I’ve been discussing and deliberating this blog for a while now, and the time has come to start documenting the rollercoaster that is grad school! When I was researching schools and faculty and research labs to apply to for my PhD, there was a lot of information about humanities programs and biology programs and engineering programs, all of which have thoroughly different requirements. There was a paucity of information about kinesiology programs and I felt like I was shooting in the dark. It was then that I thought how useful a blog that detailed the process and what life was actually like in kinesiology grad school would be.
It is the end of my first semester at Penn State, and I have some time to finally start this. I thought a good starting post would detail the application process. There are many resources online that are very in-depth about this endeavour, but I struggled to find any that were specific to kines. I decided to apply for a PhD in the year between finishing my BSc and starting my MSc. At this point I spent a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, researching online. My method started with school names that I recognized from famous papers in the area and from key people I’d cited repeatedly during my undergrad. I also looked at schools in locations I thought would be fun to live in. In the same vein, some were eliminated because I couldn’t see myself spending 4+ years living there. My initial shortlist was probably comprised of 20 different schools.
In trying to refine the shortlist, some schools got cut, others got added. It wasn’t shrinking! So, I decided to send an initial email to potential advisors at each of the 20 schools (some to multiple people in different departments at the same school). For those of you wondering what was included in my initial email, it was a short (very unlike this post) communication outlining me (making myself seem like a person rather than a list of qualifications), my education level, my possible research interests for a PhD and why I was reaching out to that particular person. I also included a CV as an attachment and let that do much of the speaking for me.
I had a very mixed response – some were not looking for grad students at this time, some emails got lost in the depths of the internet, some sent a cursory “thanks but no thanks” response. However, there were a handful of potential advisors who were generous enough to take time out of their busy schedule to respond with detailed, helpful responses. For these, I will be forever grateful. Their responses helped me understand what I wanted to get out of my PhD and where I wanted to apply. Before taking the GRE (which I’m not going to talk about here), I had a shortlist of 6 – 7 schools to apply to. At the end of the GRE, they ask you to send your scores to 4 schools for free. I ended up applying to just 4 schools. In the end, I heard from 3.
The advisors I had spoken to over email reached out asking to Skype with me. This started the process of a series of mini-interviews where we both tried to figure out if we would be a good fit. Only one school ended up offering an official interview, but in hindsight all the interactions I’d had between initial contact to final response were evaluations of me as a student, and them as an advisor. I decided that trying to determine “fit” and how I’d feel at each school over the internet was incredibly challenging, so I was fortunate enough to be able to fly to the US and visit 3 of my shortlisted schools. Over one week, I visited each of three schools (first week in September – I’m so sorry for the horrible timing!), and was shown around, sat in talks, met lab members, and was generally courted by each of the advisors. I got to really experience what life would be like in each of the labs I visited, and I felt like I would be lucky to go to any of those schools. The entire visit solidified that doing a PhD was the right move for me, and I was excited to start.
I visited these schools September 2015. My applications were submitted a month or so later, and then began the agonizing wait. I heard my first news – a rejection – very early in the new year. About a month later, I heard again – this time good news. Someone wanted me! I was thrilled. About 2 weeks later, I heard one last time – a cryptic email asking for a Skype call. The 24 hours between receiving that email and the Skype call were horrendous. I still remember being on Skype and my advisor telling me that he wanted to offer me a place. It took all of my control to not squeal from excitement!
After the waiting (oh, the waiting was so tough!) came the chaos. The chaos of figuring out visas and moving and flights and where I was going to live and how I was going to move money across the Atlantic and answering all the questions I hadn’t let myself think about before I knew I was in.
In July, I finished my masters, and a couple of weeks later, I flew out to New York with my dad. We drove out to the middle of Pennsylvania and ran around for a week, purchasing furniture for my apartment, test-driving cars, going to orientation, opening bank accounts, familiarizing myself with State College, eating way too much yummy food. The week was over in a blink of an eye, and my dad was on his way back to England. I was left in the basement of my Airbnb (I couldn’t move into my apartment for another week), wondering what I’d just got myself into!
I’m happy to say that in the 4 months since then, I love it here. Sure, it’s been crazy, there’s been days I’ve wanted to bang my head against the table, I’ve pulled long weeks, I’ve been stressed at times but it’s all worth it. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life, I’ve made so many advances as a scientist in just 4 months, I’ve taken classes outside my comfort zone (engineering design anyone?), I’ve learnt new technical skills and taught others how to use them, I’ve met some of the pioneers and leading researchers in the field and I’ve had my mind expanded and challenged. I’ll cover most of this in subsequent posts as I’ve rambled on for long enough (Over 1100 words…oops). The start of this journey has been amazing, and I’m looking forward to all of the subsequent adventures. For now, I need to start writing some conference proposals rather than a blog post. Thanks for reading!