Going to grad school in the social sciences.

My “road to grad school” can best be described as the scenic route. I started out at the University of Calgary – straight out of high school and took as many different courses as I could. I was trying to figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to do, so I took everything from math and chemistry, to physical anthropology, astronomy, and even english and computer science. I am happy to report that this time of aimless wandering was not without its uses as I figured out fairly quickly that the hard sciences were not where I was destined to be. Beyond this epiphany, I was still unsure of where I wanted to go with my career, so I took a few more random courses and then decided that I wanted to become a teacher. I had a lot of experience working with kids, and figured that it was the only thing that really appealed to me (and where else do people end up who don’t want to do hard sciences; either with an English or Sociology degree and no job, or as a teacher.)

This change in career paths meant that I needed to take a variety of different courses in order to fulfill the requirements necessary to gain admission into the Faculty of Education. Those different courses turned out to be in Community Rehabilitation, which focuses on providing services for people with disabilities. I figured I would get a degree in Community Rehabilitation and then move on to finish my degree in Education. Unfortunately, the University of Calgary had recently changed their Education degree, and the people I knew in the program were not very happy with it. This news was a little disturbing, so I made the next major decision in my academic career; I applied to the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge for admission into their respective Faculty’s of Education.

Eventually I found my way down to the University of Lethbridge, one of the strongest Education programs in Western Canada. I was in pre-education meaning that I had to choose a teachable subject and then attempt to gain admission into the faculty after a couple of years. Using courses from Calgary, I decided the easiest way would be to try for a B.A. Kinesiology. Little did I know that this was one of the toughest ways to get into the program as it was one of the most competitive areas. If I had gotten a degree in French, I would have had few problems getting in, but it was virtually impossible going through Kinesiology.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s all well and good that your undergrad was a mess, but where does grad school come in? Well it was in Lethbridge that I started taking history of sport and sociology of sport classes with a professor who made the subject sound much more interesting than it actually is. After going to him a few times to get some writing pointers, he eventually asked if I wanted to help him with some hockey research that he was doing. He also informed me that the position was supposed to be available to students that were considering going on to do graduate work, and that I should think about it. The idea of graduate work had never crossed my mind before then, so I said I would consider it. That was good enough to get me the job, so I started going out to hockey rinks around Southern Alberta to watch and document various social aspects of the game.

I continued helping this Professor with his research for the next year with the thought of graduate school floating around the back of my mind. During this time it was becoming clear to me that my chances of gaining entrance into education in Lethbridge were virtually zero. With this realization, it was a fairly easy decision when this Professor told me that he was moving to the University of Ottawa and wanted me to come and do graduate work under him. I was once again changing paths, although this would be the final time during my undergraduate career. I finished up my B.A. Kinesiology at the University of Lethbridge and applied for graduate school at the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University. I chose the University of Ottawa for obvious reasons, the Professor that I had worked with was there. I chose Queen’s University because there was a professor that I was interested in working with there, although it was merely a backup plan. My other backup plan was to work with a professor at the University of Calgary who I had come to know through roundtable discussions held between the University of Lethbridge, University of Calgary, and the University of Alberta.

The application process was very simple. I got a couple of reference letters from two professors, wrote a two page blurb about why I wanted to go to grad school, got a copy of my transcripts, and then submitted a writing sample and paid the admission fee. I got into both schools, but chose the University of Ottawa.

There were a few key learning experiences that came at various times throughout my journey. One of the first ones came when I was at the University of Calgary and talked to friends that were already in the education program. It was by talking to them that I found out how poor the program was, and ultimately chose a different school. Use your friends and contacts to find out how student friendly the program is. Are there relevant courses to your degree? Are the top professors teaching, or only doing research?

The second learning experience came at the University of Lethbridge when I found out how difficult it is to gain admission into the Faculty of Education through Kinesiology. Do your research and find out the admission procedures to determine how likely it is that you will get in. This will also help determine how many schools you need to apply to.

The third learning experience was engaging in the research process for the first time. If it is possible, I highly recommend not only getting involved in research, but to also get to know your professors. I recognize the difficultly that getting involved in research poses in the social sciences, but find out what type of research professors are doing and go talk to them. Most professors are very open about talking to students about their research, especially if the students are genuinely interested in learning.

The fourth learning experience came once I arrived in Ottawa and found out that there was only one other Sociology student entering the Human Kinetics Master’s program in my year. It is important to ensure that there are going to be enough people in your program that you can discuss, debate, and analyze among yourselves. This is one of the best ways of learning and improving your ideas, so make sure there is a large enough group of students.

The fifth learning experience came later in my first year as I realized how lucky I was that I got along with my Professor. Try to get to know your professor before you get to the school. If you don’t get along with your supervisor, it will be a long two years.

Well that pretty well covers my own experience with grad school. The only other word of advice that I can offer is to take a wide variety of courses in your undergrad. Take some sciences, some social sciences, and some humanities. Broaden your idea of what knowledge is, for there are far too many researchers who only believe in the knowledge of their own fields. Knowledge is important whether it comes from the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. They are all intertwined and interconnected; one area of knowledge is invariably informed by the other two. With that said, good luck in your own journey towards knowledge, learning, and the future.

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