Making the switch from MSI to PWI

Current grad student Daziyah Sullivan discusses her experience in switching from a Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) to a predominately White Institution (PWI), and shares her advice for students considering the same.

Graduate Student Ambassador Daziyah Sullivan

To begin, I, Daziyah Sullivan, am an African-American woman - in a field that I am a minority in all aspects of - pursuing a doctoral degree at a PWI. That is where I am now, but previously I was in a slightly different scenario. As an undergrad, I still had those same identifiers, but was a lot less of an outlier among those in my program because I attended an HBCU.

What is an HBCU?

A magical place where people, who identify similar to myself, are not the minority.

Well, there’s a technical definition, too. HBCU stands for a Historically Black College or University. This designation purely exists within the United States as these institutions of higher learning were originally the only places where those of African descent could receive these degrees. My specific HBCU, the College of Love and Charity, sitting on the highest of seven hills, is Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and originally opened to specifically educate blacks to educate other blacks. What a concept!

But for the purposes of this blog, we will be sticking with the previous definition. This helps broaden the impact. I am writing for anyone attending any Minority Serving Institution (MSI) and thinking of switching to a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) when continuing their education.

Question: “If there is a magical place where I am not a minority, where my academic prowess is not viewed as a fluke of nature or a one off chance… then why leave?”

Answer: Reality.

In all reality, I actively chose to not pursue graduate studies at a MSI because I know that the workplace I will end up in is more accurately reflected in a PWI environment. Essentially, my graduate school search was a precursor to my future job hunt in industry. There are different reasons for different people, but this was the main reason for me.

Note: I would like to stress that your advisor is more important than your school of choice. An advisor can make or break your experience as a graduate student and they will have the largest impact on your studies. Finding a school with research and advisors doing work you are interested in should be your main deciding factor.

Question: “What should I look for in a graduate school environment?”

Answer: It depends!

Wow, what a frustratingly accurate answer that is. Just because this is my blog and I can do as I want, let’s take that question and throw it directly into my personal experience. (I promise I’ll take it broader afterwards!)

With determining what I wanted in a graduate school environment, I had to firstly begin with what I loved (and didn’t so much love) in my undergraduate experience. For me that looked a little like:

  • Love?
    • Being around so many successful black people helping each other out
    • Having a campus full of greenery (not stuffy, cookie-cutter brick building after brick building)
    • Having the baddest band in the land, The Marching 100!
    • The strong community within the FAMU-FSU chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers
  • Not-so-love?
    • The stereotypical financial aid delays and general administrative issues
    • Knowing that students at a neighboring university had so many more funding opportunities, both in terms of research and more generally
    • Seeing so many people be let to slip through the cracks when not based at our home institution
    • Being mistaken for another black woman

Granted, the last few of the not-so-loves actually came from the fact that I pursued engineering at a joint college - the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. This mixture of HBCU and PWI in one place helped to show me some benefits that PWIs have as well as some situations I would never want to be in again.

Now, how does this translate into finding a graduate institution?

I will be honest in saying I was not (initially) the most thorough, but I recognized what I needed to find once I found a university of interest.

Where was the community that looked like me? At many PWIs, that will be a Black Graduate Student Association or equivalent. Checking Rice’s BGSA social media (Twitter | Instagram) gave me insight into how much the black community lifts each other up at the institution - and diminished my worries that my successes would be tokenized due to my racial identity.

Hopefully, there will also be some people at your visitation weekend with similar identifiers that you can pull to the side and ask deeper questions. There was another college I was interested in, but hearing from people of color about their interactions with students within their majors there quickly turned me from that path. 

Is the campus environment one I can see myself in? This is best figured out through visitation. Arriving at Rice, I was greeted by the greenery I craved, varying architecture (and a wonderful guide with cool school fun facts, thanks Janelle!), and many students walking around and studying in varying places around the campus.

What is the success rate for graduate students? For those pursuing PhDs, it could also be important to ask the success rate for qualifying exams! If people were switching majors, I wanted to know why - was it purely a difference in research interest or are there departments I should stay away from. The length of time it took for people to finish was also important to me: I don’t mind taking some time but I would rather not spend over a decade pursuing my graduate degree.

Let’s be clear: I did not tour many places nor speak to many professors. I luckily ended up essentially being scouted to come to Rice and my application happened to catch the interest of my advisor (the bestest advisor to ever be - Dr. Marcie O'Malley). But once coming to Rice, I did take the time to recognize what all I was seeing around the campus - within the structure and the people around it. Leaving an HBCU for a PWI was frightening, but after finding the community where I could have a slice of the HBCU life and recognizing that I found an advisor that would support me through all my endeavors - it was the best decision I could have made.

Quickly now, let’s go broader!

Here are a few questions that you may like to ask yourself:

  • Why did I choose my MSI?
  • What have I gained from the MSI experience that I do not want to lose?
  • Where is there research being conducted that I am interested in?
  • Is Greek life important to me? If so, is it important that my organization has a chapter at my university or just that there be a grad chapter nearby? 

Here are a few questions that you may like to ask a current grad student at the institution you’re considering (ed. note: you can ask a Rice Graduate Student Ambassador your questions here):

  • What is your work life balance like?
  • Do you feel included?
  • What is the funding like?
    • Are there many opportunities for me to receive financial aid?
    • Is research within the labs well funded and are professors prolific grant writers?
  • Where is the (insert identifier) community? Is there a club or a specific place where they hangout?
  • What are the equity and inclusion efforts on campus? How do I get involved/would I be expected to get involved?

As an HBCU alumna, I would like you to know that it does not matter where you end up getting your education from. You are growing as your own, unique individual to be a force of nature in the world. I hope this blog helps you to find a university that will protect your mental wellbeing while developing your academic capabilities.

Further Reading:

Grad School: Expectations vs. Reality

My Experience as a Fulbright Scholar

Feeling at home in the U.S.


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.