Getting involved in Grad School

By Daziyah Sullivan. In graduate school, a strong community and the freedom to pursue your passions are essential to academic success. Read on for Daziyah’s tips to have a fulfilling grad school experience!

The Rice University MAHI Lab rising to new heights

Getting involved in Grad School

Coming to Rice is an honor, a privilege – as in: it is Rice University’s honor to have you and all of your wonderful aptitudes introduced into our graduate school ecosystem.

Own that.

But don’t be overwhelmed by the academic side of grad school, and don’t lose your own interests and passions while pursuing your degree. Bring your own quirks and queries and fill in your own blanks as to how you want your life at Rice to be.

Personally, I’m a self-proclaimed COVID grad. My graduate school tenure officially started in the Fall of 2020 and I technically visited Rice the weekend before the school officially shut down! So, I can understand some of the difficulties of getting involved in the community and even understanding what involvement could mean for you.

May I recommend some potential starting points?

As described earlier, Rice has its own “ecosystem” – as many schools do. While in graduate school here, there will be five main communities that will contribute to your experience:

  • The lab - think those who have the same advisor as you and those who share a lab space with you!
  • The department - this can be those within your same major or could end up being the entire school that your degree is under.
  • Your affinities - imagine all things identity wise (being a black woman originally from an HBCU, I am particularly fond of our Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA)).
  • The school - think bigger, broader now: the people you meet at Valhalla, those who are regulars at your fave study spot, and the Graduate Student Association (GSA).
  • The community - all things outside of Rice. This will likely be within the greater Houston area. Think: if you have a faith - where you’ll be practicing, possibly external sports, etc.

Now, I’d recommend starting from the top and going to the bottom. Finding connections and entryways to these larger groups can be easier when you do so!

Within your lab environment, there may be regular social activities - or you could create opportunities yourself! In my lab, there had been a social chair before I began and I have heard from other Mechanical Engineering labs that we are one of the most social! (See evidence here.)

Outside of entire lab hangouts, I would also recommend having “interviews” with your labmates. My advisor informed me of those who had similar research interests to mine and I set up 30 - 60 minute meetings to know more about their research AND them as a person! Example questions to ask:

  • Why did you choose Rice?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • Name? Age? Do you have a significant other? What are other basic details everyone in the lab knows about you?
  • What are you researching? Why? Do you feel you’ve made the right choice?
  • How would you want your research to inspire/be continued?
  • What are you planning on doing after graduation? Academia or industry or…?

If the person you are interviewing agreed to share their time with you, be sure to take full advantage of the opportunity and ask any of your burning questions! Who knows? This meeting could end in setting up a hangout, sparking a new research question, or a list of the coolest things to do (and places to eat) in Houston!

Random suggestions time!

  • Rice Village is “walking” distance away from the school and has many restaurants and shops to visit - during my time at RVA I became a regular at Thai Village (the servers mention my absence everytime I visit now!), when I wanted a healthier seeming entree I would go to Local Foods, and when it was late at night (Houston closes early) I would go to the OhMyGogi! food truck
  • Hermann Park is across the street from Rice and has many different areas. There’s the Zoo and the large pond in front of it (I like to sit on the steps there and people watch), the Japanese Gardens has plenty of beautiful areas to sit/stand and have stereotypical existential crisis like in the movies, and the Miller Outdoor Theatre has many events (in non-COVID times) that I’ve heard many Rice students rave about!
  • Baby Barnaby’s Cafe will not fail your breakfast needs. That’s it. That’s the line.

Your departmental connections can be formed through labmate recommendations, having classes with these peers, or socials put on by your Departmental Graduate Student Association. The ability to reach this part of the Rice community can feel more natural in terms of how you made friends in undergrad - you’ll likely have required seminars together, you may be studying for qualifying exams with each other (if you’re pursuing a PhD), or you may run into people in the hallways of your building.

I would also recommend not confining your idea of a department to just those within your major. Your lab may be part of an initiative that incorporates multiple departments, like mine. The MAHI lab is part of the Rice Neuroengineering Institute (NEI), so I could potentially connect with BioScience or Applied Physics students. Your research may be cross-departmental, so the advisors you collaborate with may be involved in departments you can connect with as well.

Just as Rice’s research is interdisciplinary, so is its social network.

Now remember how I mentioned you should keep all your quirks and queries alive? This comes with your affinities.

There is a high chance that a community for your interests or identifiers already exists at Rice. View OwlNest to see if this is true and what events that group is having soon. If a group does not currently exist, there is still the opportunity to start a club yourself!

  • Notice how young RAW Photography is! Cofounders Yi Luo and Daniel Davis created the group in 2019 as a sophomore architecture student and third year cognitive science student, respectively. (I know of its conception from a former lab member, Jacar Baldwin, who served as the marketing lead for 2020-2021 and got involved in his first year of his Master’s program!)
  • Amidst the lockdown, many people took up new creative hobbies, not excluding a former lab mate, Dr. Janelle Clark, and myself. From the acquiring of new watercolor supplies came Watercolor Wednesdays for graduate students where anyone who was interested in joining would join a Zoom and we’d all follow along with Let's Make Art! tutorials.

Connecting with the larger Rice community will depend on how extroverted you are feeling on a particular day. The campus has many outdoor (such as Valhalla, the area around Brochstein Pavilion, and the open fields run by the Rec) and indoor (such as Fondren library and the MultiCultural Center) spaces where you may decide to walk up to a stranger and strike a conversation. The Graduate Student Association also hosts multiple events throughout the year for the entire graduate community (with Valhalloween and Culture Night having some of the largest turnouts) that provides a space particularly meant for meeting new people.

When it comes to connecting with people outside of the Rice community, just go out and explore! We’re in the South, so most people will respond in a friendly manner if you say hello. Find different activities you’re interested in and sign up for a class! You may be able to make a new friend on BumbleBFF who will visit a new place with you in Houston or find a group to take a hike or karaoke with on MeetUp. Take advantage of the Passport to Houston and strike a conversation with someone new at an exhibit.

Note: Many museum workers do not acknowledge the distinction between undergraduates and graduate students and will allow you unlimited free admission to permanent exhibits either way!

Well that was a lot of information at once…

Let’s do a quick recap to refresh your memory of key points:

  • When seeking connections, you can view your potential social groups in categories such as: lab, department, affinity, university, and community.
  • Leverage your previous connections to expand your involvement in the community
  • Your identity is important. Look for groups that can foster growth in ways that are true to your vision for yourself

Rice is honored to have you as a graduate student and we hope that you will find ways to leave your influence on many aspects of the community. Your impact will be felt for years to come.

Further Reading

Making the Switch from Minority Serving Institution (MSI) to Predominately White Institution (PWI)

Grad School 101: The Houston Experience

Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality

About the author: Daziyah Sullivan is a second-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering. Originally from Florida, Daziyah earned her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in 2020. Read more.