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From OAU to Yale: Personal Reflections

 

Ed. Note: Tolu Olugboji is a PhD Candidate at Yale University who got admitted straight out of Undergraduate studies at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. I’ve been chasing him for months and finally got him to share his story here. Enjoy!

I’ll fight the tendency to give advice because I think there is a lot of it out there. This blog already has good advice culled from the personal experiences of young Nigerians who applied to degree programs at prestigious universities, and got accepted. From Harvard to Cornell, and stories of personal friends, it seems like the gist of getting into a graduate program in the United States of America is pretty much standard. So you may ask: why another story from another Nigerian?  Truthfully the answer to that is easy: the more the stories, the easier it is for the reader to take a leap, if, and only “if”, he thinks graduate education is the way to go. At least that’s what the editors of this blog would like to encourage.

On a personal note, however, I accepted to write this because I am an ardent believer in the value of mentoring. If there is one advice I will give, it’s that the most priceless gifts you can get on your way to success in whatever field is good mentoring. But I pack too much in already. So for me, this story is my way of mentoring someone out there who doesn’t yet know what he/she is capable of. The narrative is my way of gently nudging you to take yourself seriously. It’s my way of saying to you, “It is possible”.  And finally, forcing myself to write this is a nice reward for me. It has given me an avenue to reflect on my journey from my Alma matter in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), to the rich intellectual history here at Yale.

Quick background. I am a PhD. candidate at Yale University. I do research in the seismology group of the geophysics department. However, unlike a lot of geophysicists here at Yale, and in most programs in the US, I graduated from OAU with a degree in Computer Science.  I am probably one in a thousand that got admitted straight out of an International University, and probably even less common, an African University. Also I didn’t have a physics or a geology education: both of which are important for someone intending to study the deep earth and its many physical properties. So as far as requisite preparation for my admission I probably scored an F. You see why I don’t want to give advice on requirements? That said, I did have a very convincing story, and a burgeoning interest in earth sciences and applied physics research.

Interest, as far as I am concerned, is what jumps out of your statement of purpose. It is what tells your future advisor: “I want to do this real bad”.  And for a PhD. Program, educational qualifications and GRE qualifications are good, but they do not convey a calling for the rigor of academic life. I chose the words in the previous sentence very carefully, because that is what a PhD. education is: a calling to contribute. You cannot convince your future intellectual colleagues that you will be committed to the process if your statement of purpose does not engage on a gut level. For me, computer science didn’t cut it any more. I had been exposed to the science of computing, but I was more interested in grander topics. I wanted to study the physics of the earth, I wanted to understand the methods of investigating its properties; I just wanted to explore, learn and keep learning. Yale science, I believed, offered that.

Most Ivy League universities, in addition to a written statement of purpose, also have open days, where you visit the faculty (Professors) and get to meet them.  This is how your future department makes a final assessment before you are admitted.  My interview was on the phone, since I couldn’t come to the US to meet in person. During the interview I answered questions ranging from my background, to my future aspirations, to my opinions on science: from general views to more specific views. My guess is that it provided judgment on my capability to communicate, my understanding of scientific questions and my potential for producing an intellectual legacy, should I be admitted.  I enjoyed every bit of the conversation, and year after year, speaking to potential PhD. students myself, I have come to recognize those who most surely would get admitted. It is not surprising: they are the ones who demonstrate the interest enough to have some opinions during simple conversations on the future science they will be engaged in.

I guess I failed to leave up to my promise not to provide advice.  This whole piece is full of it. But I did try to give a perspective. Transitioning from an undergraduate degree to a higher degree requires some level of self-assessment, which is obvious during a short conversation with anyone, most especially the recruitment office of your school of choice. Excellence is a given. You must have demonstrated that in your resume, your grades and your standardized tests. But passion? That cannot be quantified or encapsulated in qualifications. It rings through your whole being. It is demonstrated in the words you say, in the papers you write, in the conversations with friends, in the time you spend preparing for that next career move. I like it very much. Doing science at Yale. I can travel the world, sail the oceans, understand the earth and the stars and rub minds with the smartest intellectuals in the world. Could that be your reason too?

Are you motivated? 

WRITTEN BY
Nathan Jeffery
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