Graduate School I: Making the Decision of When and Where by Haitong Du (A’22)

by tuftsigl
Jun 22

Almost one in every five Tufts students attends a graduate school as a part of their post-graduation plans. On June 6th, the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership held a webinar on “Making the Decision of When and Where” featuring four alumnae sharing what they see as the value of going, or not going, to grad schools.

Kelsi Stine-Rowe (A’10, F’11) holds a Master's degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and now lives in Seattle, WA. She currently works at the Wikimedia Foundation, where she leads a global community outreach team working to make Wikipedia more inclusive and diverse.

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Robinson (A’15) studied International Relations as an undergrad at Tufts. She is the Asia Regional Lead at MAGENTA, a social and behavioral change research and communications firm. Having five years of experience in international development and humanitarian aid, including in Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Lizzy believes that grad schools are overrated and experience is more important than a degree in her field at this point.

Elayne Stecher (A’14, PHD Candidate UCLA) is a mixed methodological researcher with work experience in academia and the private sector. She received her BA in International Relations, Arabic and Middle East Studies from Tufts in 2014 and her MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2019. Elayne is currently enrolled at UCLA, where she is pursuing a MA in Statistics and a PhD in Political Science.

Lumay Wang Murphy (A’11) is currently the Global Corporate Strategy Manager at Anheuser-Busch.  She earned her MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University after graduating from Tufts with a degree in International Relations and Art History. Previously she had worked on The Hill.

The Benefits of Graduate School

For Kelsi, who studied International Relations at Tufts, going to The Fletcher School seemed like the “logical next step”, and she went directly from undergrad. There was very little pivot in her transition, especially from an academic perspective. On the other hand, Elayne chose grad school to escape feeling like she was at a dead end despite her triple major.  She wanted to use grad school as an opportunity to break into a new field, such as consulting firms. “The logical next steps for high achieving students are to see what you like and dislike,” she said, “and pursue future paths from there.”

Lumay went to business school to pursue an MBA after working for several years as a staffer in the U.S. Congress. She loved grad school for three reasons: classes, people, and internship experiences. The classes she took, mainly based on case studies, were challenging and engaging; the people she interacted with, including professors and classmates, were intelligent and friendly; and finally, the internship opportunities a business school provides are directly relevant to the fields students choose to pursue. “When you apply for grad schools,” Lumay said, “you have to do some self-reflection and ask you what you really want.” She clearly made the right call.

The Purpose of Graduate School

Kelsi, based on her own experience, pointed out that International Relations students have a limited range of opportunities: internships are often unrealistically competitive, unpaid, or both, since many international non-profit NGOs are severely underfunded. (She also noted that internships with NGOs tend not to provide great mentorship, with which the others concurred.)

All the participants recommended that IR students invest their time – in undergrad and grad school – in developing additional sets of skills, such as quantitative analysis or computer science, to make themselves more appealing to employers and grad schools.


Things to Consider: Financial and Opportunity Costs

Higher education in the United States is financially demanding, especially for students who are thinking about grad schools immediately after graduation. Lizzy noted that she did not feel that what she would gain from a graduate school in the field she was interested was worth the financial tradeoff. She also recommended students who are thinking about grad schools to “wait for a few years” before committing to that decision, especially when a graduate degree is not a prerequisite to start a career. Kelsi agreed, feeling that she had gone to graduate school before knowing how best to take advantage of what she wanted to study and the skills she wanted to gain.

Elayne noted that everyone needs to learn to advocate for themselves, especially as they apply for grad school or for jobs.  What do you bring to the table that will benefit the grad school or your future employer?  Lumay agreed that students should have a “competitive edge” by investing in themselves, this can lead to the schools funding your graduate work or to employers funding it.


Lizzy also suggested students to look beyond grad schools in the United States. For example, institutions in the United Kingdom are not only cheaper but also often require only one year to complete a Master’s degree. Elayne echoed Lizzy’s point by suggesting that she went through three cycles of grad school applications to get the best financial deal, given the expense.  She has been successful in having her M.A. and Ph.D. fully funded. Elayne, having worked at the Fletcher School after graduation, also noted that she consulted graduate students extensively before making a decision on her own path.


Maximizing Your Chances: Networking and Skills

As Lizzy mentioned, in professional networking students want to avoid anything that is inauthentic or ineffective. To make networking authentic and gain a boost in finding employment, “you need to put yourself out there, giving something concrete, and need to be proactive.” Elayne added that merely having skills is not enough— “you have to translate your skills and reorient them.” Lumay agreed by mentioning that “you have to convey what you have done and impacted instead of just writing out your specific skills.”

Progress can be slow in networking, but ultimately there will be people who are going to be helpful. Kelsi noted that networking has already started during undergrad, because students can and should meet as many people as possible once they have entered college. Elayne considers networking and gaining experiences to be the most important qualities of a grad school. “You can’t network unless you know your value,” she said, “you also have to learn how to advertise yourself.”

When talking about skills, all speakers affirmed the importance of high-quality writing. Lizzy said that Tufts students are often better writers than many grad students. Lumay even praised most Tufts students as being “fantastic writers,” encouraging them to keep it up.

Lizzy concluded by stating that reading is undervalued whereas language skills could be overvalued. “People who read a lot have a better understanding of how the world works.” In the meantime, “Unless you’re culturally fluent in a language as a foreigner, it’s not that beneficial.”

Making the Most of Undergrad

All of the alumnae gave some pointers about making your undergrad years more productive. Look for experiential opportunities, whether during the semester or over the summers.  And when you have those opportunities, think about what skills you can take away from the experience – hard and soft skills.  Then you want to be able to show how you were able to use that skill, not just state that you acquired it.  What were the deliverables?  If you are considering a double major, do not necessarily think about history and IR or economics and IR, think about combining hard skills with the softer analytical skills.  Some of the harder skills that would be good to build include communications, computer science, quantitative skills, and budgeting/grant writing.

What to remember

Be humble.  Humility is important as you take your next steps.  Present what you have to add but don’t think you know everything or that something is beneath you as a new graduate.

Present yourself as a lifelong learning.  Read widely. Stay current with global events. Demonstrate your curiosity and your ability to grasp complex issues.

Be a problem-solver.  Learn how to approach problems, demonstrate structured thinking in being presented with a challenge. Convey how you think.