Graduate school can seem like a pretty esoteric process, especially for underrepresented groups, says Eli Sanchez, a fourth-year PhD student at the Nuclear Science & Engineering department at MIT. “There are a lot of norms and expectations that are clear to people who have gone through the process that are not clear to those who haven’t,” Sanchez says. Among a host of other disadvantages, underrepresented groups often lack a wider community of people who have gone to graduate school and who understand the process, Sanchez points out. “They might not know how to assemble an application, how to identify potential advisors, things that steer you toward success in graduate school,” Sanchez says.
The NSE’s Graduate Application Assistance Program (GAAP) is a step toward fixing that inequity. Rachel Bielajew, a fourth-year PhD student in NSE, and Sanchez launched the GAAP in the summer of 2021. The launch comes at a time when there is a growing momentum to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM fields. NSE GAAP’s mission is to help students from underrepresented groups with their graduate application process by matching potential applicants with one of 17 volunteer mentors. “The overall goal [of GAAP] is to support diversity and equity in the department,” Bielajew says.
Students who are interested in being mentored answer a questionnaire through the graduate admissions portal. Applicants match with mentors based on research interests and other factors. GAAP processes are not shared with the admissions committee.
GAAP applicants will receive advice on “how to make achievements shine and match research passions and motivations with the research and opportunities the [NSE] department has to offer,” Bielajew says. “It’s finding that middle area in the Venn diagram between your experience, where you are as a researcher and mapping that to the department’s research,” she adds. An application’s statement of purpose might come under special scrutiny. “We want to encourage students to describe their interests and experiences in a way that the admissions committee understands their expertise and what they want to get out of graduate school,” Sanchez says.
This student-led volunteer program aligns with NSE's broader DEI initiative which is committed to growing and sustaining a diverse community. Led by NSE Community and Equity Officer, Prof Emilio Baglietto, the DEI initiative builds on the department's mission, which is to help develop the next generation of technical leaders of the global nuclear enterprise and to provide technical leadership in energy and non-energy applications of nuclear technology. Building a diverse and welcoming community is integral to success in accomplishing this mission.
The NSE GAAP team has worked closely with the 12 other MIT GAAPs to avail of — and share — resources and best practices.
Bielajew and Sanchez recognize that GAAP is a small but impactful step toward increasing diversity and inclusion at NSE. “Increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in our department can contribute to creating an environment where all groups feel that they have the opportunity to be successful and to enter professional and academic spaces,” Sanchez says. He is the first in his family to work toward a PhD and struggled with navigating the process early on.
Bielajew, on the other hand, has been steeped in an academic environment. Her parents attended graduate school themselves. “I always felt that because of the mentorship I had, a network of people I could talk to, graduate school was very accessible to me,” she says. She hopes that GAAP will provide similar resources to underrepresented groups who might not have similar networks.
“I want to be in a field and in a department where the picture of who a scientist is, is a little bit broader than it is right now. Because there is so much that goes into being a good engineer and scientist,” Bielajew says. “And there are so many people out there who could be very successful and contribute a lot. We want to make sure that we're welcoming to all people in all groups and really building a diverse community that everyone can thrive in,” she adds.
The NSE GAAP will accept mentee questionnaires for the current application cycle through November 5 and assist with the application process till December 15. Learn more here.
Written by Poornima Apte