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Navigating your way to a graduate program in the U.S. as a student from an underrepresented minority

Getting to grad school in the U.S. may feel daunting, especially for students from underrepresented minorities. Claire Mauss shares some tips.

This post is also available in: Español

Magically, my abuela (grandma) managed to transform her small backyard into a vibrant, crowded jungle, teeming with life. Though she is a Mexican immigrant with no formal education, she knows the name of every single plant in her backyard biome. My abuela’s love of plants inspired my own, ultimately driving me to my current position as a Plant Biology PhD student at the University of California Riverside (UCR). 

As an undergraduate, I attended a summer National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden in partnership with Northwestern University. This experience was incredible, and not just because I discovered my love for plant genetics through it. The program leadership brought in Northwestern Graduate Admissions Committee members who walked us through the graduate application process. As a first-generation college student, this information was invaluable and guided me through my own graduate applications. Yet, many students who look like me do not have access to this same information. 

According to the United States National Center for Education Statistics, of over one million Doctoral and Master’s degrees conferred in the 2018–2019 academic year, only 19% were awarded to members of underrepresented minorities (URM: Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students). Lack of access to resources, funding, and support all play a role in this and ultimately contribute to academic gatekeeping wherein URM students are barred from higher education due to both social and socioeconomic factors outside of their control. This is unacceptable. In this article, I will discuss a few of the major hurdles that URM students face when considering applying to Botany and Plant Sciences graduate programs. I then hope to offer valuable advice on these issues, based on my own experiences as a URM student.

Prior Research Experience 

When applying for a graduate program in the U.S., most universities will require previous research experience. However, URM students often lack the same access to undergraduate research opportunities as their non-URM counterparts. 

“Not all institutions have research programs, in particular small colleges, or community colleges that are commonly used as lower-cost entry points to universities,” Dr. David Nelson, the Graduate Advisor of Admissions for UCR’s Botany and Plant Sciences graduate program, explains. “Full-time, paid, summer NSF-REU programs are a great way to get involved in research even if opportunities at a home institution are limited,” he advises. 

The full list of REU programs can be found on NSF’s website, where students can find Botany and Plant Biology research programs using the keyword search tool.

Speaking from my own undergraduate experience, my summer REU allowed me to explore plant science research that was not available to me at my home institution and meet other URM students who continue to be a part of my support network. 

For those who have already graduated, Dr. Nelson adds that “[s]pending a few years working in industry or as a technician can build expertise, confidence, maturity, and clarity on career goals that lead to an efficient and highly productive graduate experience.” 

On the other hand, imposter syndrome can hold qualified URM students back from applying to graduate school. Imposter syndrome, often magnified in URM students, describes feelings of inadequacy. It’s important to remember that graduate school is meant to be a learning experience. You are not expected to come into graduate school knowing how to independently carry out every aspect of your proposed research project; you will learn these skills along the way with the support of faculty and peers. 

Dr. Loralee Larios, a Botany and Plant Sciences faculty member at UCR, prioritizes students that are passionate, not just experienced. “One of the things that I look for in a graduate student is what their motivation for science is and why they are interested in doing it,” she says. 

Look to work with a principal investigator (PI) who understands that students all come from different backgrounds, and looks to tailor their mentorship to each student. 

How you discuss your prior research in your personal statements can make a huge difference, even if you feel you have limited experience. When talking about your previous research, make sure to demonstrate a true understanding of the work you did. Clearly describe the questions you investigated, your findings, and the potential future implications of your work. 

Planning ahead of time and reaching out to professors early is crucial when preparing your application. Image credit. Pixabay.

Financial Considerations

Applying to graduate school can be incredibly costly. Taking the GRE alone will cost you $200, and you may even want to retake it. Most graduate application fees will cost around $100. To help reduce costs, apply for fee waivers when possible. The GRE offers 50% fee waivers for students with financial need and most graduate departments offer application fee waivers, just email and ask! 

Graduate school itself may seem insurmountably expensive. However, graduate-level STEM research can be fully-funded. Usually, through grants won by the PI or TA-ships, graduate students are provided with funds to cover tuition and living expenses. Make sure to ask about what kinds of funding will be available to you when applying. 

There are also external funding sources, such as student fellowships, that you can apply to for graduate research projects. Two of the most popular, and most competitive, are the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the Ford Foundation Fellowship. Both accept applications the year you are applying to graduate school (as well as while you are in graduate school). Though applying to fellowships is extra work, it can help secure a spot for you in your top-choice program. Even if you don’t get the award, you get experience applying and receive reviewer comments that can help you when applying to future fellowships. 

Finding Professors to Work With

With so much fascinating plant science research going on in the world, it can be overwhelming trying to decide where you apply and who you will work with during graduate school. 

A great way to find potential PIs is to start reading papers. Find papers that interest you, or ask questions similar to those you would like to pose, or that work on the species you’re interested in. The authors of these papers can serve as potential PIs or starting points of contact.

Once you have determined what universities and PIs you are interested in, you should reach out to the PIs and discuss working with them. 

Dr. Amy Litt, a Botany and Plant Sciences faculty member at UCR, advises that when students initially contact her that it is “important that they indicate that they are specifically interested in my research […] indicating what questions they are interested in and why their interests intersect with our lab.”

In terms of the timeline, Dr. Litt says, “I appreciate when people contact me well in advance,” she adds on, “and keep in touch, so that I am reminded that they’re interested.” 

Keep in mind that PIs are extremely busy people who receive dozens of emails a day, so they might not get back to you right away. You may have to send a few follow up emails before you get a response. While you may feel that you are being pushy, Dr. Litt believes that follow-up emails “show that a student is sincerely interested.” 

I have provided a sample email that could serve as a helpful template for any students who may be reaching out to prospective PIs for the first time below.

Finally, if you are looking to learn more about the experience of working in a particular lab, contacting students in that lab can help you get a better understanding of the lab culture. Students in the department can also help answer questions about funding, courses, and other program aspects.

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Know that you are not alone in the pursuit of applying to graduate school nor once you get to graduate school. There are many professional societies that are available to students to provide community and support in academia, such as SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) and AWIS (Association for Women in Science) to name a few, that are always looking for new members. These groups usually have chapters at universities, allowing you to build a community right on your campus who can support and uplift you in all your future pursuits. Good luck, I believe in you!


Claire Mauss is a second-year Plant Biology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside. She is interested in using genetic technologies to engineer crops that will expand access to sustainable, healthy, and affordable food, especially in urban communities of color. Her current research seeks to create compact tomatoes for urban, controlled environment agriculture using gene editing. She is also passionate about decolonizing higher education and eliminating academic gatekeeping. You can hear more about her work on her twitter, @ClaireMauss.

Spanish translation by Lorena Villanueva Almanza

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