Applying to Graduate School: Advice for LGBTQ+ students from the community

Transcript & summary by Emma Bublitz

Graduate school applications can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances. Each department, program, and institution often requires a different set of materials and has different, often unspoken, expectations for how students should navigate the system.1 However, for LGBTQ+ students there are additional challenges in the process. How can you tell if a program is welcoming and safe? Should you come out, and if so, when? How can you assert your correct pronouns throughout the process? The same issues that lower the retention of LGBTQ+ students in STEM2 also can impact the process of applying to graduate school and settling in to a new program.

A 348-well plate, used for high throughput chemical and biological experiments, as the Progress Pride Flag (image by Natalie Hudson-Smith, created with BioRender.com)

Way back in November 2019, I gathered a group of ten LGBTQ+ panelists to address some of these questions at an event sponsored by our University of Minnesota oSTEM chapter. Our panelists were from various fields and were distributed throughout the continental U.S. Although a lot has changed in the world since then, their advice is still very relevant! Read on for a summary of some of the main points (you can also see a full transcript here).

Research the programs extensively and reach out to professors

Multiple panelists agreed that you should reach out to professors at universities or programs of interest before you apply. Julie (an environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas at the time; now a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) said, “Every university that I applied to (I applied to seven), there were always at least two professors that I was talking to about various offers, that they were interested in hiring me for.” As the moderator, I added that professors can also provide application waivers. However, Itati (an ecology graduate student at Michigan State University) warned, “The thing about fee waivers for applications, though, is sometimes it does require a back and forth with your undergrad institution and that can take a lot longer than you think it will.” It’s also possible to receive a GRE refund waiver from the schools that require the test for admission. (One thing that has changed since last year is that more and more schools are dropping the GRE requirement altogether.)

In order to keep the schools and programs organized, several panelists created a spreadsheet. Julie described her document as, “a giant Excel spreadsheet of who are the people at these universities, how excited am I about their research program, how excited am I about other things, like how walkable is the city, how bikeable is the city? Do they have a thing that I’m looking for?” For each school, she gave each of these categories a value and then added them up. The schools with the highest numerical scores became her top choices.

Spreadsheets are your friends… (image by wocintech)

Be aware of the application timeline and plan time to visit schools

Most panelists agreed that applications are typically due in December, and visits are made in February and March. However, Liz (a chemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time; now a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory), has noticed that schools seem to be moving up visits to earlier in the year. “I don’t know if other schools are doing this, but UW is certainly starting to push their visit weekends earlier and earlier because they kind of think if they can get you there first, and get you there early, you may stick better.” Itati saw this early start with her programs. “I went on all my visits from that middle week of October to the middle week of November.” She had all of her application materials done before visiting, besides her personal essays. “Based on what I thought I saw institutionally, like on my visit, I tweaked my personal essay to fit the institution a little better.” It is worth noting that many graduate programs in chemistry will pay for accepted students to visit, so don’t worry if you don’t have the resources to visit on your own.

Make sure recommenders know details about you, including your pronouns and identities

Austin (a Ph.D. worker in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Duke University) said, “I will say the one hiccup I had was how my recommenders gendered me in the recommendation letter writing process that I didn’t realize was quite going to be a problem because I was out [to] all of them.” Lisa, a chemistry clinical faculty member at Boise State University, agreed. “Be willing to go talk to your faculty member because it does impact how you might have to out yourself in graduate school.”

Lisa also recommended asking the professor/letter writer what they would say in the letter. “Now, I think as a student, you typically will know whether or not they can write that letter or not for you. But you’re totally in your right to ask what they would say.” Chloe (a math graduate student at the University of Chicago) added that you can also tell them what you want them to talk about. “I wrote down a list for each of my letter writers. ‘Oh, remember, you know me because we did this together. We did this together… I was hoping you would talk about these particular aspects of me.’” She also recommended asking “Can you write me a good letter of recommendation?” rather than simply asking if they would be willing to write a letter. The letters of recommendation can weigh heavily for admission decisions, so it’s important that they are thoughtful.

Talk to potential lab group members during visits, especially the most senior members

This is an excellent opportunity to learn more about daily life in the lab. You can introduce yourself to the lab members and share whichever details you feel comfortable with. Mae (a neuroscience postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University) said, “I individually came out to the people in the labs that I was interviewing at. And that gave me an opportunity to sort of gauge their reactions individually to get a good idea of like how they would approach me or think about me.” Chloe also thinks it’s important to ask potential group members about their feelings about the school, the lab group, and the advisor. “You can just ask, are you happy? Is it supportive?”

(image by Avi Richards)

Choose who you talk to during visits carefully

Itati said you should be sure to talk to people who share identities with you. “If they’re not queer, if they’re not a person of color or whatever, know if they don’t share that axis with you, then they don’t know. They could totally answer you, “Yeah, I’m happy. Everything’s fine. Yeah. Lab conduct is great.” But then you can get there and with your own identity be like, oh, no, this is not the place for me.” Amber (a chemistry graduate student at Emory University) added that you should “not only talk to people who share your identities, but also your personality.”

When on visits, Amber also thinks you should ask about the resources available, especially talking to professors “because, if they know about them, that probably kind of can tune you in on the fact that they care about it at least a little bit more. If they have absolutely no idea what resources or what kind of initiatives are going on, then that can also kind of give you an idea that clearly they have no idea, and thus they’re probably not going to understand marginalized identities very well.”

Make sure you’re ready and committed

Graduate school is a long process and includes lots of hard work. Matthew (a chemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) said, “You do want to be ready to go into graduate school. You do want to think about that before you do it. It is an engaging and exciting and interesting experience that can also be a very drudging experience. It can also be a very frustrating experience.”

Some of the panelists agreed that it is sometimes helpful to take time off after your undergraduate degree before starting graduate school. Itati said,  “Give yourself the space to kind of not heal from undergrad, because undergrad is not inherently traumatic for everyone, but give yourself room to have some breathing space, because even if you take a year or two or three, as long as you’re able to speak intelligently about it and about what that change and headspace and experience gave you, it’s not like grad schools are going to be like spooked.”


Thank you to all the panelists!

  • Julie (she/they) – University of Minnesota – Engineering (Twitter)
  • Austin (they/them) – Duke – Engineering
  • Liz (she/they) – University of Wisconsin, Madison – Chemistry (LinkedIn; Twitter; teaching portfolio)
  • Amber (she/her) – Emory University – Chemistry
  • Mae (she/her) – University of Colorado, Princeton (Post-doc) – Neuroscience
  • Lisa (she/her) – Boise State University –Chemistry (Twitter)
  • Matthew (he/him) – University of Wisconsin, Madison – Chemistry (middle, second from left)
  • Chloe (she/her) – University of Chicago – Mathematics (middle right)
  • Natalie (she/they) – Moderating – University of Minnesota – Chemistry
  • Itati (she/they ) – Michigan State University – Ecology (Twitter)

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES


REFERENCES

  1. Chang, Alvin. The subtle ways colleges discriminate against poor students, explained with a cartoon. Vox.com, Sept 12, 2018. (Sustainable Nano Podcast interview: Who’s Not In the Room and Why Not? Inclusivity and Bias Across Class Backgrounds in College Education)
  2. Hughes, Bryce. Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances, 2018; 4(3): eaao6373. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aao6373