar purpose.


I am not sure you can enroll in two graduate programs at the same time like you can with some undergrad programs.


I don't think there is any graduate statistics program that will admit someone without any college level math, even the shittiest state schools. It may take a year or two of nearly full time course taking to catch up (not just a summer).


What about a B.S. in statistics?


Masters' in Public Health/Epidemiology or Education (Administration) can land jobs where you do quantitative analysis and may have work environments like you mention. They might also require less catch up work at the undergrad level.


Maybe you should compile a list of core/intro courses for masters programs, do some searching online to find what books are often used to teach them, then go browse through them at the local university library. Maybe you will get some ideas of what is interesting or not this way.

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