What I Wish I knew Before Moving to the US for Grad School - Learning Experience and Academic Rigor
The 3rd of a series of 4 on What I Wish I Knew Before Moving to the US for Graduate School as an African young professional. This one, focuses on the main reason we're all here, academics!
Pick the right School - Please conduct extensive research on your program and your program director or Professors, email them when you have a chance, even ask for a Zoom call. See what they’re like and if you get along with them. There’s nothing worse than spending 2-3 years you just don’t get along with. Lol. And don’t apply to schools just because of their big name reputations, see what fits for you. The good thing about the US is there’s something for everyone you just have to look.
For law, very few, if any, American law students pursue their Masters of Laws degrees, so most students will probably be international students from Africa, Latin America, India, Asia, the UK. Largely because their law degree, the Juris Doctor is a second degree after undergrad/college. Because of this you may find that unlike other programmes, LLMs and JDs may share classes which was unheard of in undergrad where you'd expect smaller, dedicated classes.
Reading culture - plenty of reading is required before each class session (sometimes even 100+ pages). Do your best to complete as much required reading as possible because you might literally feel lost the entire class if you don’t prepare. Don’t panic if you don’t complete the readings - just attend class and try to catch up afterwards. Also, try and make up class participation on the readings that you’ve done, that way, even if you did not complete your readings, you still get class participation points.
Taking notes - most students take notes on their ipads or laptops, rather than manual note taking. Do what you find most comfortable.
Course Outlines - For law, look for and use outlines, they will save you so much time and energy. Essentially, it's like a summarized version of your entire class and helps immensely with exam prep. There's a site resource called Outline Depot that's a good place to start in addition to what your school might offer. Check with your Student Bar Associations and former students that may have taken your classes too because some may have links/folders of previous class outlines.
Learn to use the Issue - Rule - Analysis - Conclusion (IRAC) method in answering questions use case law and apply it to the facts in the exam question. It goes a long way.
Difference in professorial culture - Unlike in Kenya, most professors you meet in the US are friendly humans who take their teaching jobs seriously. Approach them, ask questions, and go to office hours etc. They want to help, seek them out.
Additionally, I was surprised to discover that for law specifically, who you'd call a Professor may not necessarily be a Professor where they'd taken and completed a PhD and published articles and papers etc, expertise was just as valuable as education.
Socratic Method - Speaking of lecturers who lecture, Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. You have to engage and query in classes, actively participating. There's also different class structures such as seminars which I loved. You're given readings and throughout the class have open discussions on the content. For me particularly, I used the opportunity to share peculiar African experiences and counter certain perceptions, biases and unknowns for the rest of the class.
Academic culture in the US is less about cramming and more about critical thought and analysis.
Find your voice/have an opinion - You may be required to write reflection or response papers before class - these require you to read articles, digest them, and write a brief paper reflecting on the themes in the reading material.
Espouse confidence and practice speaking up, sometimes you think that what you know is obvious, but it's not. You're intellectually as capable as your peers and unfortunately African culture teaches us to not speak up; this you will need to unlearn. Your classmates will quip your very thought faster. Sometimes you're allowed to speak aloud and query certain things. I was not taught. p.s. this will also help you greatly in the workplace.
Grading your Professors and Feedback - Unlike the school I went to, the school administrator sought feedback from students actively about the quality of education you felt you were getting and you had to rate your lecturers. While selecting classes you may be interested in also ask older students of the professors, there's also a site called Rate My Professors to get a sense of your lecturer's style of instruction.
Different exam structure: professors use different examination structures: you could be asked to take a traditional in-class exam; a take-home exam; an 8-hour exam; to write a paper or essay in lieu of a traditional exam.
Taking exams electronically - I had to take exams electronically for the first time, so if you're a slow typer, it might help to practice typing faster by for instance, taking notes on your laptop in class. Most schools have portals with sample exams, try taking sample exams. This will allow you to test your speed, as well as familiarize you with the type of questions you can expect (essay, multiple choice etc).
Undergrad School - Work - Grad School - I used to belong to the school of thought that believed there was value addition in going to grad school as a professional. After being away from school and only returning five (5) years later I have switched sides and would recommend doing it immediately after undergrad.
Upskill - Do your best to get the skills you need for your upcoming/ anticipated job, or for what you feel is fulfilling. Being at the top of your class is honestly not such a big deal. Do not break your back. Leave time to live life. No one will remember that you were top of the class. No one will ask you for that during interviews.
Cost of textbooks and stationery - This was a shocker for me because writing material in Kenya for example costs less than a dollar. Stationery is costly, even the most basic store brand items, check if your school offers some benefits on these, you may get some freebies. All classes have course text books that you may need to buy. And they're not cheap. Relying solely on the library copies may not also be feasible so consider classes that have flexibility on the editions you may use because then you'd have more options when searching for the books online, check for second hand copies, ask older students.
N.E.T.W.O.R.K. I cannot stress this enough. America is built on networking. Cultivate meaningful bonds in and outside the classroom. As a Kenyan I can acknowledge that alot of emphasis was placed on folks putting their head down, focusing on reading 24/7 and keeping away from anything that might be distracting, including friends. However, in the US of A, networking gets you to higher places that your grades cannot. Talk to people, hang out with your classmates, go to events, interact with your professors, genuinely create bonds that will take you beyond the university hallways. You never know if your classmate might end up becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Her Supreme Ketanji Onyika Jackson of House Brown.
... the fact that when called to and needed to, community pulls together and comes through. A friend and law school classmate recently shared this, and how quickly people pooled and pulled together I love. Please watch the video and spare something small if you may, as we say, 'Haba na Haba Hujaza Kibaba'.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
by Max Ehrmann ©1927