Job Maestro: How to Start a Research Career

By Jody Ulate

Illustrations by Jon Chester

Are you curious about pursuing a research career? What big problem do you want to solve? These are some of the questions that Maria Elena Cruz asks her students. Director of SJSU’s Aspire and McNair Scholars Programs—and a former McNair Scholar at UC Berkeley, Cruz helps first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students pursue PhD programs. The Job Maestro asked Cruz for her top advice on investigating, exploring and discovering the path to a PhD and, ultimately, a research career.

What is a research career?

Students often have this notion of what research is, that it’s something only done in a lab. Through our program, I break it down for them. Research stems from the personal. My own doctoral research started with wanting to know why there are so many indigenous people living in Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco, Mexico, the little town where my dad is from. If something matters to you and you invest resources in it, it can become research. And when it becomes personal, that’s when I see the fire. I tell them: This is your story, your own original research, your own voice, and you can make a difference.

There’s so much you can do with a PhD, especially here in Silicon Valley. With a doctoral degree, the doors are wide open. You can be a professor or an administrator at a university. You can do a postdoc to see if teaching is what you want to do. But your career doesn’t have to be in education at all. You also can work for the government, a private company or a nonprofit.

Tips for Getting to Graduate School

  1. One question can turn into a dissertation. Determine what questions you want to work on and what work experience, life experience and research you bring to the table. If you’re working in that field, that’s to your benefit.
  2. Follow people, not universities. Connecting with professors and people in the research spaces that interest you is key. Reach out to professors directly: “My name is ___ and I’m thinking about applying to your graduate program.”
  3. Talk to graduate students in the program you’re applying to. They know the professors and they’ll tell you everything.
  4. Be nice to department administrators. They know how the department works and can give you a lot of information—including what funding has been offered in the past.
  5. Make sure there’s money, including institutional support and external funding from organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Some people can fund graduate school with smaller scholarships, but bigger grants help a lot. Many universities post the winners of the big grants.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and named for the Challenger space shuttle crew member, the Ronald E. McNair Program helps promising first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students pursue PhD programs. More than 25 years old, SJSU’s program is one of the first McNair programs in the U.S.


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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